MARY WILSON: An Interview Supreme
Legendary original Supreme Mary Wilson speaks candidly to Pete Lewis at the launch of her exhibition ‘The Story Of The Supremes’ at the Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, its first opening in Motown Records’ 50th Anniversary year.
Featuring over 50 original stage costumes alongside shoes, wigs and jewellery that chart the changing image of The Supremes from their early days (when they were initially know as ‘The Primettes’) to the glamorous Hollywood designs they wore at the height of their fame, the exhibition additionally features the group’s music, album covers and archive performance footage. Meanwhile, original photographs, magazines and memorabilia are also used to explore the inspirational role the mainstream success of The Supremes played in changing racial perceptions, at a time when the meteoric rise of Detroit’s Motown Records coincided with the onset of America’s civil rights movement in the Sixties. Additionally, meanwhile, the trio’s influence on today’s performers is also examined with the inclusion of a set of costumes worn by Destiny’s Child and a specially-commissioned interview with the BBC DJ Trevor Nelson.
Initially formed as The Primettes in Detroit, Michigan in 1959 - and comprising Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diane Ross and Betty McGlown - the group originally recorded the same year for local independent Lu-Pine Records. However, it was after signing to their hometown’s considerably-larger Motown Records in 1961 (after McGlown had left and the remaining members changed their name to ‘The Supremes’) that the trio would later go on to become the world’s biggest-ever female singing group, through an unbroken string of international smashes helmed by in-house Motown producer/writers Holland-Dozier Holland (including all-time pop and soul classics like ‘Where Did Our Love Go’; ‘Baby Love’; ‘Stop! In The Name Of Love’; ‘You Can’t Hurry Love’; and ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’).
Nevertheless, while the years 1964 to 1969 saw The Supremes score a record-breaking 12 US Number Ones, personnel problems within the group were taking their toll. All of which reached a head in 1967, when Ballard (who would later die in poverty in 1976, aged just 32) was forced to leave the group due to her apparent alcohol problem and was replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Meanwhile, with Motown chief Berry Gordy renaming the trio ‘Diana Ross & The Supremes’ - which allegedly created tensions within the group - the same year, lead singer Ross (who by now was in a personal relationship with Gordy) in turn predictably left the group in early 1970 to become a multi-million-selling, globally-successful solo superstar.
With Mary Wilson now the only remaining original member and Jean Terrell having replaced Diana as lead vocalist, the early Seventies nevertheless saw The Supremes continuing their chart success for a couple more years (with international Top Ten singles like ‘Up The Ladder To The Roof’; ‘Stoned Love’; and ‘Nathan Jones’). However, after numerous membership changes from l972 on, Mary finally decided to leave after a “farewell” concert in London in June 1977; following which the history-making group was officially disbanded by Motown.
With Mary’s career as a solo recording artist having since proven relatively low-key (interesting moments nevertheless included her 1979, disco-flavoured Motown LP ‘Mary Wilson’; plus the surprisingly-modern hip hop/R&B vibe of her 1996, independently-released single ‘U’), she has nevertheless gone on to earn major success as an author following her 1986-published ‘Dreamgirl; My Life As A Supreme’. Which, becoming - and still remaining - one of the biggest-selling rock & roll autobiographies of all time, told the story of her time with The Supremes up to 1970. While its 1990-published follow-up - ‘Supreme Faith; Someday We’ll Be Together’ - followed her life from the days of the Seventies Supremes into, and through, the Eighties.
All of which is appropriately well-displayed in Mary’s aforementioned current exhibition ‘The Story Of The Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection’. Which - currently showing in Birmingham’s Museum & Art Gallery - provides an ideal chance for a chatty and personable Ms. Wilson (the only member to have stayed with The Supremes from their formation in 1959 until they disbanded in 1977) to speak in-depth with Pete Lewis on the morning of its Midlands launch.
The history behind Mary’s ‘The Story Of The Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection’ exhibition, which is currently touring the UK in collaboration with America’s Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame.
“Well, when each member left the group, the gowns themselves always stayed within The Supremes’ possession. So, after everyone had left and I was the last person standing, I inherited them ALL! And the idea for this exhibition actually started back in the late Seventies, when I initially donated a couple of the gowns to The Smithsonian Museum. Then later, in the Eighties, I donated a couple more to The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame Museum. And, though my original desire was to have my OWN museum, after a while - particularly with The Supremes going on to be inducted into The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame (in 1988) - after a lotta ongoing dialogue between us, it just seemed only natural for me to create this exhibition and have The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame be the curators of it.”
How she feels about the lasting impact The Supremes made during their heyday
“I had a conversation with Whoopi Goldberg recently, where she was like ‘Mary - you girls really inspired me’… And I’m sure Diane ALSO has a lotta people saying SHE inspired them as young women growing up. So it is an honour to know that, just by being ourselves, we inspired so many people. I mean, it’s phenomenal when you look at the movie and the Broadway play ‘Dreamgirls’, to see that we must have inspired those writers to create that piece of work - even though they didn’t pay us! And, while obviously the fashion and the music played a huge role in The Supremes’ overall impact, it wasn’t JUST about them. It was also the fact that there was a social statement being made in the Sixties, and that we were a PART of that. I remember my brother - who was in the Vietnam War - would always say ‘Mary, you girls should be wearing Afros and making a political statement’. Because back then that’s what so many artists were DOING. But I‘d always say ‘Roosevelt, we ARE making a political statement. But we’re making it OUR WAY’... You know, there’s not just one way to make a political statement. So I’m very proud of the way we made ours just by being who we WERE!”
