The Supremes’ Mary Wilson

Travelgirl: This interview could last days and days! There’s so much to discuss and you’ve had such a prolific, glamorous and soul-satisfying career. Let’s start with all that you’ve written. I enjoyed your latest book, Supreme Glamour. Page after page of glamorous costumes make this book something to be read and re-read. How did you start writing?

Mary Wilson: I do have a new book out entitled Supreme Glamour and I’m very proud that Whoopi Goldberg consented to do the forward. What Whoopi wrote was so wonderful in terms of what was going on back in those days. She wrote about how she perceived the Supremes and it was a great honor to have her write the forward.

I’ve written three books, actually four, but my first two books were made into one book with additional updated chapters. I’m writing another book now but it may be a while before it comes out.

When I started out I wanted to be a singer. I woke up every morning singing. I thought everyone did that. In my freshman year my English teacher, a mentor to me, Mr. Boone said, “Miss Wilson, I heard you sing with this little group and I want to make sure I get you in my English class.” I ended up having Mr. Boone as a teacher every year while I was in high school. In my final year he said he knew I was still singing with a group (the Primettes) but he said if I was going to also travel with them I had better do well in his class. While in his class I wrote a paper about my early years and about being given, not adopted, to my aunt and uncle. I just assumed they were my mom and dad. I wrote the paper and when Mr. Boone received it he gave me an A ++++ and he told me I should consider becoming a writer. I remember saying to myself, “What the heck is this man talking about?” At that time all I wanted to do is go down to Motown. I graduated and I went to Motown, which at the time was so new and filled with wonderful people like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the Marvelettes. I started writing about what I saw at Motown because it was so exciting to me. I kept a diary and that’s how I became a writer. I enjoy writing and I think I do it quite well. I have a professional writer, Mark Bego, who writes with me, but mainly it’s me and my thoughts.

TG: The glamour, the style, the songs, the Supremes were the crème de la crème of Motown. When you first started out what did you envision as your future?

MW: I never thought about becoming famous in the ’50s. I was just having fun. When I started out with the Primettes it was just a hobby but we realized early on that this was what we wanted to do. We sang around Detroit as the Primettes and we just all had fun until we realized that people were making money from performing and from record sales. We were hearing the records on the radio and this became bigger than we ever dreamed about. It wasn’t until we got to Motown and got into the business side of it that we realized this could be something big. I made up my mind at the age of 13 that singing was what I wanted to do the rest of my life. Meeting Florence Ballard and Diane Earle (Diana Ross) led to that decision. We three matched so perfectly and Florence and Diane made me complete. I had always been singing but I never thought of myself as a singer. I remember my mother telling me that when I was born, I came out singing. Singing has always been part of my life.

TG: You started as the Primettes in 1959. Where did the name come from and please talk about the challenges you faced when you started out; you were so very young.

MW: It’s interesting where the name came from. Florence’s sister was dating a guy in a group called the Primes and he told Florence’s sister that he wanted to form a girl group as their opening act. She said, “My sister Florence can sing.” Florence brought me in; we had met in an eighth grade talent show. One of the other guys in the group knew Diane and invited her to sing with us and there was another girl at the time, Betty McGlown-Travis, who was with us for one year and that’s how we became named the Primettes. In those days gender was very important. The guys were called the Primes so the girls had to be Primettes.

TG: Your group met Berry Gordy Jr. at Motown. He was impressed but he told you to come back when you graduated high school. You persevered and camped outside his offices and finally got a break singing back up for some famous bands. Please tell me about that time in your life.

