Now that we’re 50 years removed from the 1960s, there’s enormous interest in all things Motown.
Of course the label’s popularity never really went away but a flurry of recent events, from Broadway’s “Motown: the Musical” to exhibits of the Supremes’ legendary stage gowns to deluxe reissues of many of the label’s classic albums, point to a Motown fever burning as hot as ever.
Supremes founding member Mary Wilson — the only singer to stay in the group for its entire run — is in the midst of a four-night engagement at Washington’s Blues Alley. She spoke with the Blade by phone this week from her home in Las Vegas on a wide spate of topics from her recent dance hit, her stint on “RuPaul’s Drag Race,” her oft-misunderstood relationship with Diana Ross and more.
WASHINGTON BLADE: Tell us a little of what you have planned for your Blues Alley engagement, please.
MARY WILSON: It’s a combination. Last time I was there I believe I did my straight sort-of jazz show, so this time I will probably do some of the American songbook and some Supremes songs as well because I know a lot of people would like to hear that. So it will be a combination of all of that. I love doing ballads, you know, love songs. Also it’s Valentine’s week, so I have to honor that because I believe in love.
BLADE: Is it taxing to do two shows each night?
WILSON: I don’t normally do two shows so yeah, it really is. It’s a little harder now that I’m 72, almost 73. I’ll be 73 in March so it can be a little taxing because I’m used to doing one. But I love being on stage. I don’t have a problem performing it’s just, you know, the traveling and all that other stuff that makes it a little more difficult.
BLADE: On average, how much of the year do you spend on the road?
WILSON: I usually do about three to four gigs a month.
BLADE: It must have been gratifying to have a dance hit a little over a year ago when “Time to Move On” hit no. 23 on the Billboard dance chart.
WILSON: It was great. I mean, I didn’t even realize that was going to happen. We recorded that song years ago with a young man out of the Imagination group, Leee John. I think it was in 2002. Some beautiful people out in the San Francisco area, Sweet Feet Music, decided they wanted to release it. I was like, “Oh my God, OK.” So then we went in and did the video and they put it out and it charted. I was so surprised and elated that it charted. It was beautiful and wonderful.
BLADE: How did Sweet Feet even know about it?
WILSON: Well the Supremes fans are just everywhere. I don’t know. I think they knew Leee John. The Imagination may not have been as big here in the states, but they were big in the UK so they knew them.
BLADE: There was such a nice stash of Supremes album reissues and deluxe sets from Hip-O Select over several years but they seem to have suddenly stopped about two years ago. Do you know if any more are planned?
WILSON: I’m not sure. … I know Universal — I feel funny saying Universal instead of Motown — but I know they’re re-releasing our “Go-Go” album. I was just at Universal when I was in New York at the B.B. King club and I went and did some interviews there and they played me a lot of songs.
BLADE: The bonus disc for the “I Hear a Symphony” expanded edition in 2012 had an entire 1966 Supremes concert recorded at the Roostertail in Detroit. Do you know how commonly Supremes concerts were recorded?
WILSON: I really don’t know. Things are showing up now that I didn’t even know had been recorded because this was before everyone had their cell phones and this and that.
BLADE: So you had the Supremes gowns in your possession all these years? It must have cost a fortune to store them all this time.
WILSON: This is true. Well yeah, I just had them in storage. I have a pretty large home here in Las Vegas so some I had in the basement but then it got to be too much so I had them in storage areas here. My daughter says I’m a hoarder but I say what I’m hoarding is worth a fortune. She never really understood it. … Some were in boxes. One of the famous ones I’m having restored. It was beaded on chiffon and just got so worn that the beads were falling off, so I’m having them repaired.
BLADE: Did you keep all the wigs too?
WILSON: Wigs not as much. They tend to get really old and then they’re no good. Pretty much everyone kept their own wigs throughout the years so I never really had a lot of those, but the gowns, yes. I do have everyone’s gowns except the ones that were stolen. … There was a lot of stuff stored at Motown where we originally stored them and when the building in Detroit was torn down, a lot of people just started taking stuff — pictures, masters, gowns. Some have landed elsewhere. There are a couple here in the Hard Rock Cafe casino in Vegas, so they’ve been all over the place. I don’t know how else they ended up here and there other than people just took them when the building was torn down. I even got a few of them back on eBay.
BLADE: There wasn’t as much Motown stuff in the National Museum of African-American History here in Washington as I would have thought. Were you ever in touch with its staff about having some Supremes items there?
WILSON: You know what, I’m a little disappointed because I offered them my gown exhibit to be displayed there and I never heard back from them. I made a presentation and everything. I guess they had so many things, so many artifacts, they couldn’t take everything so I understood, but I was disappointed. When I’m in D.C., I’m going to try and go see it. I’m very thrilled it’s there. I’m just not happy the Supremes gowns aren’t part of it.
