The Supremes co-founder reflects on the 50th anniversary of the legendary group’s first album on the then up-and-coming label called Motown.
The Supremes’ Mary Wilson
Tavis: What a pleasure it is to welcome Mary Wilson to this program. Hard to believe it’s been 50 years since she and the other Supremes released their first album, “Meet the Supremes.” The group was actually a foursome then, but of course would go on to become the most famous female trio in all of music history.
A new full-color commemoration is out now about this anniversary. It’s called “50th Anniversary Celebration: My Supremes.” Mary Wilson, we’ll get right to it, but first a little walk down memory lane if that’s okay with you. Can we do that?
Mary Wilson: Hey, it’s part of my history. I’d love it.
Tavis: Turn back here. Let’s do this.
Wilson: Oh, I can see.
Tavis: Yeah, there we go.
Wilson: I love watching those.
Tavis: So you and I were talking about the hairstyles, the clothes. It’s an exhibit that you have curated that opens in January?
Wilson: January 26 at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Tavis: In Philadelphia.
Tavis: It’s a great museum. I know it well. Tell me about the exhibit, though. We gonna see some of this stuff on display?
Wilson: Yes, some of it. But, however, I was telling you, one of the outfits was burned up in Mexico City and a couple were stolen. A couple were in San Francisco someplace, you know [laugh]. But the ones that I have are on exhibit and they’ve actually been on exhibit since like about eight years and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame actually curated them.
Wilson: So now they’ll be there in Philadelphia until June. They’ve been all around the world. It opened up at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Tavis: I got to go see it. I’ve never seen it. I would love…
Wilson: Well, it’s so great. I mean, the gowns that we wore on Ed Sullivan Show, Shindig!, you know, and some of those shows there, the array of colors are just so beautiful. I mean, you walk in there and it’s like, wow, a rainbow. They’re pretty much still in pretty much good condition which is really good. It’s been some, as you said, almost 50 years.
Tavis: Talk to me about the fashion, about the hair, about the clothes because so much of the image of the Supremes had to do with not just the sound – we’ll get to the music – but the look was so important and y’all worked that thing.
Wilson: [Laugh] Well, you know, I think we all loved glamour. You know, we really did. I mean, Flo, Diana and myself, we were playing dress-up in our moms’ clothes, so to speak. But there was a lot of young people like Lena Horne that we were, you know, really just looked at as children, as young girls, and the glamour was what we wanted to do.
So when we first went to Motown and auditioned for Mr. Berry Gordy, I think what he noticed about us, even though he turned us down, but what he noticed about us was that we were really, at the age of 16 – well, we weren’t even 16 yet, we were like 15 – they noticed how we were really classy. We bought pearls from Woolworths [laugh].
Tavis: I’m about to come out of this chair [laugh]. You bought some pearls in Detroit from where? At Woolworths, okay, I got you [laugh].
Wilson: On Michigan Avenue, yes, we did.
Tavis: All right, all right.
Wilson: So we were always that way, you know, even though cheap. In fact, I remember Mrs. Powell who was in the artist development, she said we were like diamonds in the rough and they were just there to polish us up. So glamour was something.
You know, the adults, you know, people like as I mentioned Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge, they were always glamorous, Josephine Baker. But to see teenaged girls like that in the ’60s was really kind of different. I think that’s what they noticed about us that was something. Okay, we could use that.
Tavis: I don’t want to show my age or demonize anybody who’s out on the scene today, but it’s a dramatic shift between the way – not just women – but all of our stars and artists used to come onstage and the way so many artists come onstage today. It’s like the artists had a respect for the audience and they were gonna give you their best in terms of how they sounded, in terms of how they looked.
I go see these Negroes now, they change clothes 12 times in a show and can’t sing a lick, but they’re changing clothes all the time. I ain’t mad at you for changing clothes, but if you’re changing clothes and you can’t sing, I didn’t come for a fashion show.
Wilson: Yeah, right. But now, you know, back in those days, it was the doo-wop groups, you know. Harmony was the thing, so the more you could harmonize, I mean, that was really it. And as I mentioned, Mrs. Powell at Motown Records, Cholly Atkins, Maurice King, they were all there and they showed us how to – I mean, they were in vaudeville, you know, these people, so they gave us all of their knowledge.