MW: We were very disappointed when Berry told us to come back but we were barely 16. I remember Florence saying, “Motown can’t be that great; they don’t know how good we are.” It just so happened that there was another writer (Richard Morrison) at Motown who heard us and took us to another recording company named Lu Pine Records. We recorded there with some other local groups from Detroit including Wilson Pickett. We recorded Pretty Baby there — and several other songs. We stayed at Lu Pine Records for a bit but decided we wanted to go back to Motown as we were hearing Motown’s records on the radio. Many great performers such as Smokey Robinson and the Miracles were there and we wanted to be where they were. We hung around outside hoping to be discovered again and accepted, and pretty soon some of the producers came out and said, “We need some hand clappers.” We immediately said we would do it and that’s how we got actually into Motown. We signed our first contract at Motown when we were 16.

TG: You had a number one record and you flew to England to promote it. You also performed at the legendary Apollo Theatre and then you headed to The Ed Sullivan Show. How did those appearances impact your career?

MW: We flew to England in 1964 to promote our first number one record, Where Did Our Love Go. We were thrilled to perform at the renowned Apollo Theatre and that was a great thing that we did. We were one of the first pop groups to perform there. That appearance opened up a whole new era for Black groups. After our first record became number one in the United States our second record was released and that’s when we appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. His show was the medium that really made us known nationally here in America.

For us, having the number one record in America was much more than just having a number one record. It made us know that three little Black girls from the Brewster Projects in Detroit, Michigan could actually help change the perception of people in the world, and especially in America. The Civil Rights Act was passed the same year we had our first number one record in 1964. This was much more for us than just selling records; we helped the Black community be known as moneymakers. Also, as women we made a statement because at that time it was a man’s world. We, being The Supremes, helped crack that glass ceiling back in the ’60s. That was what was very important. It wasn’t so much performing on The Ed Sullivan Show or all those different things we were doing; we, as The Supremes, were making history in terms of being Black women. You can even just say we were making history for women and that was something that was very, very important to us. These battles are going on today and I’m very happy that we, the Supremes, were making a statement for women back then.

We, three Black women, flew to England, Sweden, Germany; we were traveling all over the world. We’ve had amazing, talented Black women who have done great things: Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Ethel Waters, they were doing wonderful things in a big way, but at the time the ceiling really hadn’t been cracked.

Now, back to Ed Sullivan, part of our success was the fact that we were seen on television. The exposure on The Ed Sullivan Show brought in millions of viewers and that made a huge statement. Television in the ’60s was like computers and technology are today. Back then, television was the medium and because of the exposure we were seen by millions of people.

TG: What was it like to perform at the Copa (Copacabana)?

MW: The Copa only seated 200 or maybe a few more and there were lines around the block to get in to see us. It was amazing and very glamorous. Sammy Davis Jr. and Lena Horne and a host of other talented people had performed there but we were one of the first pop groups to sing at the Copa. Back then Black people weren’t even on the covers of magazines. We were doing all of these things. Black wasn’t beautiful yet but we were there making waves and making a statement.

TG: You were three female leading performers in a male dominated arena. What challenges did you face?

MW: We were young and very cute and actually we didn’t have many battles. Motown and Mr. Berry Gordy fought all of our battles for us. We just went out and sang and looked great. That’s why I love Motown; they were there for us. Motown was the place where many artists went to groom their talent and Motown was behind each one of us. We were lucky. I remember one of our mentors at Motown, Mrs. Maxine Powell, said to us, “You know you girls are diamonds in the rough and we are here to polish you.” What a wonderful thing to say to a little Black girl in the ’60s. Not a lot of people said that to Black people back then.

TG: By the late ’60s The Supremes was one of the most famous groups in the world.  You were on your way to becoming legends. You had marvelous voices and your costumes, wigs and panache led to worldwide adoration and fame. Tell us how your glamorous look evolved.

MW: Believe it or not we used to call our costumes uniforms and yes, they were very special. Back when we started we really weren’t into the glamour thing. We would shop at Woolworths; we bought our first string of pearls there for $5. When we went to Motown they noticed we had that extra something, like you said, panache. They saw something special about us.  We grew up looking at beautiful women, women such as Lena Horne and Josephine Baker. These were glamorous Black women. When rock and roll started that genre came with a different look but we kept the old look. We kept a glamorous image. LaVetta (LaVetta of Beverly Hills) was our first designer. When she showed us the first gown she had for us she told us her clothing was couture. We had no idea what couture was and that was our first introduction to high-end glamour.

