It’s fitting that with this Motown Spotlight, Sharon Davis pays tribute to SoulMusic Hall Of Fame inductee Mary Wilson, whose contribution to the legacy of The Supremes and her own work as an artist, author and performer remains immeasurable…
“When I started to perform solo I told my audience ‘here are some of my greatest hits’. Then I just sang the backing parts. All the ‘oohs’ without any lead vocals. When those who weren’t laughing cheered, I told them ‘so you listen to the backgrounds too!'”. And it was this sense of humour and love of life that warmed Mary Wilson to her fans from her Supreme days through to her sudden death on 8th February, 2021 when tears of laughter turned into tears of sadness.
The shock of Mary’s sudden passing continues to affect us all and the huge outpouring across the internet is testament to the millions of lives she touched. And I’d like to share some of her friends’ thoughts, Mary’s own words over the years, and memories of the Supreme lady who I first met in 1968. With Diana Ross and Cindy Birdsong, Mary was leaving London’s then prestigious nightclub The Talk Of the Town, heading for their waiting limousine following that evening’s sold out performance. The conversation that lasted a few minutes has of course vanished through time. Well, I can’t remember everything! However, that marked our first meeting.
The membership of the trio changed during the years but Mary was always there, steering the good ship Supremes. So, I am hoping what follows is a fitting tribute to the singer, performer, author, dancer, lecturer, civil rights activist and recipient of a host of industry awards, honours, doctorates and a helluva lot more. Phew! She was a lady who grabbed life with both hands, paid her dues and lived for the moment. Party time was at one time high on her agenda (and I went to quite a few) yet work always came first whether it was honouring commitments or kick starting new ventures, like the one she hinted at a few days before her death.
The Andantes’ Louvain Demps: “Hearing Mary had left us made me reflect on times we had been together. Just a couple of years ago, while I was in Detroit, Mary was doing a show – “Motown On The Lake” – I think it was called. During her performance, she invited people to join her on stage and I went up to say ‘hi’. Mary was happy to see me and called for Jackie Hicks, who she saw earlier, but she had already left. She acknowledged The Andantes and let me join her background singers briefly (that’s so ‘Mary’). In the studio, never once did she complain about us recording with them, The Supremes, even when they were not in the studio. Always smiling, very nice, kinda quiet, never snooty. Mary joined us on a recording trip to Chicago as we wanted an extra voice. We chose her because she had the ‘better voice’. The session went well…a John Lee Hooker session! Mary was so much fun to be with. After Motown I moved to Atlanta, Georgia. Mary was here to do the play ‘Beehive’. I was working with children and one of their parents bought tickets for the show. They wanted to meet Mary, so we went backstage. She was wonderful. Took the time to show the girl all the costumes and meeting the cast members (that’s so ‘Mary’!). Another time at her book signing, I was there in the back of a long queue. When Mary saw me, she made me come to the front where she was and introduced me to the crowd. When Mary co-hosted the TSB special ‘TJ Lubinsky My Music’, she asked the camera for a close up on me – to my complete surprise. She was always willing to acknowledge others, unselfishly. Mary Wilson, you were so right when you told me ‘dreams do come true’. My friend, I miss you; your loving kindness, your beauty – and you had the better voice!..”
Lynda Laurence: “Mary dared to dream, and her dream was realised. She will always be remembered as one-third of the most outstanding, iconic female groups of the 20th century. Her name is synonymous with the group that she helped to frame, to become a world-renowned sensation. Mary Wilson was one of a kind – truly a supreme Supreme…”
Mary’s life with the original Supremes with Diana Ross as lead is well documented, so will bypass that to remember her when she came into her own. So with that in mind, I began a day’s adventure through my files. It became apparent that, at one time, I spent more time at Supremes’ shows in London than any other act. Randomly selecting one in 1975 at Hammersmith Odeon when the ladies were in town celebrating their 15th anniversary, trialling their act for a forthcoming series of concerts on a Cunard cruise liner, it wasn’t really what I expected. Utilising middle-of-the-road material, with a Supremes’ medley thrown together, I noted the highlight was the Mary solo “The Way We Were”. Another thing I remember. The stage was unexpectedly darkened and (of all things) the Motown Genie’s gruff voice bellowed out, granting the ladies a wish each. Cindy Birdsong, dressed in a white wig and gown, strutted across the stage as Marilyn Monroe. Scherrie Payne joined her as Bessie Smith, oozing and boozing out the blues, while Mary appeared clad in a skin-tight black gown as Josephine Baker, smooching away in French. (It was also during this trip that an IRA bomb exploded in the lobby of The Hilton Hotel on Park Lane where The Supremes were staying. Tragically two people were killed and 63 injured, while the ladies were extremely shocked but unhurt.)
