Q&A: Mary Wilson
The glamor and sound of the Supremes remain indelible hallmarks of the 1960s, although Mary Wilson was there when the group first harmonized as a foursome and carried on with the group well into the ’70s. The Las Vegas resident continues to perform solo and curate the Supremes’ legendary gown collection but, as she told Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen, when she appears at The Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz Feb. 24-25, her focus will be on the music that first inspired her to sing.
I listened to Meet the Supremes yesterday. It was interesting to hear the Supremes sound only a few years after you formed but before the hits. Do you ever listen to the early career music?
Well, let me tell you … I’ll be very honest with you, the fans of the Supremes could tell you everything about them. Some of the songs I’ve forgotten, that we recorded, until I actually go back and listen to them. I don’t do it often, but every now and then I do for some kind of research, because right now I’m putting together a coffee table book based on Supremes’ gowns, and I’ve had to go back and listen to some things just to get the chronological timing of what we were doing. Usually around Christmas time I listen to all the old Supremes and Motown artists. It’s just something that happens around Christmas time, and then I get stuck into hearing things that I’ve forgotten. Some of our harmonies … we were really a great kind of doo-wop harmony group because we grew up listening to that, those kind of songs. We were four (when the Supremes formed) and that’s what we were really good at. Once we lost our fourth member we had to cut down to doing less of a harmony pattern, and I don’t think we were as good. I think we were better when we were doing the early harmonies and all, but that’s just the way it goes. That’s what I get from listening to the older songs, how really wonderful were at singing because we grew up listening to the Four Freshmen and the McGuire Sisters, and all those kind of groups, so we were just accustomed to singing harmony.)
If you listen to that album and the one that follows, which has some hits on it, you can hear the transition from doo-wop culture to “The Sound of Young America.”
Sure, sure. I never thought we were as good after we started having hits (laughs). … It’s amazing, when you find your niche like we found with Holland-Dozier-Holland, who started producing us, with the good things you lost some of the really good things, and I think that’s what happened. We had hit records, which is what we wanted, but we always felt there was something within us that the public never knew about, that wasn’t part of that new package.
The Supremes’ popularity was often compared to the Beatles’, and if you think about it the Beatles were kind of a threesome and Ringo. A lot of the focus was on the three guys in the foreground and then there was Ringo as comic foil, who also had a big personality. To try and market four personalities as The Supremes would have been tough.
And that was part of what the strategy was. Mr. (Berry) Gordy said, “I’d like to feature one (Diana Ross) and that way is easier for people to focus in on.” And we got it. We understood it. We just wanted to be famous (laughs), so we were totally happy. What happened was—and I don’t want to dwell on it because people think I have a grudge; I don’t—Florence (Ballard) had a great R&B voice. She was very much into Etta James, Aretha Franklin and all that. I was kind of the ballad singer. Diana had the pop, versatile voice, so it ended up where we had to lose a certain part of that. I saw it with other groups that came after us, The Pointer Sisters and all. Everyone sang the lead and everything, and it was really cool, but our group ended up being the template for years to come of musical groups, and this and that. When I listen to it I can hear Flo’s voice in the background so prominent. I don’t even think people got that as much. She had such a great tenor-type voice, soprano. She was a strong soprano, and you can hear it if you listen to the old songs, right under Diana. Our voices just blended. We all blended well together. That was a great thing about us, about all three of us.
You found your voices blended well while during an on-the-spot audition. That’s a pretty rare thing, too.
We started singing at the very early age of 13 or 14. We had just come out of elementary school, going into high school. So we were pretty young and just doing it for a hobby kind of thing. These guys wanted to put a group together, and we were kind of recruited by people in the neighborhood, more or less, and Florence’s sister, but that wasn’t (how we developed) our professionalism. That’s just how we got together. We became really professional once we went to Motown Records. I had been singing for a couple of years.
I was just reading your book, Dreamgirl,and had to leave off at Flo’s traumatic experience before the group hit the big time. It really struck me how that probably impacted the future of the group, how she changed from being an effervescent personality. (Ballard was assaulted in 1960 and died of a heart attack in 1976 after battling alcoholism and depression.)
It affected us terribly, not only musically. We were really young teenage girls. We did everything teenage girls do and we all did it together. We had the boyfriends, and we’d call each other on the phone and stay on for hours. We were really sort of a typical female girls group. It did hurt, but one thing that was when we went to audition for Mr. Gordy we thought that all of the things that had happened to Flo would disappear, because we were doing what had made us so thrilled. We had made it to Motown Records, my god, who were not as big as they are now but back then in Detroit they were. They had the Miracles. They had Mary Wells, Marv Johnson. You could hear them on the radio. This was the company we wanted to be with, and we got there. And then we started high school, and every day we would hitchhike down to Motown Records and we would see all these groups we had heard on the radio. At that time they were big for us. They were major stars. Then Mr. Gordy decided to not only record us, but he said, “You girls seem like you’re really, really serious. I’m going to put you with my best writing team.” And he did that, and eventually we got the hit records. Diana and I thought some of the traumatic things that had happened to Flo would be forgotten and now we’re like, “Our dream has come true,” but those kind of things don’t go away. Somehow, even though you hide them and don’t talk about them, they come out to the top. That’s what happened with Flo, even thought we had money. That’s what I say when I do my lectures: money’s not going to make you happy, success is not going to make you happy. It can cover up things, but other things are going to bubble right up to the top. It really affected the group in a big way. We were fighting inside to hold onto these things and it just didn’t happen. It really did mess with the group, yes.