So we knew how to perform onstage. We knew how to walk onstage. We knew how to dress and the singing was very important. We were into the singing, not to so much the money because then there was hardly any money at all. But we were in it for the…
Tavis: Speaking of money, Berry Gordy turned you all down the first time.
Tavis: And when you did get a record deal, the first record produced zero hits.
Wilson: Well, we had about seven hits.
Tavis: Not that first record, you didn’t [laugh].
Wilson: We had about seven and we were called flops. We were called the No-Hit Supremes.
Wilson: You know, we were, but finally after seven records, we had that first number one record which was “Where Did Our Love Go” That was produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland.
Tavis: Oh, Lord, yes.
Wilson: And then they produced all the other 10 number ones, plus we had a couple more which I think totaled 12. But, yeah, Holland-Dozier-Holland. You know, I remember when Berry said, “I’m gonna put you with my top writing team, Holland-Dozier-Holland.” We were like, yes! We were going, oh, wow!
You know, they came up with the right sound for us because those first seven were great. In fact, my very dear friend, Smoky Robinson, produced a lot of them, as did Berry Gordy. Speaking of Berry Gordy, he has a new play that’s gonna be on Broadway.
Tavis: He told me about it, yeah.
Wilson: I cannot wait to see it. I’m very happy.
Tavis: I’m anxious to see it myself, yeah.
Wilson: I know that he worked very hard on that, so I’m very happy about that. But Motown really got behind us and gave us what we needed. You know, they trained us which a lot of times the people today, they’re making all this money, more money than we ever made, but they don’t have that training beforehand, you know, as we did. We did a lot of workshop. So when we had that first number one record, we were already professionals.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that. When the first hit finally came seven records in…
Wilson: Yeah, right, No-Hit Supremes. Look who’s laughing now [laugh]. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, you did [laugh], and I ain’t mad at you. When the first hit came seven records in, y’all were ready for it.
Tavis: But it also says something about Motown.
Wilson: Oh, yes.
Tavis: Because you go out today and try to get a record deal and do seven records and don’t produce a hit…
Wilson: Right, you’re out of there.
Tavis: The same things in television. If you’re not hitting in the ratings the first couple of weeks, then…
Wilson: Sure. You know what? As you know – I’m trying to pull this – I’ve written several books. This is not the first one, but this is the second one, but it was a best-seller. I’m just very happy that I did write a lot about that because Motown really gave us everything. They really did.
You know, I’m able 50-some years later to have a life, a real life, but it was them that I give the credit to in terms of training us and giving us that time to develop. So it’s really a good thing.
Tavis: When you heard the stuff that HDH, Smoky – when you heard the stuff they were writing for you all, Mr. Gordy, the chairman, put you on with these best songwriters, did you immediately know or have a sense that now we’re singing the right stuff for us? Did you know that?
Tavis: You still didn’t know?
Wilson: No. And I say this all the time. I hated that first hit record, “Where Did Our Love Go?,” because we sang a lot of harmonies when we were four girls and we really prided ourselves on being very talented. So when we were given this record by Holland-Dozier-Holland, we didn’t like it because Florence and I were only singing “Baby, baby, ooo, baby, baby.”
That’s not doing what we really wanted to do as a group, but it gave us our start and it put us on the map, so to speak. So, I mean, you don’t always like what you have to do a lot of times and it became the formula for the Supremes, which was fine. You know, after we said, okay, we’re a hit now, it was okay.
Tavis: How did the group last as long as it did? I say as long as it did because the most difficult thing to do is to have a group stay together forever.
Wilson: Yeah, especially girls. It’s very difficult.
Tavis: I’m glad you said that [laugh].
Wilson: No, it’s true.
Tavis: I was thinking it, but I wasn’t gonna say it.
Wilson: It’s true because, if you watch the sports, the guys in sports, you know, they can fight and do all these things and come back and they’re just really cool. Girls, women, we’re a little different. It’s kind of hard. But I think that we totally enjoyed doing what we were doing. I know I did. I mean, I was in heaven. I’m still in heaven. Every time I’m on stage, I am in heaven and I know Diana loves it and I know Florence loved it.
But, you know, a lot of times the business kind of gets in there and that really – you talk to any girl group. Some of my friends like The Ronettes and the Pointer Sisters, we talk about this, you know. It’s very difficult for girls to stay together, but we did stay together a long time. Motown was one of the reasons, and we enjoyed it. I mean, we were traveling all over the world.