Scherrie Payne: “The stage was Mary’s home: she lit it up! She was a natural and showed it. Audiences loved her vivaciousness, slick dance moves accompanied by her sexy voice and bright smile…. The Supremes were her life and it was obvious that she enjoyed every moment of it. She was relentless and hard-working and never slowed down or gave up on her goals, her dreams. Mary never saw the world through blinded eyes. She was an optimist, always striving for that next plateau and achieved it. ..I, for one, shall forever be indebted to her…Mary Wilson. A legend in her own time!…”.(scherrieandsusayeformersupremes.com)
A year later in 1976, with Susaye Greene replacing Cindy, The Supremes performed at the New Victoria Theatre in the June. Wearing long red gowns, they performed the now-expected medley before hitting the spot with Scherrie’s emotive version of “My World Is Empty Without You” and their own “High Energy.” Remembering Florence Ballard, Mary dedicated “Don’t Let My Teardrops Bother You” to her late friend, while the high spot was her handling of “‘Til The Boat Sails Away” where the almost whispery notes were overtaken by her vocal strength which rose to a tremendous, controlled pitch. I finished this review, “There’s more fire and punch, vitality and versatility in the group than ever before. It’s so good to see and hear different members taking over specific lead vocals…I honestly feel the girls don’t need the medleys where Diana took lead because they could have performed ‘Supremes’ oldies like ‘Up The Ladder To The Roof’ and ‘Touch’. As a unit they can sure beat the hell outa their rivals and contemporaries.”
UK Motown press officer Bob Fisher: “She was one of the first Motown acts I worked with when I joined EMI/Motown when she, Susaye and Scherrie toured for Jeffrey Kruger in 1976. There was a terrific ‘comeback’ album “High Energy” produced by Holland, Dozier, Holland to work on. (On the album “You’re What’s Missing In My Life” is a shared vocal between Mary and Scherrie. The version on the “Final Sessions” CD box set is just Mary) We had a great time in ’76 and she was really an exceptionally nice, not to say, beautiful person. Early in the tour, Jeffrey asked me to go with the group to Tramps, the London nightclub, because he couldn’t go. This was a favour to him rather than an EMI duty so my expenses were on hold and everything was ‘on the house’….. We had a second exceptional album to promote later in the year – “Mary, Scherrie & Susaye”, also produced by Holland, Dozier, Holland. So I was shocked to wake up and hear the news Mary had passed away in her sleep…”
In July 1977, under the heading “Mary, Thanks For Everything” my Blues & Soul page was dedicated to The Supremes’ farewell concert at the Drury Lane Theatre a month earlier and of course the after-gig lig. As we recovered from the shock of The Temptations leaving Motown, so we learned The Supremes were disbanding, with “Mary, Scherrie & Susaye” being their last studio album. The packed audience at Drury Lane was treated to a show of a lifetime featuring a pregnant Mary and showcasing the individual talents of Scherrie and Susaye. Touches of their cabaret act crept in, but unlike their last UK tour, they concentrated on their own material. Again, each had a solo spot and for Mary’s she was joined by her daughter, but it was the singles everyone wanted – “He’s My Man”, “You’re What’s Missing In My Life”, “You’re My Driving Wheel”, closing with “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking”. The Supremes certainly put their all into this final show. The repertoire was nicely varied and it was the perfect farewell show for me. Heading for one of London’s most exclusive clubs Monkberrys, where in true Motown fashion there was a feast of food and drink – and people! Scherrie and Susaye arrived first, followed later by Mary and Pedro, and the party kicked off. As the wine flowed I had to retreat to the ladies room where I met Mary taking a breather. While nattering I asked why she wasn’t giving interviews this time around. She said they were. When I explained Motown had given me the thumbs down, she was gracious enough to chat with me before the evening ended. I won’t go into that but at the time she admitted she wasn’t sure whether she would stay with Motown; her previous feelings about the group disbanding had been mixed but now she was upset. Although going solo had been on her mind for some time, the actual reality of it had hit her hard. I recalled one of her quotes “As long as there is Mary Wilson there will be The Supremes”. Neither of us realised the significance of that phrase at the time. “I wanted to see The Supremes through to its natural conclusion. …Motown agreed that rather than replace me, we should disband the group and that Scherrie and Susaye continue with whatever they felt they wanted to do.” It would have been easy for her to leave when Diana Ross had but she believed the group 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 them got the acknowledgement they should have. We certainly maintained a level of consistency that I’m proud of. My being with The Supremes were the happiest times of my life (but) I think it’s time for me to find out who Mary Wilson really is.”
