Like the Play, Mary Wilson's Memoir Suggests That Being a Supreme Was No Dream, Girls
For Mary Wilson, one of the original Supremes, taping the Motown Records' 25th-anniversary special that airs this week on NBC brought back what was best and worst about the group's glory days. On the positive side, the show reunited Wilson and fellow Supremes Diana Ross and Cindy Birdsong for the first time in 13 years to sing their signature ballad, Someday We'll Be Together. Less delightfully for Wilson, Ross departed from the script to cut short their rendition after just one verse and invited the rest of the Motown gang to join them onstage. "I felt very upset that she didn't give the same importance to the Supremes that I did," says Wilson. Moments later Ross raised more eyebrows when she visibly shoved Wilson aside while introducing Motown Godfather Berry Gordy. "People took it as a personal thing, which it wasn't," says Wilson of the faux pas. "But it was very unprofessional."
Wilson, now 39, may have lost the spotlight to Ross again, but she hopes to emerge from the shadows with a memoir due next year, to be called Reflections: My Life As a Supreme. The former backup singer, who these days leads a new Supremes trio that has done well in Europe and the U.S., kept diaries from the early days until the group's breakup in 1976. She promises a tell-all. "It's my viewpoint; it's what I saw, what I lived," says Wilson.
The success of Dreamgirls—the Broadway musical apparently drawn from the Supremes saga—strengthened Wilson's resolve to write her book. She saw the stage production twice and cried both times. She dismissed most of it as generic rags-to-gladrags puffery but was struck by similarities of the character Effie to Supreme original Florence Ballard. Effie is the "ugly duckling" lead singer with an extraordinary voice who is maneuvered out of the limelight by a svelte, ambitious beauty. Ballard left the Supremes in 1967 (Birdsong replaced her) and after years of poverty died of a heart attack in Detroit in 1976. Wilson is shrewdly saving the intimate details of Ballard's fall from grace for her book, but she admits, "It was a heavy situation and possibly one of the most devastating things that happened to me and Diana."
Another prominent figure in Wilson's account will be Motown founder Gordy. As the Svengali who signed the trio in 1962 and supplied the best tunes and prestige concert bookings, Berry is assumed to have been behind renaming the group Diana Ross and the Supremes in 1967. Ross, who was Gordy's longtime lady, went solo three years later.
Even though Wilson left the Motown roster in 1979, she prefers to look on the sunny side of her experience. "I get very upset when people think it was all ugly," she bristles. "It wasn't. I was happy to be a part of it." She loved the sequins, bouffant hairdos and attention, but says of Berry's single-minded elevation of Ross, "I think I would have been a bit more sensitive to the needs of others."
Wilson's book is part of her one-woman campaign to be recognized as more than the girl who sang the best "oooohs" in the business. After the group broke up, she and two new recruits toured sporadically as "The Supremes with Mary Wilson." That led to an "expensive legal battle" with Motown. She finally won co-ownership of the name with Gordy in an out-of-court settlement.
Like Ross, Mary Wilson grew up poor in Detroit's Brewster Housing Project. One of her earliest performing memories is of an elementary school talent show where she sang a sassy version of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers' I'm Not a Juvenile Delinquent. She made good on that claim when her group had a No. 1 hit in 1964 with Where Did Our Love Go, when she was only 20.
Recently divorced after her nine-year marriage to former Supremes road manager Pedro Ferrer, Mary has custody of their children: Turkessa, 8, Pedro, 5, and Rafael, 4. She lives with them in her mother's modest ranch-style house in the Studio City area of Los Angeles; Grandma cares for the kids while Mary is working. That's pretty constant these days as she tries to stir up enough career momentum to snag a recording contract and break out of the "oldies" circuit. Says Wilson: "I'll be damned if I am going to end up like Flo."
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