MARY WILSON: Classic Soul 1979 Interview + David Nathan’s 2021 Personal Reflections

Mary Wilson in 1979
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No One Can Sing 'Baby Baby' Like Mary...

By David Nathan

September 1979

"I'D REACHED a point where, in order to maintain the level we had reached with the original Supremes, I'd have to do something myself. I just knew we couldn't have the same magnetism as we had originally."  With those words, Ms. Mary Wilson, an integral part of the trio who became a true legend in music, was indicating that it was time to forge ahead in a new phase of a career that has spanned twenty years.  That new phase means that the lady now has a solo album out on Motown, produced by Hal Davis; is in the midst of a three-month overseas tour and, is generally feeling very good about the way everything looks for her.  "Of course, I had some worries and apprehension about the whole thing!" laughs the vivacious Mary. "After all, aside from doing a few leads onstage, maybe one or two on record, I'd never been out front. Although," she notes, "there's no one who can sing "baby, baby" like I can — that's for sure!"

Mary states that she'd considered the idea of a solo career as long as five years ago," but it just wasn't time. I wanted to see the Supremes' through to its natural conclusion." Just to assure fans and friends, Mary explains that the actual break-up came in London in 1977. "That was when I made the final decision about what I felt I should do, and agreed with Motown that rather than replace me, we should just disband the group and let Sherrie and Susaye continue with whatever they felt they wanted to do.  "They're still with Motown so it's possible they might be recording, or maybe forming another group — they have the options open to them." Mary notes that "it would have been quite easy for me to leave the group after Diana (Ross) left, but I just felt we had to go on because there was so much more to do, and I think we made some great records after she left, comparable to some of the real great ones we had with the original line-up, I don't think all of those records got the acknowledgement they should have — but as far as I'm concerned, they are still of a high quality."

Mary cites "Stoned Love" particularly as "a record that didn't get the kind of reaction it should have, and "Up The Ladder To The Roof" as another. "Sure, we had some big sellers — those, and "Floy Joy" all did very well for us. We certainly maintained a level of consistency that I'm proud of." Since Mary had really been entrusted with the whole business and creative decision-making process for The Supremes, she feels she was well equipped to deal with the new solo career that she's embarking on. "My husband, Pedro, who's also my manager, and I, sat down last year and realized it was time. I'd been touring last year with a couple of girls — we were billed as Mary Wilson & The Supremes, and I did leads on all our hits, but we stopped around November and that was when I knew it was about time to start working on the project.

"Originally, we'd wanted Marvin Gaye to produce, but he was committed to his own project and it would have taken time before he got to me. So we talked about Hal because of his track record with Diana on "Love Hangover"; Thelma Houston on "Don't Leave Me This Way" and things he did with The Jacksons, and we just figured he'd be the right guy for the job, and that's just how it turned out. The marriage was perfect.  "Hal commissioned a couple of young writers at Motown and the songs they came up with were just perfect — it's almost as if I wrote them myself! In fact, Hal and I both selected exactly the same tunes from the ones that were presented."

Mary says that she's more than satisfied with the end result. "I really don't mind if it's not a million seller because I know I did my best at the time. Incidentally, I did quite a lot of the background on the album — I guess I just couldn't stay away from it!  But I feel that what we've come up with is just right as a debut album. Sure, I'd regarded myself basically as a ballad singer before, because I knew I could do that, and I had my little doubts about how I'd approach the up-tempo material. I knew we had to do some, because of the way the whole disco thing is happening." Indeed, Mary's initial single from the album, "Red Hot" is already gaining play in the discos. I feel that disco music has given the music business a lot of excitement but I'd have to say that a lot of r&b acts may have suffered a little in the process. I'd like to see more of them come back to the fore — people like The Temps, The Tops and so on."

Mary's immediate plans have resulted in a three-month tour outside of the U.S.A., although she kicked off her act in New York at the famous New York, New York disco as the first live act presented there. "My act will of course include some of the hits from The Supremes' days; after all, how could I miss them out? But naturally, I will be showcasing the material on the album. Yes, I do have two background singers working with me and it's a weird sensation to hear girls behind me doing background, after I'm so used to doing it myself."

As the mother of three children — "Raphael, my youngest, was born only a couple of weeks after the session for the album" — Mary recognizes that she'll have to divide her time now that she has a solo career.  The last few months I've been home more than at any time in my career and it was strange. Not at the beginning, because I loved not having a schedule to adhere to. It was a trip though, because I had to decide what to cook each day, and coming up with new ideas was, well, interesting! It was also kinda strange for the kids because they've travelled with me since they were born — they were practically born on the road! Turkesa — she's four — and Pedrito, he's two — have gotten accustomed to eating in hotels and restaurants and behaving themselves whilst they're out! So when they were home with me they just went crazy!"

So what, we wonder, after all the success Mary has achieved throughout her illustrious career are her goals? "The same as they've always been! I've been studying acting for eight years now and I want to start to utilize all I've learned from that. Then, I want to eventually get involved with children in a teaching capacity — maybe start a school for kids so they can learn more about music, choreography, everything. Just pass on all the things I've learned."

And does Mary ever anticipate the day when she won't perform anymore? "Diana and I used to joke about this tune that Smokey Robinson wrote which said something about singing tilt you had a cane to walk with and I guess that's how we both feel. After all, I've been onstage for almost half my life now!"  And finally, for those who may well wonder, Mary wished to set the record straight. "Diana and I are the best of friends. We always have been, and we always will be, no matter what happens. Sure, we're not able to stay in touch all the time because of our schedules, but we've been through so much together that she's really the closest person to me outside of my family." As a token of that, Diana in fact introduced Mary at the opening of her N.Y.N.Y. performance and the two paid tribute to the twenty years that The Supremes were in existence with a special toast to Florence Ballard.

And if that ain't friendship, what is? So, Supremes' fans, weep no more, Mary's definitely on target and ready for the world with her own exciting brand of music, and we have no doubt that she's going to make as much impression with her solo career as she has, throughout the years, as one of the magical Supremes.

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David Nathan’s Personal Tribute, February 9, 2021

The supreme Supreme....Mary Wilson memories... I woke up early this morning in London to read of Mary's sudden passing....It was really over the last decade or so since I moved back to the UK that I got to meet and see Mary on different occasions and I found her to be warm, gracious and funny.... We did an interview for Blues & Soul in early 1974 and after I moved to the US, during my first 'stint' in L.A in the autumn of 1975, I vividly recall Mary inviting me to lunch at a famous restaurant, Sushi On Sunset. I had never tasted sushi before and I didn't realize that the green paste was meant to be added to the sushi! When my mouth was 'on fire,' Mary couldn't stop laughing! I have other fond recollections, including our first full interview for her 1979 "Red Hot" LP and...I will NEVER forget seeing her sing at a fundraising concert at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco in December 2007 for Angela Bofill.

Her voice was astonishing as she gave a deeply emotional performance of Shirley Horn's "Here To Life" and backstage afterwards, I was concerned she might be 'insulted' when I said I didn't know she could sing like THAT! She was far from insulted, smiled and invited me to her intimate club show the next night. I literally cried when she sang Judy Collins' "From Both Sides Now" and had the opportunity to tell her so after the show... That particular memory is my most precious of an outstanding lady.  My prayers and love are with her family, friends and all who celebrate her as a pioneer and icon, May she rest peacefully with the angels.... 

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