BLADE: It seems insane to me that the Supremes never won a Grammy in the ‘60s. Was there some anti-Motown sentiment in the industry at the time or what?
WILSON: I really don’t know. It’s kind of hurtful when I hear of so many people having Grammys. We had 12 number one records but did not ever receive a Grammy. Three of our singles, much later, were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, but that was all done after the fact. So yeah, I’m a little pissed on it.
BLADE: There are some Supremes B-sides like “Going Down for the Third Time” that sound to me like they could have been hits. Or some minor hits like “Some Things You Never Get Used To” seem like they should have charted higher. Are there any Supremes tracks you think could have been hits but weren’t released as singles or had the potential to chart higher than they did?
WILSON: I’ve never been one to know much about what’s a hit and what’s not a hit. I do think some of the songs were really quite good but for them to have been hits, I don’t really know. There were certainly a lot I really liked.
BLADE: So many elaborate sculptures and paintings have been done of the Supremes over the years. Which are your favorites?
WILSON: I receive so many beautiful pieces of art that people have done on us. One person who’s passed now, his name was Ted LeMaster did quite a few lovely paintings. I think I have four of them and they’re just absolutely gorgeous. I’m working on a coffee table book of the Supremes gowns so I should include some of those as well. There’s another guy and, oh gee, I may have to get you his name later because it’s not coming to me off the top of my head, but he does these Supremes dolls and they are just beautiful. There are lots of artists out there and they send things to me all the time. I have them all over my place here.
BLADE: How did you enjoy being a guest judge on “RuPaul’s Drag Race”?
WILSON: It was great. He was just wonderful. You know, gorgeous. He’s a big Diana Ross fan so it was almost like seeing Diane in a way because he kind of does her thing. He looks great and all that stuff and it was loads of fun. I met so many wonderful, or I should say gorgeous, so many gorgeous people.
BLADE: The Frontier shows, the last with Miss Ross, that became the “Farewell” album in 1970 — was that set list pretty much the Supremes show in 1969 or was some of the stuff you did there, like the “Aquarius” medley with all the audience sing-alongs, was that maybe just worked up for that engagement knowing so many celebrities would be present?
WILSON: No, that was pretty much our normal show we toured with that year. Everything we did there, we’d pretty much been touring with, yes.
BLADE: Do you keep in touch often with (former Supremes) Cindy Birdsong and/or (Ross replacement) Jean Terrell?
WILSON: Yes. Last year we had the gown exhibit at the Grammy museum and I invited all the ladies there for that. Jean Terrell came, Scherrie Payne was there and Susaye Greene. I keep up with Cindy but I don’t see her as often as I want since she’s in L.A. and I’m in Vegas but I spend a lot of time in L.A. so I see her when I’m there.
BLADE: Is she well?
WILSON: I don’t want to get too much into her personal things. She’s a little older and she’s had some health issues.
BLADE: Do you ever hear from (founding Supreme) Florence Ballard’s three daughters? (Ballard left the group in 1967 and died in 1976.)
WILSON: Yes, whenever I’m in Detroit, they always come out and we talk on the phone a lot actually. So yeah, I do keep up — well, I should say they keep up with me, let’s put it that way.
BLADE: Did you enjoy “Motown: the Musical”?
WILSON: I loved it. I thought it was wonderful. Obviously it was Berry Gordy’s perception of what was going on and everybody, you know, there’ve been all these books, everybody has their own way of looking at it, but it’s all true. It’s just different perceptions from different people. The musical is more Berry’s perspective so he’s obviously looking from the top down. We were looking from down to up, but it’s just the way different people perceived it. But I absolutely loved it. In fact just a week or so ago it opened in L.A. and I flew out there and attended the opening. I was also at the London opening and, of course, the New York opening was also great.
BLADE: It looked like there was a lot of warmth between you and Berry and Diana at the opening. Would you say feelings have mellowed over the years?
WILSON: There always was. Some things that are brought out further tend to be the more negative things. Things that were really great are not broadcast as much so people tend to think there was a lot more dislike there but that’s just not true. We were all very, very close. There were always things going on like maybe you didn’t like this … that didn’t mean that the love was not there. It always was. But we were all different, we all had our own opinions so a lot of times when you speak out, people say, “Oh my God, they’re having a fight, they hate each other,” and that’s just not true. It’s just different likes and dislikes.
BLADE: I’ve read a lot of the books — your books, Randy Taraborrelli’s books. It always seems like a handful of incidents get told and retold. When you think of all the hours you and Florence and Diana obviously spent together rehearsing, traveling and recording, there had to have been more peace than tension or you’d never have gotten anything done.
