Musicians / The Sunday Times

Mary Wilson: Once a Supreme…


“Baby, baby, baby don’t leave me. Ooh, please don’t leave me, all by myself.”

It’s the early part of the 1960s in America. Martin Luther King has had a dream; the Russians are the winners of the space race, Audrey Hepburn just ate Breakfast at Tiffany’s and The Supremes are on the radio. Their voices – soulful and undoubtedly sensual – have won them precious little so far. And so, no one is quite prepared for it when come August 16, 1964, these three starry eyed, determined girls are suddenly the toast of the nation.

“We were on the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars, you know American Bandstand, we were travelling around the world on this big tour, and we were the only ones who didn’t have a hit record,” says Mary Wilson, who along with Florence Ballard and Diana Ross, was a founding member of the iconic all girl group. In fact, in a tour that boasted the Beach Boys, Gene Pitney and The Shirelles, the presence of The Supremes was denoted only by the words “and others” tacked on to the bottom of the tour posters. “But while we are on that tour, our record became number one.” Mary pauses for a moment. “We looked around, and we said, ‘This is it. We’ve made it’.”

The times that follow are edgy, enervating and tragic by turns. While on tour, the group is welcomed into England with headlines that scream: “Three Black Negresses have just landed on the shores of Great Britain!” It seems that despite their fame, talent and dazzling glamour, the women are still treated as inferior. “It was a time when black was not beautiful,” Mary says. “It was at a time when there were public water fountains that we could not drink out of, when fountains were for ‘coloureds only’ or for ‘whites only’ and if you drank out of the ‘white’ public fountain you could be lynched. Those days are gone, but we went through that and it was in my lifetime that that happened. But we made it through, ‘cause we sort of dared to dream a dream that changed our lives.”

What very few foresaw was that this dream was practically contagious and that it – with The Supremes as its ambassadors – would inspire one generation (maybe even two) to reach for the impossible. “I think The Supremes have been ambassadors for many years…We’ve always been ambassadors, our music has put us in that spot.”

The Supremes showed their audience painstakingly, gig by gig, tour by tour, that an act with three black girls could not only be classy, it could be stunningly sexy. Looking back, Mary remembers that Detroit, the original mo(tor)-town, was the place to be. Every day, it seemed, a new superstar was born. “I remember, we were so excited because we hadn’t seen this new Michael Jackson, we just knew the little kid with the group (Jackson 5). And all of a sudden, he’s doing the moonwalk and we’re like ….whooooo.” Standing around in the wings was never as exciting. The girls, the latest sensation, universally adored, would hang around, sighing over the likes of Marvin Gaye. “The party was really backstage. We were having so much fun together – all of us – and it was such an exciting time.”

Even when Diana Ross left the group on less than amicable terms, Mary soldiered on. “I was scared to death every, every step of the way…but just because someone else’s dream changed; I couldn’t allow that to stop me.” In the end, she would be the only Supreme to stick the entire run of the popular group – from 1961 through to 1977. It made for high drama – something anyone who’s watched the Oscar winning ‘Dreamgirls’ can testify to. Though the movie’s writers, and The Supremes themselves consider it only “loosely based” on the true story of the popular group’s rise to fame and eventual disintegration, it captures that very event beautifully. The foot stomping, hip swinging appeal of the music, the blinding glare of many spotlights, and the naïve young goddesses in their stunning costumes – it’s all there.

All the glamour is in stark contrast to their rather humble beginnings in the poverty plagued Brewster housing projects in Detroit. “When I was a young girl, we received cheques from the government every month to help us survive. To come from those meagre beginnings and to climb to the top of the world – to meet the Queen Mother – it shows that it doesn’t matter where you come from.” It’s apparent that this is one of the great truths of Mary Wilson’s life. And these days, Mary has gone one step more – her role as an ambassador of music, is taking second place to her being an ambassador for humanity. As the Mine Action spokesperson for the Humpty Dumpty Institute, Mary was in Sri Lanka to stage a charity concert last night at the Cinnamon Grand Hotel. The concert which featured Mary and her band, was part of an effort to direct awareness and raise funds towards solving the problem of dangerous landmines and unexploded ordnances (UXOs).

“You know when you’re a kid and they say, what do you want to be when you grow up? Well, I mean I’m already grown up, I’m already a Supreme. What can you do to top that? But in the back of my mind I’ve always wanted to do something significant. Do something with my life that went beyond getting money, surpassed getting awards…when I was asked to be a spokesperson, I knew another one of my dreams had come true.”

A gifted musician with another album on the way; author of a New York Times bestselling autobiography, ‘Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme,’ and its successor ‘Supreme Faith’; winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Foundation of Women Legislators; one of U.S.A’s nine Culture Connect Ambassadors, de-mining activist, humanist, mother, and grandmother to eight delightful young kids, Mary Wilson is taking on the world cause by cause. She has supported cancer research and young, underprivileged figure skaters; The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and civil rights for ethnic minorities and underlying several other pet projects, everybody’s right to be happy. Though it may have changed, as it turns out, the dream is still alive.

Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on November 4, 2007. Words by Smriti Daniel.

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