By: NELSON A. GARCIA
Mary Wilson is one of the founding members of the most successful women’s vocal group in history, The Supremes. She was a member from its creation in 1961 until she went on her own in 1977 to launch a solo career. Ms Wilson is not only a successful performer, but also an author, a humanitarian and a Cultural Ambassador for the USA. We had the opportunity to spend time speaking with her about her life and we would like to share her thoughts with you.
55+ In 1959, at just 15 years of age, you started your singing career as a member of ‘The Primettes.’ Can you tell us about that part of your life?
MW I was still in Middle School when I had my first stage experience in a talent show. It was there I first met Florence Ballard and we became best friends and talked about joining a singing group. A couple of months later, she told me that some friends of hers were putting together a group. They had asked Betty Travis to join and wanted to know if I was interested also. Of course, I said YES! They then asked a girl across the street named Diana to join. That’s how we got started in the music arena.
55+ The name of your group was changed in 1961 to ‘The Supremes’ and it became a trio. The Supremes had incredible success with 12 number one hits between 1964 and 1969. How did that success impact you?
MW We contracted with Motown Records in 1961 and that’s when we actually started recording and also taking finishing school lessons. We really became very polished for 16, 17 and 18 year old kids. In 1964, after we had graduated from high school, we started having all those hit records. It was very exciting! We traveled around the world. We came from the projects where we did not have a lot of money and now we were international stars at the age of 21. It was a time in America where we had civil uprising going on and we, as black girls, had achieved so much that we found ourselves at the top. People were looking up to us and we were the 3 black female stars of that generation.
55+ Later, the name of the group was changed to ‘Diana Ross and The Supremes.’ At the same time, Florence Ballard was replaced. What brought about these changes?
MW Well, it’s like a progression of life. When a marriage starts, you are in love, but in time, problems start creeping in. It’s wonderful if you can work those problems out, but sometimes you just can’t. In our situation,we had grown up together, had dreams together and succeeded together. Then one person was not happy and one changed their mind and things started coming apart. As the last one standing, I had to decide if I wanted to go with other people in order to continue with the group. I did continue because I love doing this and I love being on stage.
55+ The Supremes continued to enjoy success after Diana Ross left the group. Was it hard to see her go after so many years?
MW It was hard to see Diana and Florence go. It was major for me. They were my best friends and I loved them both. And of course, they were the group. In the end, people have to figure out what’s important to them. For me, at that time it was my survival.
55+ In 1977, after 16 years, you decided to leave The Supremes. What made you decide on a solo career at that time?
MW You know what they say about a fighter, you have to know when to get out of the way and I just knew it was time so we disbanded the group. I loved what I did, but it was time to continue on my own path.
55+ In the mid-80s, you became more involved in musical theater. What made you go in that direction?
MW I was always interested in musicals. When I was growing up, it was all about musicals. My whole childhood was about seeing this type of entertainment. For me, to have become a pop singer was an accident in terms of choosing a career. I did not choose it as my career, it evolved into that…. and hey, IT WORKED!!! I had always been interested in acting as well. And now, in this stage of my life, I have just started taking acting classes again.
55+ “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme” was a very successful book about the group in the 1960s. What made it so popular?
MW Well, hopefully because people were really interested in The Supremes. When I wrote the book, it was really written by a real Supreme, not just someone collecting all the clippings and putting it together. I kept diaries all my life so it was written from my first hand experience and my own viewpoint. It was an inside story and people were interested in the story behind the Supremes. If Diana had written it, it would have been from her viewpoint and it might have been very different. That’s just the way it is.
55+ You were part of a group that represented what the young generation at that time enjoyed listening to. What is your opinion about the music of today’s youth?
MW Every generation has its own music, even my parents. This is the music of this generation. If you look at ours, it was the music of my generation. Who am I to say that this music is not good, it is just different. For me, I still listen to Gladys Knight and the Pips, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis and so on. I do not pretend to be a critic of today’s music. My favorite person singing today is Mariah Carey. I think she has a tremendous voice.