Mrs. Powell used to say to us, “One day you’ll be singing before kings and queens” and we’re laughing because we’re in the projects, right? Kings and queens? Mr. Huckaby down the street who was really gay, right [laugh]? So that was the only kings and queens we knew [laugh]. No, it’s true.
So we had no idea that that would come true and it did. When we had that first record, “Where Did Our Love Go?,” we were in Sweden with the future king of Sweden. You know, we hung out all kind of people who were kings and queens [laugh], and we were.
Tavis: So you hated that first hit.
Wilson: I hated it.
Tavis: Which raises the obvious question to my mind at least.
Wilson: Hated it [laugh].
Tavis: Yeah, I love it. “Living Color,” hated it. So you hated that first single, so it raises the question in my mind at least which one, then, did you just absolutely adore? I mean, I know you love all. You had a lot of good stuff.
Wilson: You know, I have to say that, you know, because Diana sang all the leads and everything, I never really got into the lyrics as much. Now that I’m singing them, I realize some of those songs that were released in the ’60s are so relevant today, you know. And my being, what, 68 and a half – well, more than a half, but anyway in March, I’ll be 69.
So, you know, singing all those songs now, I realize how wonderful the lyrics are, songs like “Reflections,” “You Can’t Hurry Love.” All these things I look back on as like, wow, these are heavy songs. So it’s like having children. I have eight grandchildren, right?
Wilson: You can’t say which one you like best [laugh]. But I think “Reflections” probably would be one of my most favorites. Of course, in the ’70s when Jean Terrell joined, we had great songs like “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” “Stoned Love,” those were really wonderful. So it was hard to say which one.
Tavis: When Diana Ross left the group, what made you continue? Because you took this thing all the way up to 1977?
Wilson: Yes, yes.
Tavis: And Diana left when? What year?
Wilson: In ’70.
Wilson: Right, and Florence was no longer there in ’68.
Tavis: Exactly. You were another seven years after Diana.
Wilson: What happened was, you know, I always say this. We three girls were in the Brewster projects. Three Black girls dared to dream and we made our dreams come true even though we were in an environment where it was really an impossible dream, you know, for Black people to dare to dream.
So I think what happened to me after Flo was no longer there, I realized that I totally enjoyed doing what I was doing and wanted to do it for the rest of my life, but I was singing all the oohs and aahs and baby, baby, baby. How am I ever gonna do this?
I was happy when Berry brought in Jean Terrell because then I said, okay, we can go look for the end and I can develop myself. So I stayed because I loved being onstage. I just feel so blessed, you know, that I’m doing something that every morning I wake up, I’m like hey! You know, I’m happy, I’m a happy person, right?
Tavis: [Laugh] Right.
Wilson: So I think that’s why I continued on hoping that I could develop my talent enough where people would really like me. Now, to answer your question, let me see this. We’ll talk about this.
Tavis: I want to talk about this. Let’s talk about it, yeah.
Wilson: Okay. But now I’m doing things that I really love. I sing Supremes songs, but that’s not what I do best. You know, I’m happy that Diana did those leads because we had the hits and those are great and that’s what I’m still going on, right?
But I have learned how to sing jazz and I say learn how to sing because this really is what I do best, ballads. I do ballads. I can do some “No complaints, no regrets, I still believe in chasing dreams and placing bets.” Anyway [laugh]…
Tavis: Oh, keep on, yes [laugh].
Wilson: But what I’m saying is that, after all that learning how to sing Supremes songs and this and that, I found my own niche as Mary Wilson and it’s basically singing ballads. So I’ve produced this album and a jazz show, so I can now do jazz all over the world.
Tavis: You’re doing pop and…
Wilson: I have several…
Tavis: R&B all those years and then you end up in a jazz lane.
Wilson: Yes, because that’s what I do. It took me a long time to find out. Because I was online the other day and people talk about me like a dog, let me tell you. They were saying, “Mary can’t sing, Mary can’t do this,” but I have found now what I know I can do.
I’m not like my favorite singers like Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight. I mean, I love them. I don’t have that kind of talent and I finally understood that, you know, you have to use what you have in life and what you’re given, you know. And I’m given a great ballad voice, so that’s what I do.
