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The Supremes at 60: Mary Wilson Says Reunion 'Up to Diana Ross'

The Supremes
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The Supremes

January was significant for The Supremes. It was on Jan. 21, 1961, that the group — then a quartet of 15-year-olds from Detroit called The Primettes — was signed to Berry Gordy Jr.'s Motown Records, setting it on a path to superstardom.

And it was on Jan. 14, 1970, that the group — by then a trio billed as Diana Ross & the Supremes (minus Florence Ballard, who was replaced by Cindy Birdsong in 1967 after struggling with alcoholism) — performed a final show at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.

"We sat outside Motown every day until one of the producers came out and said, 'You know what, we need some background hand claps,' " recalls Supreme Mary Wilson, 76, of the early days. When Gordy saw how "serious" they were, he signed them: "Our parents had to actually sign the contract because we were underage." He then made them change their name (so he could own the rights to it). They threw a few options in a hat and Ballard pulled out "The Supremes."

In Artist Development, they were taught poise and polish by Maxine Powell, who ran a Detroit modeling agency; moves by Cholly Atkins, who also choreographed labelmates The Temptations; and harmonies by Maurice King, musical director at Detroit's legendary Flame Showbar. The mood at Motown was competitive but "supportive, because Motown was magic. Everybody was talented," says Wilson. The group was overshadowed by acts like The Marvelettes, but all that changed in 1964-'65, when they scored five consecutive No. 1 hits, including "Baby Love" and "Stop! In the Name of Love."

Says Wilson: "The Civil Rights Act was passed around then. We became divas and citizens in the same year." The Vegas farewell, which made way for Ross to embark on a solo career, was "really sad," recalls Wilson, who remained with the act. "My two best friends would no longer be there." As for a concert reunion with Ross, Wilson says, "Let's put it this way: It's really up to Diana."

Wilson reminisced recently at length with The Hollywood Reporter about the original all-girl supergroup.

THR: Tell me about the beginnings of The Supremes.

Mary Wilson: It was 1961, January, and we were The Primettes. We were not The Supremes yet. We had gone for an audition at Motown prior to that signing. And Mr. Berry Gordy turned us down. We were quite young, about 15 and a half. And we went out and we recorded with another company called Lu Pine.

But pretty soon we realized that Motown Records was the record company that we wanted to join. And we were still in high school. We were hearing Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marv Johnson, Mary Wells on the radio, and we said, "That’s where we want to be." So we sat on the grounds of Motown, outside Hitsville, every day until pretty soon one of the producers came out and said, "We need to have some background hand claps." That’s how we got into Motown. And Mr. Berry Gordy decided to go ahead and sign us because he said that we were really serious. We were still 16 years old, and our parents had to actually sign the contract, because we were underage. We didn’t have any legal representation, because we were just so happy to be there.

Did Berry Gordy put you through Motown finishing school?

That was all later. When we were at Motown we were one of the last groups there to get a hit record. The Marvelettes got the first number one hit record. And all kind of female groups were coming there — Martha and the Vandellas. We were just happy to be singing; we weren't thinking about hit records. But pretty soon we realized. wow, this is not just a hobby. This could be a career. And so, we started thinking about recording a hit record.

The company started growing and growing, and pretty soon a lot of older Black artists who had been, you know, singing for years, I guess they came to Motown and they all formed this group called Artist Development. People like Harvey Fuqua of The Moonglows, Maurice King, all these people came in. So, they were so talented that someone brought up the idea of them tutoring, or mentoring, all of the artists. Mr. Berry Gordy and his people were smart enough to realize, OK, we'll send each of the other groups into this class called Artist Development.

That’s where we met Mrs. Powell, who became our female mentor. Mr. Cholly Atkins was the choreographer, and he taught all the groups. And Maurice King taught us harmonies and things like that. He was one of the famous guys at Flame Showbar — you may have heard about that in Detroit — where people like Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, I mean, everybody came to play.

What was Berry Gordy like?

He had this dream of starting a record company and his family helped him. He had been a boxer, he had a record store. His family was one of the Black families who all were into more of a business kind of family relations. So, he brought that aspect into the record company. He was wonderful. He would play cards with all the writers, you know, the producers. I remember when Marvin Gaye was getting into football. All the male groups were all part of that whole thing, and Berry was right there with them. People give Berry all the credit, but it was one of those things where everyone who came there had their own talent. And so it was more of a collaborative kind of an organization.

Do you feel he gave you a fair contract?

Back in the day, if you talk to a lot of the '40s, '50s and '60s acts, they didn’t have fair contracts. You know, you either take it or you don't. So it was that kind of thing. But I did fight them — and I know people kind of hated me for that — because I stood up for what I felt, morally, should be ours. It’s like you're fighting for you. You know, you're the only one who’s going to be in that casket, so you have to fight for what you believe in.

