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Will the Supremes tour succeed without all the original members?

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Diana Ross, The Supremes
Beth Keiser/AP

Even Diana Ross seemed hesitant to accept the new lineup: ”I’d like to introduce to you… ah, the Supremes,” she said at Tuesday’s New York City press conference announcing the 23-city Diana Ross and the Supremes: Return to Love tour, which begins June 14 in Philadelphia and ends Aug. 5 in Las Vegas. Ross confirmed what many disappointed fans already knew — that Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, two Supremes who actually performed with Ross, would be replaced on this tour by Lynda Laurence and Sherrie Payne, singers who joined the group years after Ross left for her solo career in 1970. ”Change has always been part of the Supremes,” Ross said, justifying the new lineup. ”This tour is about the music of the ’60s. It was never intended as a Supremes reunion.”

The announcement might have ended rumors that the tour would be scrapped without the participation of Wilson and Birdsong, who couldn’t agree on financial terms with the tour promoters. But it raised new questions about whether Ross — who in recent years has been playing midsize theaters (5,000-7,000 seats) — will be able to fill the 15,000-20,000 seat arenas the tour is booked into. While folks might be willing to spend up to $125 per ticket for an actual Supremes reunion, will they pay that much see Ross (who is said to be earning as much as $500,000 per show) perform with two Supremes whom many listeners have never heard of?

Some industry observers say no, including Billy Wilson, president of the Motown Alumni Association, which represents the company’s former artists. ”There will be fans who won’t go,” says Wilson, who has received over 5,000 emails from Supremes’ aficionados asking about the tour, ”because they believe that Mary should be a part of this whole fanfare.”

But others think that only one name is important to the tour’s success. ”The marquee attraction here is Miss Ross,” says Billboard tour reporter Ray Waddell. And over the next few weeks the singer will be launching a strategic promotional assault. On Thursday Fox airs the NAACP Image Awards hosted by Ross (8:00 p.m.). And VH1 — an official ”presenter” of the tour — is premiering ”Divas 2000: A Tribute to Diana Ross” on Tuesday (9:00 p.m.), one day after tickets go on sale in five major cities (New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, and Detroit). ”The fact that she has a lot of high profile media events coming up is going to help the tour tremendously,” says Waddell. But he admits that heavy TV exposure doesn’t always translate into fans purchasing tickets: ”Nothing’s ever a given in the touring business until you go on sale.”

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