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