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Mary Wilson shares ‘Reflections’ of The Supremes’ 50th

Mary Wilson talks from her house near Las Vegas about everything from The Supremes to celebrity charity events.
A PAINTING OF THE SUPREMES is visible in the reflection in this photo of Mary Wilson, who was the only constant member of the group. Photo by Ian Wright

A PAINTING OF THE SUPREMES is visible in the reflection in this photo of Mary Wilson, who was the only constant member of the group. Photo by Ian Wright

By Ian Wright and Lauren Wright

2010 marks my 50th anniversary photographing and interviewing virtually every major celebrity, political figure and royal in the world. Over the span of years, I’ve learnt many lessons about the right way to deal with the rich and famous. First and foremost — “Never be in awe of them.” For some inexplicable reason, celebrities are far more comfortable if you treat them like an ordinary person. Give them the slightest sense that you’re in awe and you will completely lose control of the interview or photo shoot. My first experience with a diva was when I was only 16, photographing Ella Fitzgerald. After cooling my heels backstage for what seemed an eternity, I was finally ushered into the presence. Miss Fitzgerald, snapped imperiously. “You have one minute to take one picture.” I felt like an annoying mosquito buzzing about her person. I reminded my wife, Lauren, of this as we drove to interview Mary Wilson about her latest CD and the 50th anniversary of The Supremes. You see, Lauren grew up in Detroit in the 1960s, idolizing

The Supremes and Miss Wilson in particular. Of all the countless famous people we’ve encountered, Lauren has retained her equanimity and remained nonplussed, always maintaining she stands in awe of only three people: The Queen, Barbra Streisand and Mary Wilson.

With this fact in mind, it was with some trepidation that I rang the doorbell of Mary Wilson’s large but elegantly understated house overlooking a private golf course near Las Vegas.

Lauren sniffed, “This is a far cry from the Brewster Projects where Mary grew up in Detroit, but I was expecting something more spectacular.”

I asked, “Were you expecting sequined walls?”

We were ushered through an entry hall where stacks of matching suitcases stood against a wall sagging under the weight of framed gold records. I wondered if Miss Wilson had just returned from a trip or is just about to leave. Past a staircase curving into the upper distance, we were seated in the comfortable dark walled living room where we waited for an hour — ample time to take in the enormous ethereal painting of The Supremes over the mantelpiece, another large unframed canvas of Diana Ross propped against the black lacquered grand piano, a vast gilt framed mirror and more suitcases. Lauren had a sort of Alice-through-the-looking-glass look in her eyes, much the same as worshipers I’d once photographed at a shrine in India — I began to worry!

Mary Wilson's Supremes painting

Mary Wilson's Supremes painting

Also, I was getting a bit miffed at being kept waiting, remembering the last time a subject kept me waiting so long; Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzeziński, said his official portraits made him look like the commandant at a concentration camp so the White House invited me to take Brzezinski’s portrait for the Sunday Times of London. Brzezinski, arrived an hour late,

“Oh, f**k, I hope this isn’t going to take too long, I’ve got a speech to make on Capitol Hill in ten minutes.” he barked.

During that period, The Sunday Times was considered the best newspaper in the world, and even the Queen never kept the Times waiting. I bristled, “Do you realize I have just flown from London at your invitation?”

Knowing it was impossible to take a decent portrait of a man like Brzezinski in 10 minutes, I told my lighting crew, “Right, lads, break down all the lights — pack everything in the boxes, I think Mr. Brzezinski is going to be 10 minutes early for his speech.” I admit to being just that little bit worried when returning to the Time’s New York office without the pictures of Brzezinski, but bureau chief Bob Ducas — ever a gentleman, said, “You did quite right. Who do these buggers think they are?”

FOREVER ELEGANT, The Supremes were known being fashion-forward artists. The Story of The Supremes from The Mary Wilson Gown Collection is an exhibit that shares the group’s history via its evolution in fashion and music. Publicity photo.

FOREVER ELEGANT, The Supremes were known being fashion-forward artists. The Story of The Supremes from The Mary Wilson Gown Collection is an exhibit that shares the group’s history via its evolution in fashion and music. Publicity photo.

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.”