WILSON: Well that’s what I’m saying. Some of the things that were brought out and broadcast as if they were major, major things, it’s just not true. People think there’s some big feud between Diane and I and there really is not. It’s just that she’s gone her way and I’ve done my thing so no, we’re not close, but that’s just because over the last 50-some years, our lives have gone in several different directions. I love her as much as I love Flo. People tend to think I love Flo more because they view it as we worked together more on the choreography, on the harmony. We were always together. And now Florence is not here to protect herself, so I don’t talk about her a lot because of that. But I don’t love Flo anymore than I love Diane. I love them both as much as I love my own sister.
BLADE: Did you see Mary Wells much in her later years? Do you think she regretted leaving Motown so early?
WILSON: I saw Mary up to the very end of her life. I actually worked with her trying to do whatever we could in terms of her cancer bout. I don’t know — I never talked to her about that so I really don’t know.
BLADE: It’s staggering to me the amount of material the Supremes recorded in the ‘60s. You must have been in the studio constantly.
WILSON: Well, we were also on the road a lot, too. But yes, what happened sometimes is we would fly into Detroit, record a few songs and then fly right out. So yes, we did record a lot of songs.
BLADE: Now that so many have been released on these expanded editions, I’m sure there are some you have no memory of, right?
WILSON: Not just songs. Sometimes I see pictures that I can’t remember and yet there I am in the picture. It’s just because there were so, so many. There really were.
BLADE: So much has been made of (Motown session singers) the Andantes singing with Diana on Supremes studio material the last few years she was in the group. But you and Cindy obviously still had to learn the parts for TV and concerts. If that was seen as some sort of time-saving device, what was the rationale?
WILSON: There was a lot going on then. Diane was already starting to record songs for her departure, so a lot of times, it was for that reason. But then they’d decide to use some of the recordings on Supremes albums even though we hadn’t been there. That happened a lot. Other times we were out rehearsing with Jean Terrell for the new group, so it was almost like being in two groups there for a while. Cindy was also still fairly new in the group so there wasn’t a lot of cohesiveness those last couple years. And the producers, you know, it’s like this with a lot of my friends who are actors and actresses, a lot of times it’s the producers and writers who make these kinds of decisions and you’re not even in on the decision making in the group. And then of course, Motown was moving to L.A. so there was a lot of stuff going an and we were not really looked upon as a group anymore because obviously Diane was leaving and all. It had to do with a lot of that stuff.
BLADE: You and Florence always had such great harmony and obviously it was before the days of Auto-Tune and all the studio bells and whistles they have now. Did you have to learn to sing harmony or was it something you were able to do naturally?
WILSON: Well it wasn’t just me and Flo, it was me, Flo and Diane and we all sang harmony together a lot. That was really our style naturally. That’s what you did back in those days, you sang. You didn’t have anything else to rely on. We didn’t even need music. We did shows in the early years without music or maybe just with a guitarist, Marvin Tarplin. So no, it was very natural and we didn’t have any help in that department. Actually the Supremes were a very harmonic group in terms of our style, that’s what we did. I kind of hated later on when we lost that because it was something we’d been very good at. It’s hard to harmonize with just two people. Before when we had Diane and (early members) Betty (McGlown) and Barbara (Martin), with four people, you know, you could do great harmony. We kind of lost that style when we found the hits. They were great, of course, but we lost something we were good at.
BLADE: I feel like (Four Tops lead singer) Levi Stubbs is one of the unsung heroes of Motown in a way. He was so committed to the group and had no apparent interest in solo fame like David Ruffin or Diana Ross. Was that just his personality?
WILSON: Yeah, that was his personality and, you know, it was great for the group. But some things like who’s around you and how you feel about it, those are very individual things but that’s one thing about Levi — he was very dedicated to his group.
BLADE: Whenever I see the (1968 TV special) “TCB,” that elevated glass stage looks so precarious. I assume it was taped on a soundstage somewhere. Part of me is always thinking you or the Temptations are going to fall off the edge of it or it will topple over or something silly.
WILSON: There was no danger of that. It was this very huge, Plexiglass stage and there was no way of us falling off. It was as large as any stage, probably larger than most stages. I think it was taped at NBC Studios but I’m not totally sure.
BLADE: What would Florence think of all this endless interest in the Supremes all these years?
WILSON: I think she’d feel the same as I — amazed that it’s lasted this long and that people are still interested. I wish she were here to see that people are still in love with Flo, Diane and Mary. As Flo said, “Honey, we is terrific.” And it’s true. Everywhere I go, people ask me more about Flo than they do about me or Diane. I think she would be very, very happy to know that she is so well remembered. When I sing “I Am Changing” (from “Dreamgirls”) in the show, and of course I dedicate it to Flo, the audience almost always gives me a standing ovation just when I’m saying that. She would be elated. I wish fate had been different for her. She was not like me. I got a chance to fight back and show the world who I am. Everybody can’t be, you know, the star of the show but you can certainly be a star in the show and that’s the way I look at it.