In the early years Diane and I made some of our gowns. School was really great in Detroit and we were taught a variety of classes. The guys had shop and the girls had home economics. We were taught how to sew, how to cook and more. I even learned how to make mayonnaise!

TG: What was it like working with Berry Gordy Jr. and being part of Motown? 

MW: Berry Gordy saw something in us and he told everyone “These are the girls and we are going to put everything we have behind making them successful.” It wasn’t just Berry Gordy, it was a collaborative effort and Motown was the type of company where everyone contributed to what was going on. We were there with Marvin Gaye and we were at Stevie Wonder’s first audition when he was only nine years old. He was a genius; I didn’t know what a genius was but when I saw Stevie Wonder at that time I realized what being a genius meant. He was and still is a genius. I’m so happy that my English teacher, Mr. Boone, told me I should become a writer. Because of his advice I started keeping a diary and that’s why I can clearly remember all of this.

TG: You’re generous with your time and your talent and have supported numerous charities. Please talk about your involvement and what these charities mean to you. 

MW: I really feel that it’s important to do all we can to help children. Figure Skating in Harlem is a most worthwhile organization. It teaches young girls from ages five to 18 how to skate, but also how to become women. I’ve also been instrumental in Children, Inc. The people there do a wealth of things for children and they ask people like me to become sponsors which is what I did. Children, Inc. and those are my two favorite charities that I’ve been a part of for years. I try to do things that are important; the Urban League in St. Louis does a lot for homeless people and I’m also proud to be part of that organization.

TG: You traveled the world with The Supremes and then, on behalf of our country, as an appointed cultural ambassador. What is most memorable about those years?

MW: We, The Supremes, helped open up the world traveling and performing. We think about the Beatles coming here, but we went to England and did a command performance for the Royal Family and back then that was a major endeavor. Right now everyone knows the Royal Family, but back in the ’60s that wasn’t the case. Our travels to different parts of the world had us hanging out with royalty.

Later on, Colin Powell, when he was Secretary of State, appointed me a Cultural Ambassador and in that role I traveled to places I had never been. Traveling affords you the opportunity to learn about different cultures; I went to Japan and toured and I was amazed seeing all these people in their colorful kimonos. Traveling was one of the most wonderful things we, the Supremes, did together.

TG: Is there a favorite destination on Mary Wilson’s travel bucket list?

MW: If I moved out of America, which I am not planning on doing, I would probably go to England. It was one of the first countries we visited as The Supremes and I have many friends there. The other place I absolutely adore is Japan. The people there are very gracious and I’ve always enjoyed visiting Japan. I also love Italy.

TG: Is there one item you always take with you when you hit the road?

MW: My makeup and my hairpieces; they are always with me in my carry-on bag.

TG: From court battles to books you’ve preserved the legacy of The Supremes. Thank you for sharing your stories with Travelgirl readers. Is there anything else you’d like them to know?

MW: I guess I am the only one who can preserve the legacy. I’m the only one who’s left to speak about The Supremes and keep our history alive. Diane is Diana Ross, and Florence passed away in 1976. I have sent in a request to get a US stamp in the name of Florence Ballard. Please ask your readers to send a letter to the U.S. Stamp Commemorative Committee in Washington, D.C.  [Editor’s note, the address is: Stamp Development, Attn: Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, 475 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Room 3300, Washington, DC 20260-3501] and tell them why you think one of The Supremes, Florence Ballard, should have a commemorative stamp.  She’s one of the three of us who helped crack that glass ceiling back in the ’60s when the Supremes began.

For more info on Mary Wilson: www.marywilson.com

Renee Werbin
Renee Werbin

Publisher and Co-Founder

Publisher, Co-Founder and CEO of SRI Travel

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