MARY WILSON – Original Supreme shares how life has been good to her
by Kimberly Bailey-Tureaud
“Florence Ballard and I were going to elementary school and the … middle school was having a talent show that anyone could participate in,” Wilson recalled. “I loved Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers back then, and I sang one of their songs. Florence sang ‘Ave Maria’; Florence had a big, beautiful voice. We were so excited after the talent show, and decided to form our own little singing group. A few weeks later, Paul Williams of the original Temptations asked if we wanted to join up with his group, The Primes, and we would be the Primettes. Paul also asked my next-door neighbor if she wanted to join the Primettes, and it turned out to be Diana Ross. We sang at little community events with the Primes, and then later decided we wanted to (make) a record, and audition for Motown Records.”
It was at that moment that the foundation was laid for the legendary Supremes, who became the world’s most powerful R&B group on the strength of a string of timeless, classic songs like “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Someday We’ll Be Together” and “Baby Love,” to name just a few.
“There was a lady at Motown named Maxine Powell who was the artist development manager … and I will never forget how she would say to us, ‘One day you will perform in front of kings and queens,’” Wilson said, reflecting on the group’s early years. “We just laughed at her because we were just 15 and 16 years of age. She would say that, ‘You are just diamonds in the rough and we are here to polish you.’ Berry Gordy took us under his wing and we grew up with the Motown family who trained us.”
Much of that music history, and a lot of the backstage drama, is captured in Wilson’s revealing memoir, “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme.” There are other tellings of the story as well — most notably the fictionalized account found in the stage musical “Dreamgirls,” which was adapted into a movie in 2006.
Many of those interpretations, said Wilson, have left the world with some wrong impressions about the Supremes. “The biggest misconception about the Supremes and our time at Motown is that we were not friends and were always fighting,” she said. “On the contrary, we were — and are — great friends.”
Wilson smiles and bursts into laughter when she recalls the evolution of those close relationships: “We grew up together and we were the type of girlfriends on the telephone each night with one another asking, ‘What are you wearing tonight?’ or ‘Did you see that guy yesterday?’ We were really, really best friends — and especially when we were performing onstage, there was never any negativity.”
A longtime resident of Las Vegas, Wilson still travels the world to perform as a solo artist. Closer to home, she has an engagement at the Riviera Hotel that ends July 3 — a show that shares a name with her soon-to-be-released single, “Life Has Been Good to Me.”
“My core performance at the Riviera Hotel is definitely Supremes songs, because I am known as Mary Wilson of the Supremes,” she said. “I also perform current songs, from such artists as Sting, the Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder. My show is very eclectic and I am so happy that the audience has such a great time. I sing some ballads, such as, ‘Here’s To Life’ and ‘I Am Changing’ from ‘Dreamgirls.’ It is a variety of material. The room at the Riviera is wonderful, and I know the people feel comfortable.”
As part of our interview, Black Image asked Wilson to share her thoughts on some of the legendary Motown artists she was privileged to see up close and personal: “When I think of Smokey Robinson, I can describe him as a lyrically talented genius … a poet. Berry Gordy told us one day that a little genius was coming to audition, and everyone called him at the time, Little Stevie Wonder. We all looked at each other with confusion, but when Little Stevie Wonder entered the studio and went to each musical instrument to play, we understood what he meant by ‘genius.’ Diana Ross can be described as fabulous. Now, I think people say, ‘diva.’ The Original Temptations were wonderful, and the words that I think of when I think of them are ‘tall, dark, handsome, singing gentlemen.’ The Jackson 5 brought the new image of the boy band into reality, and Michael Jackson was like Stevie Wonder — born as a musical genius. Berry Gordy is an extremely talented songwriter and a great businessman. I am not sure people know that he is very charming. Berry is very smart, and understood how to make the music business work for black artists at that time. He knew how to separate the business from pleasure, and would turn cold on you from a business aspect. He just knew how to do it.”
The Supremes will forever be in the history books, providing inspiration to the current generation of artists — who, in turn, are inspiring the next generation. This keeps both our musical heritage and success-driven spirit alive.
“The Supremes dared to dream before it was a dream for black people,” Wilson said. “Civil rights had not (yet) been passed, and we dared to be famous at the age of 13. When I look back, actually, I have had a wonderful life. We were definitely the black Cinderellas — the real Cinderella story.”