Motown’s Noreen Allen: “I met Mary in 1977 whilst she was on the Supremes tour along with Susaye Green and Scherrie Payne. Their performance was fabulous, of course, and we were lucky enough to attend the “After Show” party at Monkberrys and danced until the early morning hours! What a night to remember! Mary was always kind, hospitable and generous with her time at promotion and press events. Our paths also crossed again in 1980 when she attended a Jermaine Jackson reception in London. When asked by me if she would sign our visitors’ book she didn’t hesitate and signed it straight away – what a star! Part of an amazing trio – her legacy will live on! RIP Mary…”
Two years on and now living in London, Mary’s solo eponymous album had been released from which the disco hit “Red Hot” was lifted as a single. Her original plans to work with Marvin Gaye were scuppered as he was working on his own album and Mary was on a deadline to complete, so Hal Davis produced it. The process took a little under a month to finish. Fans loved the album which was also critically acclaimed yet failed to sell in sufficient numbers to chart. A second album was planned with Gus Dudgeon, with a handful of tracks recorded, but she left Motown before it was completed.
In 1982 Mary was determined to keep the name Supremes alive because she believed they were cheated historically in terms of accomplishment “because Motown wasn’t recognised by the RIAA.” She continued, “We were also cheated in Diana’s emergence as a star. What they did for Diana was wonderful but what they did to us wasn’t. I want to rectify history and make sure The Supremes have their rightful place in history books as far as black equality in entertainment is concerned. Like The Beatles, The Supremes should be recognised as being historical. As it stands now all of the credit goes to Diana and it shouldn’t be that way.” Mary took up the challenge; the fight was fought with The Supremes later elevated to their rightful place in the Motown bible. However, there was a bumpy road ahead which damaged Mary’s relationship with Diana Ross, firstly, with the publication of her memoir Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme in 1986, and not participating in the “Return To Love” tour during 2000, following a public and very messy negotiation process. However, bridges were later built and when learning of Mary’s death, Diana wrote, “…My condolences to Mary’s family. I am reminded that each day is a gift. I have so many wonderful memories of our time together. The Supremes will live on in our hearts.”
During 1983 Mary spoke about her feelings when Diana left the group to pursue her dream as a singer and actress. “I could have taken the lead had I spoken up but I didn’t think I was capable of doing that great job at the time. I preferred to have kept The Supremes on top with a person who could sing the leads well. I wasn’t prepared but had I really thought about it, I could have gotten myself together and just done it anyway. Diana is my sister although we have different personalities. I love her the way she is. Most people don’t know how she is, but I do and I’ve always loved her regardless of that. And she loves me regardless of it.”
Blinky Williams: “Girl, just act like you’re singing in one of the big churches that you sing in.” That’s the first thing Mary Wilson said to me when we first met. And it was the best thing to hear. I was a bundle of nerves sitting in the dressing room at the Los Angeles Forum waiting to make my Motown debut. Also debuting that day was the great Dennis Edwards of the Temptations. What a day for me. And Mary made it more special. I flew to Detroit to appear in the Motown Revue at the Fox Theatre for the annual Motown Christmas Show. On the bill were The Temptations, Marvelettes, Gladys and The Pips, Stevie Wonder, The Originals, Willie Tyler and Lester, Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. Icy slushy snow blanketed the side entrance of the theatre. I stepped out of the limo that chauffeured me to the venue and fell hard on the ice and slush. I got up and fell again. There’s something about a slippery fall on ice and slush that bruises the ego worse than the body. Mary and Eddie came to my rescue. Mary taught me how to walk in that slush wearing my boots with three-inch heels without making me feel dumb. That’s a gift. And that’s love. Mary said to me, “Blinky, Motown is family. Everyone will know you fell. So, when you get inside, you laugh about falling. Make fun of your California boots.” There’s a lot of wisdom in reading an awkward situation correctly and turning a weakness into a strength. That was Mary. From when we first met, I have been blessed to have Mary in my life. I cherish the many times we hung out at her house in the Hollywood Hills. Mary is a dear person. She touched so many. She will be with me forever…”
When Jean Terrell replaced Diana, Mary was a little apprehensive over the future of the group, as she recalled in a mid-eighties chat. “Jean was different because she came into a situation that was already formed and I really couldn’t deal with her …this was because I knew Diana so well and didn’t know Jean.” However, as time passed and Jean found her niche, Mary’s initial fears dissipated. “She was a great singer and her voice was totally different to Diana’s… I was happy to have a real group again.” With global hits kicking off with “Up The Ladder To The Roof” the trio went from strength to strength, recouping some of its past glory.