And I’m also now, I was so lucky meeting up with this guy who wrote the book on Lena Horne, “Stormy Weather.” So he put together this stage play and I’m a part of that. So now I sing all of Lena Horne’s songs and I’m just having a ball because it’s just what I do well, I think.
Tavis: You mentioned a moment ago being online and people can say some nasty and cruel things.
Wilson: Oh, honey, they are real bad [laugh]. It could make you cry [laugh].
Tavis: That’s why I don’t read it [laugh].
Wilson: Not a good thing.
Tavis: I decided to even go to stop reading comics. I mean, read the piece. I do not read the comics, if I read the piece. I very seldom do that because it can mess you up.
Wilson: Yeah, makes you feel real bad.
Tavis: All opinions are not created equal. They’re not all equal.
Tavis: But since you went there, it’s one thing to navigate that now. How did you navigate that back in the day when all the attention was on Diana and you were doing “ooh, baby, baby?”
Wilson: I thought all the attention was on me. I did. Sure, I did. I mean, I wasn’t up there – see, I loved all of us and it makes me feel somewhat very bad when people try to divide us in that way. I thought we were all cute, you know. I thought we were all just all of that.
Tavis: You were.
Wilson: You know what I mean? So I never really about what people were thinking about us. It didn’t matter to me because I was doing what I wanted to do and still am. You know what I mean? So I wasn’t looking at that. And I always said that – you know, I was in the middle a lot of times.
I always said that when they move me out of the middle, my spotlight went with me. Wherever I went, my spotlight was always on me, you know, and not in an egotistical way. But I always just felt so blessed that I happy doing what I was doing.
Tavis: Tell me about this publication that you took out of my hands. Can I have this back, please?
Wilson: Yes, you can.
Tavis: Yes. Tell me about this.
Wilson: This actually is the brainchild…
Tavis: Great photos in here.
Wilson: It’s a brainchild of Mr. Mark Bego. He and I write together a lot. In fact, he had a book on Michael Jackson and I wrote the forward to it. In my two books, he also helped me write my book. But he’s just a wonderful author.
So anyway, he came up with this idea with Hudson News and a gentleman named Mr. Sato. They decided to afford to meet the Supremes’ 50th anniversary, that they would be their first sort of publication. So Mark says, “Would you like to be a part of it?” I’m “Yeah!” It answers a lot of questions that a lot of fans think they know. You know, they’re all critics. They know everything.
So this kind of covers the whole Supremes era. It shows, you know, all the – was it eight girls in the Supremes? There was three, then there was – so anyway, it shows all of that and lots of wonderful pictures that Mark Bego came up with.
Tavis: I love the photos, man. The photos are…
Wilson: And there’s so much information in there that I think is really wonderful. You see, this one here is when we endorsed Coca-Cola. We were one of the first pop groups to endorse Coca-Cola.
Tavis: Wow. I don’t know if you can get that. Can you see that, Dave? I don’t know if you can get that.
Wilson: And we had a lot of firsts, you know. The Coca-Cola, and then we did the first TV specials with The Temptations. So we had a lot of firsts and Mark was saying, you know, if we could try to put all of this in for the 50th anniversary, I mean, this is something that’s special.
Tavis: You mentioned a moment ago, Mary, the truth that people can read in this particular publication versus all the lies and rumors that spread.
Wilson: Well, this is not a lie.
Tavis: I’m not saying your stuff is a lie.
Wilson: Oh, okay.
Tavis: I’m about to ask…
Wilson: Well, some people did [laugh]. It’s okay.
Tavis: Are there particular rumors even after 50 years, things that are said 50 years later that still irk you?
Wilson: Well, yeah, because we were friends and we are friends. Diana and I are friends, but, you know, we’ve gone separate ways and people still want to believe that we hate each other and that’s one that I would like to say that is not true. You know, we absolutely love each other, but we have different desires, different goals and I think that that’s what we’re doing.
We’re living our lives the way we want to live them as opposed to – we started singing when we were 13 years old. So we didn’t have a chance to really grow up as our own selves in our own skins. We were always connected here. So, you know, life is very strange. Sometimes it takes a long time to find out who you are and you need to do that alone.
So that’s kind of what I think our relationship is all about. It’s like finding out who we really are, not as a Supreme, but who we are as human beings. I know I’ve had that opportunity. I’m really thrilled about it. You know, we’re not friends the way we were then, but we were friends then. I got to say that.