The significance of the UK in The Supremes’ career
“I’ve often said that you guys were almost like our Godparents. Because the UK embraced us very, very early. I mean we did some of the major Sixties TV shows here like ‘Ready, Steady Go’, which Dusty Springfield brought us over for... We did our Command Performance (in 1967) before The Queen Mother - in fact, one of the gowns we wore on that evening is right here in the exhibit... We were in all the newspapers - ‘The Daily Mirror’, ‘The Daily Express’… Plus (in 1977) The Supremes did their official “farewell” performance in London at Drury Lane... So yeah, the UK played a HUGE part in our career. Because, though we were obviously based in America, you guys probably embraced us in certain ways that the US didn’t. And it’s still ongoing today.”
Whether, in this era of groups reuniting, Mary sees a Supremes reunion ever now being possible
“Well, as you say, reunions are certainly in the air right now. But, while I may see there being a Supremes reunion, at the same time it has to be seen by TWO - me AND Diane! You know, I do think that - as long as there’s time and we’re both here - anything’s possible. It would certainly be a wonderful thing to see. But, as I just said, IT TAKES TWO! You know, I wouldn’t just do a reunion with the Seventies Supremes, because the whole thing would need to be done in succession. Diane and I would have to come together first, and then we’d go on from there. Otherwise, it wouldn’t really make sense.”
How she recalls the group’s earliest days, recording as The Primettes for the local Detroit label Lu-Pine Records
“We began singing in the early days of rock & roll. So the people who inspired us were groups like The Coasters, The Platters, Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers… And, when we did our first recordings for Lu-Pine Records, we’d already at that stage gone to Motown for our audition and been turned DOWN! But, as time went on, we soon found out Motown really was where we wanted to be. Which is why we ended up running BACK to Motown! I mean, we had no idea those songs we recorded for Lu-Pine back in 1959 had actually got released - until years later! I was actually here in the UK, when someone brought me this 7” on the Lu-Pine label and asked me to sign it! I was like ‘What is this?’… And, when I looked at the title and saw it was ‘Thank You Baby’, I was like ‘I didn’t know this had been made into a RECORD!’! You know, they never told us they’d released it; they never paid us.... But today those Lu-Pine recordings are all collectors items! So, if anyone out there has any copies, please let me know! Because I’m looking for them!”
Looking back on the trio’s first few years at Motown
“Those early days at Motown were fun. We were only 16/17 years old; we’d just graduated from High School… Smokey Robinson was producing us; Berry Gordy was doing some songs with us... You know, at first we were going from producer to producer, trying to find that certain ‘sound’. But then, after we’d done about four or five records, we got to the stage where we started saying ‘Wow, it’s time for one of these to REALLY make it!’. Because, while all those early Supremes records were big in Detroit and made us into local stars, once all the other Motown artists began to go on the road and tour nationally, we were like ‘Wait a minute! We wanna go on the road TOO!’... And that’s when we realised we needed to have that really big hit record.”
The Supremes’ major international breakthrough with ‘Where Did Our Love Go’ in 1964
“Oh gosh, for us it was like the beginning of being real Cinderella’s. Because we’d finally got our hit record, and we immediately started travelling internationally. I mean, the first place we came to was the UK, and it was just BEAUTIFUL! We were on the front pages of all these great British newspapers, and it was like we had to PINCH ourselves! You know, here we were - suddenly stars in these places we’d previously only read about in our world history classes in school!”
How Mary recalls those heady mid-Sixties days when The Supremes were at their chart-topping peak
“Well, there were just so many highlights. Like the meetings we had with Martin Luther King; we endorsed Hubert Humphrey when he was running for the Presidency; we met the British Royal Family after performing for them at The London Palladium; we met The Rolling Stones... I mean, we were jet-setters! And it was such a feeling of major achievement. You know, having five consecutive Number Ones was just MAGICAL! It was like every time a Supremes record came out, it would go to the top of the charts! And we ended up having 12 Number Ones in the United States, which really was something.”
How Florence Ballard being forced out of the group in 1967 and Diana Ross leaving for a solo career in 1970 changed things
“Well, Florence leaving was the major factor for me. Because, before that happened, I never thought we’d ever break up. You know, I’d always thought we were gonna go on for LIFE. And it was very sad. Because, once Florence left (and was replaced by Cindy Birdsong), there really was no group any more. You know, it was very fragmented and you could see the writing on the wall. I could see things were not gonna work out the way I’d thought they would. Because, as I say, up until then I’d always seen us going on as a group for EVER. Then, when Diane left in January 1970, I really did have to sit down and decide what I was going to DO. Because I definitely didn’t wanna QUIT. But, at the same time, I wasn‘t ready to go SOLO. In fact, I didn’t think I was even qualified to take over the role of lead in the GROUP yet.”