That’s quite a way to put it.

I mean, it really is true. I was looking at the news, you know, people standing for what they believe in, right or wrong, you know what I mean? So, that’s what makes America great.

How did fame change it for the group?

Motown was one of those things that whoever had the hit record was on top of the totem pole, let’s put it that way. We were at the bottom for many years, but the minute we got a hit record then of course we rose right up to the top. Everything was about The Supremes. Before that everything was about Marvelettes. I always say because the Civil Rights Act was passed the same year we got our first record, 1964, we became divas and citizens in the same year.

Did divadom suit you?

Because all of our parents were poor, and their parents had been slaves, and things like that, so they brought us up being aware that we were Black and we had to be the best that we could be. I remember everybody’s parents probably said, "When you walk out this door you're representing Black people." So that was always who we were, but when we started traveling around the world we were not just Black people. We were human beings. We were respected. We were loved. We were not loved here in the United States.

We knew we had done something really incredible. There were people who were before us, Sammy Davis, Lena Horne, those people were really great. But we did have the advent of TV. I think TV really helped us in the '60s become very famous, because now we were, you know, people were able to see us all over America and see Black people in a different light.

What really happened with Florence Ballard leaving the group?

Florence’s story was very sad. And it’s one of those American stories, especially for Black people, especially for women, that there was a time where certain things happened, especially abuse, happened to people that they didn’t talk about. And at a very young age, we were still the Primettes, I think we were like 14, Florence was abused by a neighborhood guy, and it totally destroyed her.

I mean, she was like one of those great Black women who was proud and really strong and beautiful and all that stuff, but that totally destroyed her. When we became famous I thought that she would get over it, because you know, people think, "Well, when you become rich and famous and all that stuff, all your problems are gone." Well, that’s not true. And she was never given any help because people didn’t try to help her. Today everyone says, "I'm going to my therapist at 4 o’clock." You know, back then, first we were poor, we couldn't afford that, you know, and then her parents hid it. When Florence finally told me and Diana about it, I mean, I couldn't believe that that had happened to her.

When we became famous I thought she had forgotten. She never did. So anytime something bad would happen this would just hurt her even more. Pretty soon she really started self-destructing and had to be put out of the group. So, that’s kind of what happened to her. And, it’s also the time when we found out we didn’t own the name The Supremes because after she was put out she couldn't use the name The Supremes.

At that point what were the relations in the group like?

Well, Florence was put out, and it was very hard on me. I'll tell you why: Because first of all, both my dear friends who had dared to dream were no longer in the group. Diana was leaving, Florence had already been put out, so I was the only one in the group. I was the only Supreme. I was in the group with Diana Ross that last year, performing with her around the world, and that was pretty sad because we brought in Cindy Birdsong. Then when the group disbanded, that was really sad for me. Jean Terrell joined and we had the farewell performance in Vegas, at the Frontier Hotel, and I had a new hope. I was able to dare to dream again, because now I knew we could go on. Jean is a tremendous singer. And so, we carried on. So, that performance was bittersweet, let’s put it that way.

I remember talking to Paul McCartney about his group, because when Diana left he and I talked some time in England. And he was asking me, "Why did Diana leave?" And I'm like, "Well, she wanted to go on." And pretty soon after that his group disbanded. I think a lot of us in the' 70s were going through that period of not knowing what was going to happen. It was one of those periods where the world was changing. Then disco started coming in, everything changed. So, I was clinging on to what I loved doing. And I still love performing and singing. So, I was clinging to that trying to save myself. I couldn't take over the group because I was not a lead singer at the time. I had stopped growing in terms of that at the time. So, it was a scary period, let’s say that.

You almost reunited with Diana Ross in 2000.

Well, yes. I mean, there was talk. Everyone has been saying that since the '60s, you know, we should [reunite], ‘cause that’s what groups are doing these days: They're getting back together. So, yeah, that was going around and I guess pretty soon someone talked Diana into doing it. It wasn’t up to me. It was more up to Diana. She had more of the power than me. What happened was the negotiations fell through when they came to me and they didn’t want to pay me properly as being one of the founding members. And so they got some of the other girls that I had used in the '70s to be a part of that. But it wasn’t a reunion.

Do you think that ended the chance of a reunion with Diana?

Well, let’s put it this way: It’s really up to Diana. I don't think she wants to do that. It doesn’t make sense unless you come together lovingly. Or at least have an understanding. It can be an understanding, that’s fine. But I don't think she does want to. So therefore I'm going on with my life. I look at it like this, especially with this pandemic: Who knows when the end may come. And at 76 and a half years old I'm not going to sit around waiting for something. As my mother used to say, don't cry over spilled milk. I have too much to live for now and be happy about.

This article originally appeared in THR.com.