Tavis: We talked earlier about your solo work, which I have one of them in my hand here up close. How much traveling, how much performing, do you still do these days?
Wilson: Oh, I’m out there all the time. I got to, honey [laugh]. But I just off a tour with Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones in England, all over the world actually. That was really cool because I was like in a rock and roll band with his group. And then I just finished a movie in Detroit. I found out that you and I were born in Mississippi.
Tavis: We were.
Wilson: I was born in Mississippi too. You were in Gulfport. I was in Greenville.
Tavis: You did a little research, I see.
Wilson: Oh, sure. I mean, I am the keeper of the Supremes thing, so I have to do a lot of research. But let me tell you a couple of other things. Do I have enough time?
Tavis: Yeah, go ahead [laugh].
Wilson: So, what I’m doing now. We’ve talked about all that other stuff.
Tavis: I’m just background. You go ahead [laugh]. You the lead. I’m just doing “baby, baby, ooh, baby, baby.”
Wilson: See, it’s important.
Tavis: Background’s important and my background sang. Go ahead.
Wilson: That’s right.
Tavis: Go ahead, yeah.
Wilson: So anyway, I am now the spokesperson for it’s an NGO company called Humpty Dumpty Institute and they go around the world finding unexploded bombs and exploding them. So they’ve asked me to become, you know, spokesperson and I actually exploded a bomb.
Tavis: Oh, you did. Those things kill people. They kill way too many people.
Wilson: I mean, they’re still there. These things are laying around the farmlands and children are – I actually went to a commune where the entire community was with families who had been maimed, no legs, children with no arms and this and that. So this is one of my favorite kind of charities that I do because it’s so much bigger than me, you know what I mean?
I got all the awards on the walls and this and that, but then you want to like really feel that you’ve done something and this is one of those areas that I have. My other charity that I like is out of New York and it’s the Figure Skaters in Harlem. They’re young children who are taught how to ice skate, not just roller skate, ice skate.
It’s one of my favorites because it’s nice to give to children. When we were growing up in the projects, we didn’t have a lot going on. So those of us who have done so much, you know, we need to bring attention to those kind of things, so I’m very proud about that.
Tavis: So you do stay busy.
Wilson: Oh, I stay busy, yes [laugh].
Tavis: You stay quite busy. Anything that I’ve missed [laugh]?
Wilson: I don’t know. I’m trying to think. Mike, did I miss anything? Can you play back?
Tavis: I think you…[laugh].
Wilson: Okay, I got the gowns, okay.
Tavis: Okay, you got the exhibit in, the solo stuff in…
Wilson: And this new magazine.
Tavis: The magazine out, the book out.
Wilson: It’s out there. I was like traveling here, flying here…
Tavis: It’s on the newsstand.
Wilson: It’s in the airport! Hudson News is everywhere, honey.
Tavis: Hudson is huge. You can’t beat it.
Wilson: Oh, yes, indeed, so we thank you.
Tavis: I am honored to have you here. I cannot believe…
Wilson: Oh, my new record! No, no, no, my new record. It’s called “Life’s Been Good to Me.”
Tavis: That’s the jazz thing.
Wilson: No, that’s just the rock and roll, cool. That’s why I wore my pants.
Tavis: Oh, the new one is the rock and roll project.
Tavis: “Life’s Been Good To Me.”
Wilson: Yeah, it’s really good too.
Tavis: It has been good for you.
Wilson: It’s the best thing that I’ve done really on my own.
Tavis: On your own, yeah.
Wilson: That’s also good too, but it’s not commercial. I mean, my jazz. It’s not really commercial, but it’s just what I enjoy doing. And the magazine is like the newest thing.
Tavis: Life has been good to you and you been good to us.
Wilson: Yeah, I’ve enjoyed it.
Tavis: I mean, there is no way to calculate all the joy and the love that the Supremes have brought to our lives.
Wilson: If I had to go back and come back again, I’d like to come back as Mary Wilson of the Supremes with a little more money, though [laugh].
Tavis: You did it right the first time. If you don’t get back this way again, you made it work the first time.
Wilson: It’s all right, it’s all right.
Wilson: Thank you.
Tavis: Good to have you here.
Wilson: Thank you very much.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for tuning in. Until next time from Los Angeles…
Wilson: “Stop in the Name of Love.”
Tavis: Stop in the name of love, and keep the faith [laugh].
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