Mary Wilson takes back her Supreme legacy

Mary Wilson headlines Tanglewood's Independence Day festivities

by Seth Rogovoy

(LENOX, Mass., July 3, 2003) – Mary Wilson is the first to admit that the group she is performing with at Tanglewood on Friday night is not really the Supremes, even if it is being billed as such.

But after years of watching other trios of singers perform around the world as the Supremes, Wilson is stepping up to the plate to claim a legacy she knows is rightfully hers.

“There are only two people who can say they are the legendary Supremes -- Diane and myself,” said Wilson, referring to her former singing partner and childhood friend, Diana Ross -- the only other living charter member of the Supremes -- by her given name, in a recent phone interview from Las Vegas.

There are so many groups consistently performing as the Supremes – including some comprised of replacement singers hired by Wilson herself after co-founder Florence Ballad died and her replacement, Cindy Birdsong, and Ross left in the early-1970s – that Wilson has actually lost the right to use the name of the group in England.

“My people said I just might as well get a group and call it the Supremes,” she said. “It’s the only way to have legitimate use of the name. It’s not that I have a group of Supremes out there -- it’s just the legal billing.”

Legal billing or not, Wilson and her new band will perform hits by Motown’s flagship group – the best-selling girl-group of all time, with 12 number-one hits including “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” and “Stop! In the Name of Love” – as well as songs by other artists, including Sting, the Rolling Stones and Brenda Russell, as part of Friday’s Independence Day celebration at Tanglewood.

The show also includes a performance by The Spinners (“Then Came You,” “The Rubberband Man,” “I’ll Be Around”), originally formed by high school friends in Detroit and first signed to the Supremes’ label, Motown, before moving to Atlantic Records, where they were instrumental in defining the soulful “Philly sound.”

The Tanglewood grounds will open for family entertainment at 2. Fireworks over the Stockbridge Bowl will follow the concert, which begins at 7.

Over the years, Wilson has become accustomed to other artists usurping her role in the history-making singing group, which began among high school friends in Detroit’s Brewster housing project. By 1961, Berry Gordy Jr. signed Ross, Ballard and Wilson to the fledgling Motown label, and within three years they were vying with the Beatles for domination over the pop charts.

Wilson has had plenty of time to consider what made the Supremes stand out, and although she says it’s still hard to pinpoint, she has a few ideas.

“It was a combination of quite a few things,” she said. “One of the first was the three of us made a great team. Aside from that, we were very fortunate to go to Motown records, and very fortunate that Berry Gordy decided to take us under his wing and team us with the songwriting team of Holland, Dozier and Holland.

“And Diane had a great, unique voice, and was able to really put those songs out. She definitely had that different voice.”

It was that difference, perhaps, that set the Supremes apart from many of the other soul and r&b groups of the time. In fact, Wilson doesn’t even consider them a soul group.

“We weren’t like everyone else,” she said. “Of course we wanted to be like everyone else -- as soulful as Martha and the Vandellas. But we weren’t. We went to the Apollo Theatre once and we were so afraid that they wouldn’t like us because we were kind of square compared to the other R&B singers.

“We were not an R&B group, even though we’re black. We didn’t have that element like Aretha, Gladys Knight and Martha. We didn’t have that soul or gospel. We really were a pop group, the title that most white singers had.

“We obviously had some soul -- we’re black -- but not that good old, raunchy R&B that I liked. But I wouldn’t give it up. We had class. Some girl groups thought we were stuck up. We all thought we were cute. That in itself made us unique and different from all the other singers.”

After the departure of Ross, Wilson kept the Supremes going with a revolving door of other singers through 1977. Several attempts at reuniting the group – which today would mean Wilson and Ross with one of the other singers, most likely Birdsong – ended in failure or bad feelings, most recently when Ross teamed with Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence, neither of whom she had ever performed with, three years ago for a reunion tour, which was cancelled midway through due to lack of ticket sales.

But Wilson seems to have come through the adversity unscathed and all the stronger. In fact, she is featured in a new D.A. Pennebaker documentary, “Only the Strong Survive,” focusing on overlooked soul singers like Wilson Pickett, Sam Moore and Carla and Rufus Thomas.

Wilson performs between 75 and 100 concerts a year. She is also a film and stage actress, a motivational speaker, and a best-selling author, having told her side of the story in her autobiography, “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme,” the title of which purposely alluded to the Broadway musical, “Dreamgirls,” which Wilson says, with hardly a trace of rancor, used the group’s image and story without permission or acknowledgment.

“I sat there watching it and almost cried,” she said. “I could see it’s us. It was an honor. But they did it without giving us any recognition or money. So I took it back.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 4, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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