Does that partially inspire your “Dare to Dream” lectures?
Partially, yes. Most definitely. It’s amazing because we became very famous. You mentioned The Beatles. The Beatles were inspired by the American doo-wops and people, so that we became famous around the same time as the Beatles did was really kind of wonderful because all of a sudden America is taking on this group, The Beatles, and then Europe was taking on The Supremes. It was almost like the world was opening up, and you had these three little black girls who were taking over Europe, and these guys with the British Invasion taking over America. So it was a wonderful time of the world beginning to change and become what it is today, where everyone’s trying to come to America.
Does singing Supremes songs ever transport you back in time, or are you always in the moment when performing onstage?
That question is kind of wonderful because I’ve been doing this for 50 years. I’m always transported back to that time. In other words, I’m always a child. That’s a great part of being who I am from that timespan. People come to shows and that’s what they come for, kind of relive that time when they were teenagers and that had their first girlfriend or first boyfriend, they got married, all that kind of stuff. We, singing those songs, were there every night onstage. I tell my audiences, “Let that little child live again. Let that child come out and have fun even though you gotta come back to work the next day. Our work is what we do onstage and we get a chance to have fun at our work, which is pretty cool.
Your show at The Smith Center in May 2012 was a tribute to Lena Horne, and you performed at South Point Casino in 2015. What do you have planned for your upcoming dates at Cabaret Jazz?
I am going to bring in just my straight jazz show, which is going to be all standards, and I might do a few Supremes songs but basically it’s more of my jazz standards set, and it’s called Up Close. I grew up listening to the music of that time frame, so always listened to Joe Williams and all those people back then. Had I not become a Supreme I probably would have become a ballad singer. That still is in my heart, and so when I got the opportunity to produce my own jazz album I was just doing it for fun, then I found out people really like it so I added that into my repertoire. At South Point, where I play concerts a lot, I do my Supremes/rock ‘n’ roll show, then I do the Lena Horne show and I have the jazz show. I call it jazz, but it’s more American songbook.
So what’s in your American songbook?
I do things like “Body and Soul,” “Here’s to Life,” things like that. “Smile,” “Spring Is Here” … things of that nature.
Is “Stormy Weather” in your set?
I will probably add that because a lot of people have requested it, but that basically is part of my Lena Horne show.
Do you do any Supremes songs?
I do. You know what? When I first put it together five years ago I said, “Now guys, this is about trying to show you who Mary Wilson is, so your not coming here to my Supremes show, so I will do a couple to satisfy some of the natives there but only because of that. You want to see that then you come to my concerts. At those I do all Supremes stuff. Supremes, Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder … I do everything, all those kinds of things. This one is basically a Mary Wilson show. Most of my other shows are Mary Wilson of the Supremes. If you see “Supremes” that means I’m going to be doing Supremes songs. I have no problem doing them, but when I do the smaller clubs I life to do more “Mary Wilson.” Really, I feel my forte is ballads. With the Supremes Diana and Flo were the other singers, and I just filled in with ballads. So now I get a chance to do my ballads!
On your website you had Africa penciled in a lot on your schedule from last year? Were you in Africa?
I was in South Africa, yes.
And you worked with an organization that looks for landmines?
Yes, the Humpty Dumpty Institute. Yes, I’ve done that, and I was also appointed as an ambassador by Colin Powell, where I traveled around the world talking about the AIDS epidemic. I work with some charities, mostly for children, and I love that. So I do that, and I perform my concerts. It doesn’t get stale.
You did a U.K. arena tour in 2015 with “Legends Live,” with Dionne Warwick and Roberta Flack, and you brought your gown exhibit across the Atlantic also. That sounds completely designed for Vegas. Have you thought about exhibiting the collection here?
I have! I want to. I would like to get the gown collection in Las Vegas. It’s an ideal place for it and I just think I haven’t talked to the right people, but I have spoken to other people. We haven’t signed contracts, but one of the plays that is playing there, I might be doing that. I’m also working on my coffee table book based upon my gowns, so that something I’m working on right now. Hopefully I’ll have the book out in 2018. So I’m doing a lot of different things, but I’d really like to have my own show in Vegas. Not having to travel and fly for a while would be great after doing it for 50 years.