“The Mary Wilson of today is basically the same as the Mary Wilson of the sixties and seventies, except I’ve matured,” she explained in 1983 when speaking about progressing her career and her role as a single mum, following the breakdown of her marriage. “I’m just as interested in music and entertaining as I have always been. Now I’m ready to pursue it as my number one goal.” Explaining she had laid the groundwork by touring Europe, taking acting classes and vocal lessons, and negotiating with companies to record again. “…I have been (working) towards my coming out as a major star because even though The Supremes were stars and I was part of that, my ‘Mary Wilson’ becoming a star bit is a totally different career. So, my goals are making that happen.” Taking care of her children – Turkessa, Pedrito and Rafael – was, on occasion difficult. “…The responsibilities are greater, but I enjoy having that challenge, to give as much as I can as if I were two people…I have a wonderful relationship (with them)….They also know their mother is a bit of a celebrity because they travelled on the road with me from the time they were all born. They really weren’t aware that mommy was a big star. They thought this was the way everyone lived.”
Pat Ross: “How did someone from the far north of England end up as a friend of Mary Wilson? The short answer is that around 1985, when she was researching her first book I loaned her my Supremes scrapbooks. I began them in 1964, a typical eleven-year-old saving whatever was an interest at the time. (Sharon was instrumental in their return, leaving me messages regarding their return via her Motown Magic column in Blues & Soul) Mary knew that I had kept the scrapbooks going, and I still do, and she ultimately borrowed some more of the later volumes. It’s hard to say when being a fan progressed to being a friend, but in a way, that was down to Mary. When I was on holiday in the US in 1998, Mary invited me to her New York apartment. We were just relaxing and talking but ended up going shopping on Broadway. We met up on many occasions but one of my nicest weeks was in Boston, Mass, where she was doing a full-week season. I saw “Leader Of The Pack” five times and spent a lot of time with her and some of her close friends. Remembering my scrapbooks, and always planning something or other, Mary contacted me regularly for statistics and facts she needed for her various projects, including her most recent book Supreme Glamour. The care and concern I cherished most was the support, understanding and good advice Mary gave me during some recent problems I was experiencing. My memories will stay with me and although I will never hear again “hey girlfriend, how you doing?” the mutual love and respect will endure. Mary was a great performer, a pioneer and she preserved the Supremes’ legacy with tenacity for decades. She embraced people and that was maybe her greatest legacy. For me, she was someone who influenced me far more than I realised; she was funny, always supportive, always caring – always Mary…”
And finally. In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Martha Reeves said they were sisters. “We have worked side by side nearly all our lives. …Together we helped keep the legacy of Motown alive….She was the beauty and the sunshine of The Supremes. Mary will live with me forever.” The Four Tops’ Duke Fakir told Billboard magazine that he had spoken to Mary a few days before her death. “She was in good spirits, said she was feeling great and was working on some kind of new project, which was normal for her. She was always trying to do something different and new. She was probably one of the sweetest people I ever met – so full of life, so joyful.”
Writing blogs like this is never easy for me which is why I try to engage some friends to help me along the way. Besides, their input – apart from remembering things from another personal angle – is I’m sure a welcomed diversion to me banging on. So I now hope that together we’ve done the lady proud as we remember with love Miss Mary Wilson.
(Our sincere gratitude to Chris Clark for designing the special collage of Mary Wilson and for the visuals included. Chris Clark owns the copyright in all and she has made them available to soulmusic.com only. No other reproduction is permitted.)