As if on cue, Mary Wilson entered the room dressed in black workout clothes, vaguely apologizing for keeping us waiting, “I just got out of my yoga class. My life is like a revolving door, I do so much traveling these days, sometimes I don’t know if I’m coming or going.”
I thought to myself, “This yoga thing must work — at age 66, she’s in fantastic shape and looks gorgeous.”
Mary sat with her legs tucked up on the opposite sofa, cuddling her Yorkshire terrier puppy, eating watermelon and chatting animatedly about the Golden Jubilee year of the world’s biggest girl band, The Supremes.
“With Florence, we founded The Primettes, which complemented Detroit’s boy band, the Primes. (Later the Temptations). Then I introduced Diane Ross, my new best friend at school, to join us. That was the beginning. I was the group’s secretary, and in the summer of 1960 arranged our first gig a talent contest in Windsor, Canada. We drove through the tunnel under the Detroit River and in minutes had made our first trip abroad. We won the competition and the prize of $15. On the return journey, as we approached the U.S. Immigrations, we saw a sign, “BLACKS ONLY LANE.”
We really embraced The Beatles when they first came to America in February 1964, and the Brits reciprocated when we toured England in March 1965. What a great experience. There was no segregation. That took a lot of getting used to. We could stay in the same hotels, eat at the same cafés, sit on the same bus or train and go to the same cinema as whites. But the British had a class thing, which to me was another form of segregation.”
Lauren launched into a story. “There was a tornado warning, and I gathered up all my most prized possessions which consisted of my Supremes scrapbook and records. The whole family trooped down to the basement where we listened to a transistor radio waiting for the all clear. I was terrified the house would blow away above our heads, but then the DJ said, ‘Here’s the latest hit from The Supremes, You Can’t Hurry Love’ and a 10-year-old’s fear just vanished. I was so excited to hear your newest song”
Mary didn’t respond, just picked up the conversation where she’d been interrupted.
“That was the first U.K. Tamla-Motown tour. The Supremes were top of the bill with Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles, Earl Van Dyke Six and Georgie Fame and the Blueflames.”
I said, “I covered that tour when it reached my part of England. I remember what a character your tour manager was. He wouldn’t allow any press pictures the night of the show.”
Mary recalled, “Oh, you mean Dick Scott, with his fancy suits and fedoras, a giant of a man at 6 feet 5, he kept us all in order. He had to — there were so many musicians on that tour bus, it was full to bursting and so easy to lose someone”
I recounted, “The morning after your April 2nd concert at The Globe Theatre in Stockton-on-Tees, I went to your hotel, The Billingham Arms, to try and set up a group picture on the steps before the tour bus left for your next stop at Newcastle, City Hall. I was greeted with utter chaos.
Dick Scott was talking to the town’s only policeman, who was busy taking notes, “Well, sir, can yer describe the gentleman who’s gone missing?” “Yeah, he’s black, age 15, 4 feet 11, weighs about 95 pounds, wearing dark glasses, a yellow jacket, black shirt and pants, white shoes and a cap.”
The Bobby standing astride his bicycle said, “Don’t yer worry, nobody else fits that description in this town. I’ll soon find him, sir.”
With that he pedaled off in search of little Stevie Wonder. As the clock ticked to the noon hour of departure, the troupe started boarding the tour bus — all a bit of a melée with everyone shouting, “Where’s Stevie?” Obviously, Dick Scott had no time for the local press, and I never got my group picture. At the stroke of noon, Stevie Wonder arrived on the scene carrying a large brown bag.
Embracing Stevie with delight, Dick Scott squashed the contents of the brown bag, and fruit ran all down the front of Stevie Wonder.
Mary quipped, “Incidentally, we have just done a tour of New Zealand and Australia with the same lineup as the ’65 tour, except for Georgie Fame. This tour had a slightly different title, “50th Anniversary Tour Of Motown.”
As Mary reflected on her life and career, I was amazed to find she has as many roles as hats, which hang on a stand in the corner of the hall.
As a diplomat, Mary was appointed Ambassador for Culture Connect by Colin Powell. As an activist, Mary continues Diana Princess Of Wales’ campaign against land mines with the Humpty Dumpty Institute. She works tirelessly for F.A.M.E (Friends Against Musical Exploitation.) She has an associate’s degree from NYU in Literary Arts and an honorary doctorate from Paine College. Mary has authored two best selling autobiographies, “Dreamgirl” and “Supreme Faith.” As a historian, Mary is curator of a traveling collection of Supremes gowns, Mary says.
“The older I get, the more I seem to be able to do,” she said. “I have just finished a two-month engagement in ‘Let The Good Times Roll!’ at the Plaza Theatre in Palm Springs. You have to be over 65 to appear in the chorus line. Some of the cast are in their late 80s. It’s an institution — sold out every night. I do these things to keep The Supremes’ music alive. I will continue to try and right a wrong in the history of pop music and put The Supremes back on top, where they belong. When Diane left the group, it was as if Motown and Berry Gordy just wanted the group to die, but I won’t let it.” (Mary always refers to Diana Ross by her given name, Diane)
“Do you know I don’t listen to music on the car radio anymore? I believe our hits were so good and so timeless, I sing them to myself while I’m driving. Even our star on Hollywood Boulevard was paid for by me and contributions from fans. Motown didn’t give one cent.”
The Supremes were the female equivalent of The Beatles, I reminded Mary.
With some heat she responded, “If we are The Beatles’ equivalent, why is their material still being repackaged commercially and ours is not? Paul and Ringo are still active and are invited to the Grammys to perform. The Supremes get nothing.”