Interviews / Music / Musicals / Pop Culture / Singers / Soul

Mary Wilson – Supreme Talent

Mary Wilson

Mary Wilson

Mary Wilson

Supreme Talent

By Mark Mussari

Mary Wilson is standing on stage in the amber glow of a spotlight and singing “Here’s to Life,” a jazzy autumnal number about embracing the passage of time.  Could any voice be better suited to this wistful tune?  Wilson reaches deep into her warm alto for the bluer notes and then opens into full throttle for the song’s more expansive moments.  With its emotional twists and turns, the performance is a tour de force, a moving mini-drama that seems to reflect on the life of the Supreme chanteuse.

If Wilson’s command of stage and song surprises people, then they just haven’t really been listening for the past 30 years or so.  “This is the kind of music I’ve always liked to sing,” explains Wilson, who turned 63 this year but looks so ageless that she must have a painting in her attic. “It’s what I do and what I know,” she adds, “but I haven’t done that much of it professionally.”

Wilson recorded a live performance of “Here’s to Life” because she was originally uncertain of the audience reception to this artistic turn.  “I recorded it live in San Francisco,” she recalls, alluding to the CD Up Close (available on her website www.marywilson.com).  But Wilson had no reason to worry: her “Up Close” engagement at the Plush Room was so successful it had to be extended three weeks.  She followed that with a knockout run at Feinstein’s at the Regency in New York.  “It was also sold out and people just loved it,” Wilson says, “and I’m thrilled.”

One of the founding members of the legendary Supremes—along with Florence Ballard and Diana Ross, for those who’ve been living in a cave for the past few decades—Wilson can move freely among musical genres.  Her current act includes smoky covers of Billy Joel’s “New York State of Mind” and Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.”

“I chose songs that sound like my voice—to tell my story, a musical biography,” Wilson states, adding that she intentionally chose songs “by singers who also write.”

Those fortunate enough to remember the Supremes on television or in performance will recall the trio shifting effortlessly from Motown hits to standards and show tunes.

Mary Wilson

Mary Wilson

“We started out singing standards,” says Wilson, whose dusky alto created the perfect blend with Ross’s sweet middle and Ballard’s powerhouse soprano.  “That’s the kind of group we were in the very beginning.”

On The Ed Sullivan Show or The Hollywood Palace, the group usually followed “Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart” or “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” with more sophisticated fare, such as “More” or “Somewhere”—and they never missed a beat.  In their more than 15 appearances on Sullivan, especially, they delivered intricate medleys of Fats Waller and Irving Berlin tunes.

At Motown “the girls” (as they became known) cranked out hit after hit, including 12 number one records in six years: “Baby Love,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love”—the melodies are now woven into the fabric of American popular culture.  “But our core was always harmony and standards,” insists Wilson.  “We were singing ‘Moonlight in Vermont’ and those types of songs before we went to Motown.”  Dick Clark once recalled hearing the girls practicing “People” in their dressing room—as early as 1964.  Previously unreleased gems like “Sleepwalk” and “Boy from Impanema” disclose the trio’s natural capacity for tight, three-part harmony.   Reflecting on their eclectic abilities, Wilson muses: “We were much better singers than most people probably know.”

Along the way fame came with its price for the Supremes.  After being ousted from the group in 1967, Florence Ballard died in 1976.  “Florence was dealing with her own personal pain,” explains Wilson, referring especially to Ballard’s molestation as a teenager.  “That really scarred her for life, and she wasn’t really able to get through things the way I was,” adds Wilson.

The highly successful musical Dreamgirls—along with the recent film version of the stage production—was based somewhat loosely on the Supremes meteoric rise to fame and the tragedy of Ballard’s fate.  Still, the play ultimately puts a positive spin on events, even supplying a rapprochement between Effie (the Ballard character) and Deena (the Ross takeoff).

After finally seeing the film, Ross recently told the press that in reality the group’s highs were higher and their lows lower.

“I agree with Diane,” concurs Wilson, referring to Ross with the given name which Wilson has known since the Detroit days.  “We were dealing with social issues, too.  We were around at a time when we couldn’t drink out of public water fountains—we had to drink out of fountains that said, ‘For Coloreds Only.’  There were hotels we couldn’t stay in.”

Wilson remains philosophic, however, about the arc of their illustrious career.  “We also did meet and hang out with kings, queens and presidents,” she adds thoughtfully, “and [those highs] were real.”

The Supremes: Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard.

The Supremes: Diana Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard.

When Ross left in 1970, Wilson soldiered on with Cindy Birdsong (Ballard’s replacement) and a new lead singer in Jean Terrell.  Scherrie Payne then replaced Terrell in 1974 and the group officially disbanded in 1977.

“I always brought in the best singers because I didn’t want the group to fail,” explains Wilson.  In reality she was also biding her time.  “I was preparing myself,” she says, “and by the time Scherrie came in I was a lot stronger and I was ready to step forward even more.”

For Wilson the road from the Supremes to her current solo act has been paved with myriad accomplishments.  She is the author of a New York Times best selling autobiography, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, along with its successor Supreme Faith.   Wilson won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Foundation of Women Legislators and, in 2003, was appointed as one of nine Culture Connect Ambassadors, taking her to Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Asia and South America.  She also participated in the Trade and Civil Life Conference in Bahrain and spoke to children in Mozambique and Botswana about the dangers of HIV and AIDS.

Wilson was recently named Mine Action Spokesperson for the Humpty Dumpty Institute as part of a multi-million dollar effort to raise awareness about landmines.  She says she readily embraces all of these humanitarian opportunities: “They’re part of who I am and what I do.”

In 1988, Wilson performed onstage with such rock royalty as Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and George Harrison when the Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  It was a banner year as the Supremes took their rightful place beside Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys as architects of the music that defined a generation (or two).  An exhibit of the Supremes gowns will travel from the Hall of Fame Museum to London’s prestigious Victoria and Albert Museum in spring of 2008.

Author, activist and humanitarian, Mary Wilson still musters pride and affection when speaking of the trio of girls from a Detroit housing project who conquered the world and became an indelible part of American iconography.

“To me,” she reflects, “it was always about the group—what we represented as a group.  And I liked all of us individually as well.  We made up one perfect entity.”

Photo Credits:
#1 Courtesy of Mary Wilson. All rights reserved.
#2 Courtesy of Mary Wilson. All rights reserved.
#3 © 1964 Universal Motown Records. All rights reserved.

Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com.  All rights reserved.  Posted: August 24, 2007.

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