55+ In 1988, you represented The Supremes when you received the Lifetime Achievement Award with the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And, in 1994, The Supremes were recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. How did these recognitions make you feel?
MW It’s all beautiful because it represents a life’s work. You can look back and see that body of work and be proud that WOW, we really did achieve a great deal and inspired people along the way. That’s the meaning behind it. In terms of my personal feelings, it was bittersweet because Florence and Diana were not there.
55+ In pursuing your solo career, is there a special moment that stands out as being very memorable for you?
MW It was kind of a new exploration, like going back to the beginning, starting all over again. It reminded me of when the three of us were just starting to find ourselves. I had not been the person standing in front with the lyrics then. That was a new process I had to go through while I was touring in England and throughout Europe. It was a good time but it was also a scary time. I did not know if I was going to be able to do it. I had the desire and the ambition but I did not know if my voice quality would live up to the Mary Wilson of The Supremes era.
55+ Tell us about your “Dare to Dream” lecture series.
MW It came out of the loss of my son in a car accident and it was a time when I was doing a lot of interviews. I was being asked many questions regarding my son and the accident. I found that it was very helpful for people to hear me talk about my loss because people have a difficult time doing that. This evolved into groups asking me to lecture on this subject. I have lived a full life and I had written it all down in my books. I found myself with many subjects to talk about. It was all based on realism, things that really happened, and hopefully, I have helped other people from my experiences.
55+ You have remained very active in your 60s. Can you tell us your secret?
MW There is no secret. Just keep moving (laughs). I have a new single called ‘Life Has Been Good To Me.’ I am one of those people that just enjoys life. I love exploring and enjoying it. I’ve always had a dream of being an explorer or an inventor. I am in awe of life and all the things that are there. I like to explore it, I like to live it!
55+ You have been involved with many charities including UNICEF, St Jude’s Children’s Hospital, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and Humpty Dumpty Institute to name a few. Do you find this part of your life rewarding?
MW For the Humpty Dumpty Institute, originally being Princess Diana’s project, I go around the world speaking about bombs that were dropped in countries like Vietnam, Laos, and SriLanka, and are laying there unexploded. People lose limbs when the bombs go off while they try to gather the scrap metal to sell it. It’s great to be part of the world, part of human life, and do something other than for just yourself. It’s a good feeling.
55+ In 2003, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell named you one of nine Cultural Ambassadors of the USA. How was that experience?
MW To have been chosen was a great honor because I remember that Louis Armstrong and Pearl Bailey were both Cultural Ambassadors when I was a young girl. I recall them speaking about what a privilege it was. I admired that, and when I was asked many years later, I could not believe it. I traveled with people from the government to all these countries around the world. One thing I noticed is that all the young people in these countries wanted to come to America…. that was their dream.
55+ You have also been very involved in how the fashions of The Supremes impacted social issues in the United States via the “The Story of the Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection” Exhibition. Can you give us an update on this project?
MW It is called ‘The Mary Wilson Gown Collection’ It was in Great Britain in various museums for two and a half years. It opened here at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. It’s touring around America now and opening in January at the Afro American Museum in Philadelphia and will be there for 6 months. It shows around 50 Supremes’ gowns and a lot of memorabilia. It is so beautiful and these gowns have held up so well all these years. They were created by designers in America like Bob Mackey, Michael Travis and Jeffrey Holder. There are some earlier gowns from Motown that have disappeared. Some gowns have shown up here and there and I have no idea how people got them. I have actually bought some from Ebay and had some fans involved in helping me to get them. If anyone knows where some are, PLEASE LET ME KNOW.
55+Magazine thanks Mary Wilson for sharing her past and keeping us up to date on what is going on in her future. And our readers would just like to say, “Thanks for the music!”
You can visit MaryWilson.com for more information on her current projects, concert dates, gown collection information and her boutique with many collectible items..
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