How Mary felt when Jean Terrell was brought in to replace Diana Ross as lead singer in early 1970
“Well, when Mr. Gordy brought in Jean Terrell and I fell in love with her voice, I kinda knew from there that yes, we could still go on for a while. But then I also realised at that point that I needed to start preparing myself for whatever next step was gonna happen. So I kinda woke up and grew up a bit, and started looking towards a future. Because, whereas before I was just living in the moment, now I realised ‘Wow, I gotta make some serious DECISIONS here - because the bottom could drop out at ANY MOMENT!’… You know, before I’d been like a kid just enjoying life and thinking ‘I will survive no matter WHAT!’. Whereas now I was like ‘Well, maybe NOT!’. So I really started preparing myself. I started taking singing lessons, and started really thinking about the possibility of my perhaps in time becoming lead singer,”
How Mary’s role in The Supremes increased during the Seventies (a time that saw numerous personnel changes taking place within the group)
“Because I knew I needed to, I started singing lead parts on more songs. Plus I more or less took over the direction as a manager, so to speak, of The Supremes. You know, because I was the only original member left, the job kinda just fell onto me. And it was amazing how easily I took to it. I mean, we’d already lived the life. So it was easy for me to know what needed to be done. And so I ended up taking care of the finances, and pretty much everything else.”
Why Mary left The Supremes after the group’s “farewell” performance at London’s Drury Lane Theatre in June l977
“I decided to leave because, by that time, I felt there were too many different people coming in and out of the group. To me we’d kinda lost the significance of the three history-making members, and I didn‘t wanna drag it on. It was just not the same any more, and I knew it was time for me to get outta there. But, because Scherrie Payne had been in the group for a while (she’d replaced a departing Jean Terrell as a lead singer in 1973), out of fairness to her I said ‘OK, if you guys wanna carry on without me that’s fine’… But it just so happened that it never manifested. They eventually decided not to go on, and I was very, very happy about that. Because I felt it was time, and that we needed to stop.”
How she came to write her heavily-publicised 1986 autobiography ‘Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme’, which many felt personally criticised Diana Ross and Berry Gordy
“The reason I started writing my autobiography was because I knew that, if other people began writing about Motown and The Supremes - which they’d already started doing - they would not be writing the TRUTH! They’d be writing three or four hands AWAY from the truth, because they’d always be relying on hearsay. You know, they were not there, and I WAS! And I have to stress that I really wasn’t criticising ANYBODY! I’d been writing a diary from the time I graduated from High School, and so I’d just documented everything that happened. So, when I came to write the book, I was only echoing what I’d already written in my diaries. I wasn’t trying to talk against anyone, and I wasn’t trying to direct anyone how to think. I really was just trying to tell the truth the way it was. The book was not biased towards or against myself, Florence, Diane, OR Motown… But, at the same time, I think certain people probably did feel I WAS criticising them. Because, you see, it was only written from my viewpoint. Whereas, from their viewpoint, things probably happened differently from how I saw them! Which I think is what always happens when you’re writing something from your viewpoint and someone else was also there and seeing it from theirs. One person never quite understands how the other was seeing things.”
What Mary feels about contemporary girl-groups that have been influenced by The Supremes
“I just think every decade has its group, and I’m very happy that the girl-power has continued on! Because to me groups like Destiny’s Child are doing a great job, and they’ll learn so much more than we EVER knew! Because they’ve learned from our mistakes, they’re smarter, they’re more powerful - and I APPLAUD them! But I have to add there that - in terms of mistakes - although people do think one of the Supremes’ big mistakes was in-fighting, the fact is that Diane and I really didn’t have any animosity! It was just how the press wrote about it! OK, when it came to the situation around the Supremes reunion Diane was planning for 2000, then yes, that DID become something that grew into animosity. But before that, there genuinely was no animosity between us.”
Mary’s current and future plans, musically speaking
“I’ll be back here in the UK in June for I think seven days, as part of the Motown Legends Tour. Which also features The Commodores, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, and Jr. Walker’s All-Stars. I’m also currently finishing off recording an album that should be out this summer. It’s all current, new material that really suits my voice. I actually think it’s the best thing I’ve done as a solo artist up to now. The producers are the Holland brothers (two-thirds of the mega-legendary Holland-Dozier-Holland team, who wrote/produced most of The Supremes’ Sixties chart-toppers), and I’d describe it musically as ‘adult contemporary’. In that it’s kind of similar to the music my fans have heard me do in the past, but a lot more ‘today’. And working with the Holland brothers again has been great, really wonderful. Because, though we’ve all grown, that family vibe that most of us had at Motown back in the day is definitely still there.”
Mary tours the UK as part of The Motown Legends Tour from June 23 to 28 inclusive
The exhibition ‘The Story Of The Supremes From The Mary Wilson Collection’ runs from now to June 7 at Birmingham Museum & Art Galley (Waterhall Gallery). Tickets - 0121 303 1966
Words PETE LEWIS