Tamla Motown handbill

Tamla Motown handbill

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.”

FROM SEQUINS TO STRIPES, stylish stage wear was the calling card of The Supremes. Publicity photo

FROM SEQUINS TO STRIPES, stylish stage wear was the calling card of The Supremes. Publicity photo

Mary brightened when I asked about her new biographical CD, “Clarity,” on which she collaborated with Brian and Eddie Holland, Angelo Bonv, Casandra Jordon and Paul Hill, which is scheduled for release on the H-D-H label in mid-August.

“Well, its taken producer Richard Davis over three years to produce it on his Motor City Works Company,” she said. “One of the reasons it took so long was my reticence to give up my private journals, which I’ve been writing every day since 1960. Eventually, Eddie and Brian Holland persuaded me. It was the only way we could compose the songs. We recorded much of the CD in our spiritual home of Detroit and mixed it in L.A. studios”

I asked Mary for a preview for the songs for our readers.

“Johnny Mae”
“My mom’s name; It’s about the hardships of growing up in the Mississippi Delta and breaking free to find a better life, moving to St. Louis and Chicago, then Detroit.”

“Home Girls”
It’s about the friendship we had in the group. I pray every day for a miracle that someday Diane and I will be together again.”

“Why Can’t We Get Along”
“The beginning of the breakup and Diane hogging the limelight, always stage front while Florence, and then Cindy and myself, were relegated to the back, just harmonizing. Diane would watch the TV monitor above her head so she could see our positions then move in place for the finale to throw her hands and arms up, deliberately covering our faces.”

Other titles include “Life’s Been Good To Me”, “Quest” and “The Need To Know.”

The afternoon wore on until it became time to do the photographs. Lauren and I set up the lights while Mary changed clothes — returning in a black and white casual ensemble. Expecting Mary to be dressed in a Supremes gown, I was appalled to hear Lauren regaling Mary with her recollection of the time she’d gone to a Supremes dinner show and given her childhood scrapbook of Supremes cuttings to the maitre d’ who took it backstage. Consequently, Mary had invited Lauren backstage, and meeting The Supremes was obviously one of Lauren’s most cherished memories — equally obviously one of Mary’s most forgettable!

Whilst this unsettling scene unfolded, I posed Mary on the piano bench looking into that vast mirror reflecting the Supremes painting across the room. My fears about showing awe for the subject were not unfounded. I asked Mary to turn her left shoulder and tilt her chin down slightly. “Close your eyes and on three — just open your eyes, and look straight at the lens,” I said.

Mary snapped, “I’ll do the maneuvers. You just snap away.”

I reminded the star, “Mary, this isn’t crash, bang, wallop, digital — this is film. I know what I’m composing through the lens, and if you want to look your best — well!” But the tense moment was evanescent. Mary apologized, and the shoot went on with no further ructions.

As we were saying goodbyes, Mary said wistfully, “The Beatles had Lennon and McCartney. We had Holland and Dozier. My Lord, you can’t get any better than that.”

A few days later, during a telephone interview with Eddie Holland who co-wrote 10 of The Supremes’ No. 1 hits, he said, “It was a real privilege for us to collaborate with Mary again after so long. After seeing her journals, I think there’s at least another two or three books she could write — if she can ever find the time.”

The Holland Brothers. Courtesy of Ian Wright

The Holland Brothers. Courtesy of Ian Wright

Mary Wilson can and will do anything she sets her mind to. She remains a diva of the first order, and deservedly so. Spending time in her presence is much the same as being with one of The Beatles or the Queen, The Princess of Wales, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Sophia Loren, or anyone who has achieved monumental worldwide fame. There’s a certain indefinable quality these people radiate. They are all polite and accommodating — yet remain aloof and self centered. If the conversation veers from themselves for a second, they are masters at maneuvering it right back. There’s never any small talk or inquiries about your own interests, health or life. It’s futile to try humor to lighten the atmosphere, for they are curiously lacking it.

They know you are a professional there to do a job, and that job is to promote their image. They remain focused on that one most important thing in their universe — their career. After all, one must be completely self focused to achieve immense success and obey the rules of a diva, “Love yourself over and above all others, and look fabulous whilst doing so.”

Read more about Mary on her Web site: