Wilson, Mary 1944–
Mary Wilson 1944–
Growing up in the Brewster Projects of Detroit, Michigan, Mary Wilson had dreams. That she and her two friends, Diana Ross and Florence Bal-lard, would become one of legendary record label Mo-town’s premier acts through the 1960s and 1970s, was beyond the wildest of them. As a member of the Suprêmes, Wilson experienced pop stardom as a member of the greatest “girl group” ever. When the group disbanded, Diana Ross left the Suprêmes, and Wilson, in the dust. Wilson wrote two successful memoirs, and continued to perform, but a bitter relationship with Ross would keep her from ever sharing a stage with her old friend again.
Wilson was born in rural Greenville, Mississippi in 1944. Her father, Sam Wilson, was a butcher, and her mother, Johnnie Mae Wilson, was uneducated and did not work. The two had only recently married. Little was known about Sam Wilson’s background. A drifter, he may have been from New Orleans. He had spent time in jail, but no one knew why. In search of a better life, the Wilsons moved to St. Louis about a year after their daughter’s birth. Known for its “loose women, hot music, and scarcity of legitimate employment,” according to Mary Wilson in her biography, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, St. Louis was not a good fit for the family. Next, they moved to Chicago, where Sam Wilson worked regularly. It was not long before Johnnie Mae, Mary, and the newest Wilson, a baby boy named Roosevelt, were seeing less and less of both Sam and his paycheck. The man loved to gamble and appeared and disappeared unpredictably. Though he would have little involvement in their lives, Wilson felt that her father did love his children.
When she was three, Wilson moved to Detroit to live with her childless aunt I.V. (a corruption of Ivory) and uncle John L. Pippin—whom she soon came to call “Mom” and “Daddy,” and would know as her only parents. Her mother returned to Mississippi with Roosevelt. Wilson would later look forward to visits from the woman she knew only as her favorite aunt, Johnnie Mae.
Wilson’s new family wanted for nothing. Her new parents both worked, and had all the trappings of middle-class suburban life—a vacuum cleaner, a freezer, a radio, two new can;, and one of the first television sets on their block. Wilson developed her love for music by
At a Glance…
Born Meta Vaux Warrick was born june 9, 1877, in Philadelphia, Penn Born March 6, 1944, in Greenville, MS; daughter of Sam (a butcher) and Johnnie Mae Wilson; married Pedro Ferrer c. 1974; divorced, c. 1983; children: Turkessa, Pedro Antonio Jr., Rafael (deceased), Willie. Education: Northeastern High School, Detroit, Michigan; New York University, A.A., 2001.
Career: Singer. Member of the Suprêmes, 1959-77; solo, 1979-; author; Dream Girl: My Life as a Supreme, St. Martin’s Press, 1986; Supreme Faith: Someday Well Be Together, Harper Collins, 1990.
Awards: Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Suprêmes, 1988.
Addresses: Office —Mary Wilson Enterprises, Inc., 163 Amsterdam Avenue, PMB 125, New York, NY 10023-5001
listening to her uncle’s record collection, which included records by Nat “King” Cole, Sarah Vaughan, Glenn Miller, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, LaVern Baker, Brook Benton, and Joe Williams. She loved to sing and took as many singing classes as she could in school.
I.V. was a strict mother, and often ran short of patience for her new daughter. Her standards for cleanliness and housekeeping were high, and she was a believer of the old axiom, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Wilson was often the victim of “the belt,” and daydreamed her way through her childhood, spending hours fantasizing about her future as a movie star. When she was six, Wilson was told the truth about the identity of her mother. Johnnie Mae moved in with the Pippins, along with Roosevelt and a new daughter, Cathy. It was not long before Johnnie Mae wanted to reclaim Mary, much to the Pippins’ dismay.
Johnnie Mae and her three children moved from one small apartment to another until they found themselves living on welfare. In 1956, they settled finally in the Brewster Projects, a government-owned apartment building on Detroit’s east side. The family attended the New Bethel Baptist Church, led by Reverend C.L. Franklin. The Reverend’s daughters—Carolyn, Erma, and Aretha—sang in the church and were local celebrities.
The Brewster Projects were full of kids who emulated their musical heroes. Hopeful trios, quartets, and quintets used the street corners, rooftops and hallways as their stage in their quest to be as good as the Platters, the Drifters, the Coasters, and others. Since Elvis Presley and others had made it big in rock ’n’ roll and R&B, many kids saw music as their ticket out of the ghetto. The popularity of nightclubs grew, and popular acts came through town. As Wilson wrote in Dream-girl, “No matter where you went or what your age, music seemed to be everywhere in Detroit.” Wilson was ecstatic when, at 14, she joined her first group, the Primettes, with her best friend Florence Ballarci, and new friend Diana Ross—who both lived in the Brewster Projects—and a girl named Betty McGlown. They would be a sister group to the Primes, a local group that included Eddie Kendricks, a future member of the Temptations. The Primes were popular locally and had a manager who was willing to spring for the Primettes’ outfits and other expenses.
The girls were obsessed with music and resolved to become the best girl group Detroit had ever produced. They rehearsed songs and dance moves relentlessly. They paid close attention to their wardrobes, and donned stylish on-stage “uniforms,” as they called their dresses. Their commitment paid off. The Primettes became an established group and the girls were living double lives—high-school girls by day, popular singers at night and on weekends. The Primettes lost their manager and the girls knew nothing about the record business, except that a record contract was their next step. They auditioned for Berry Gordy, head of Detroit’s Motown record label, by way of Smokey Robinson, an old neighbor of the Ross family. Though he liked the group, Gordy did not want the responsibility of four underage girls, so elected to wait to sign them to the label. Betty McGlown left the group to get married. At the time, Wilson, Ballard, and Ross did not think they could survive as a trio, and so added Barbara Martin.
They were thrilled when, in 1961, Gordy changed his mind and signed them to a record contract at Motown. They then decided on a more upscale name, the Suprêmes. The Suprêmes were the first girl group to join the Motown “family.” They released two singles, “I Want a Guy,” and “Buttered Popcorn.”
The Suprêmes recorded a number of other singles on Motown that went virtually unnoticed. “Your Heart Belongs to Me” and “Let Me Go the Right Way” hardly broke into the Hot 100, and they were beginning to be known as the “no-hit” Suprêmes. Barbara Martin left the group in 1962, leaving the original three. Wilson, in her biography, quoted Ross as saying at the time, “If the three of us can’t make it, then we won’t make it.” They would remain a trio. “We accidentally discovered that three separate, incomplete young girls combined to create one great woman,” Wilson wrote in her biography. “That was the Suprêmes.”
The Suprêmes hit the road, touring extensively. They traveled through the racially torn South, and experienced violence there. They found success at the toughest and most respected venue of the time—New York City’s Apollo Theater. They continued to release unsuccessful singles until 1964, when they recorded “Where Did Our Love Go,” the Suprêmes’ first number-one song. Though the girls had always shared the lead vocal title, depending on the song, Ross sang the lead part on “Where Did Our Love Go,” and would continue to sing lead in the group. The girls worked even harder to refine their style, musical talents, and choreography. They were received well in England, and the Suprêmes became Motown’s, and Berry Gordy’s, number-one priority.
1965 was the Suprêmes’ first big year. Nearly every week they appeared on one of the popular television shows of the time—they were featured on The Ed Sullivan Show, Hollywood Palace, Dean Martin Show, Red Skelton Show, The Tonight Show, and on countless specials. Suprêmes’ look also began to evolve in 1965. The girls, who once wore little makeup and knee-length dresses on-stage, began wearing their signature wigs, heavy false eyelashes, and glamorous gowns. The money also began coming in—Wilson bought a spacious home for herself and one for her mother and siblings. A long way from the Brewster Projects, Wilson was always surrounded by “limos, champagne, thousand-dollar dresses, and a complete entourage at our beck and call,” she wrote in Dream-girl
As the group’s popularity soared, tensions within the Suprêmes also grew. Wilson saw Ross as aggressive and spotlight-hungry. But the group was soon welcome to play any club in the world, and were earning $20, 000 per week—as much as legends Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. Though surrounded by finery, Wilson never saw any actual money. Motown’s bookkeepers told her the money the Suprêmes were making was barely covering their debt to the label for supporting the group before they had produced a hit. Wilson claimed in Dreamgirl that she never saw an accounting of the Suprêmes’ income.
The 1960s continued with hits like “My World is Empty Without You,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The girls, now women, were famous the world over and were working harder than ever, touring Mexico, the Far East, and Europe. “It was about ninety-five percent hard work and five percent glamour,” she wrote in Dreamgirl, “but I still loved every minute on-stage.” Wilson was also becoming more aware of Motown’s efforts to “emphasize Diana’s role and diminish Flos and mine,” she wrote in Dreamgirl.Where once there was a unified trio, Ross was now presented to the media as the leader of the Suprêmes. Wilson was crushed, and Ballard made no attempt to hide her own bitterness. Tensions rose between Wilson’s two best friends. Wilson soon saw the end of the original trio when Bctllard, who had first asked Wilson to join a singing group, was removed from the Suprêmes and replaced by Cindy Birdsong.
In 1967, Motown changed the group’s name to Diana Ross and the Supremes, without consulting Wilson. A number of their singles were recorded without Wilson, including “Love Child,” a number-one hit. The news that Ross was leaving the Suprêmes reached Wilson the same way it reached everyone else—she read it in the newspapers. The Suprêmes’ “farewell” song, “Someday We’ll be Together,” was recorded without her or Birdsong. Wilson was determined that the group continue without Ross, but she also sensed that the end of the 1960s was the end of an era.
Ross was replaced, and the Suprêmes recorded a number of hit records in the 1970s, including “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” “Stoned Love,” “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Nathan Jones,” and “Floy Joy.” Members of the group came and went, but Wilson remained as the only original Supreme until the group disbanded in 1977.
The Suprêmes played their last official farewell concert in 1976 at London’s. Drury Lane Theater. Wilson said in her biography thai:, after a career built on being part of a group, it felt strange at first to pursue a solo career. She toured the world, finding success mostly outside the United States. In 1979, Wilson released her first solo record, Mary Wilson, on Motown. Later that year, Motown released her from her contract, ending a twenty-year relationship with the label.
After seeing the Broadway show Dreamgirls, a musical about a female singing group, Wilson decided the story of the most popular girl group in history needed to be told. She sat down to write her memoirs, and Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme was published in 1986. Her second book, Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together, was published in 1990.
Personal tragedy stuck in 1994 when Wilson’s son, Rafael, was killed in a car crash. Wilson and fourteen-year-old Rafael had set out one early January morning to bring boxes of dishes and other household items to Wilson’s daughter, Turkessa, who had just moved into a new apartment. When Wilson nodded off at the wheel, her Jeep Cherokee veered off the road. Wilson told People that her son yelled, “Mommy! Watch out!” Wilson served back onto the road, only to skid across lanes and crash into the median. “It will be with me all my life,” Wilson told People. “I see every little bump. I see the median as we hit it. I remember him trying to help me get the car back on the road. He always said, ‘Mommy, I will always take care of you.’ He was trying to take care of me then.” Rafael, who suffered severe internal injuries, had died by the time the helicopter had arrived to take Wilson to the hospital. Wilson, who sustained multiple injures, recovered quickly. She faced her grief with determination. “Obviously I’d like to have my son back,” she told People. “But I can’t. So I need to do everything I can to bring myself to a higher level. It will mean that I’ve done something better in his name.”
Though reunion concerts for the Suprêmes had been discussed several times of the years, nothing seemed to be able close the gap between Wilson and Ross. In 2000, negotiations with Wilson failed and Ross went on an intended Suprêmes reunion tour with two women she had never shared a stage with. “I am very hurt and disappointed,” Wilson said in an interview with Jet. “It hurt me more than anything that it didn’t happen. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I wouldn’t be part of a reunion. I didn’t even contemplate that. It was very devastating.” Wilson stated that the reason she declined to join the tour was that she was not treated fairly or offered any creative input. While Ross was offered $15-20 million to join the tour, Wilson was offered only $3 million.
The tension between Wilson and Ross over “The Return to Love” tour was highly publicized. Ross commented on Wilson’s refusal to join the tour during an interview with Barbara Walters on “20/20,” saying, “I think if we had offered her the moon, she would not have been happy…She didn’t have to pay for anything. Not a hotel room, not a car, not a gown, not a music arrangement, not a set, nothing. All she needed to do was show up.” Wilson resented Ross’s comments, telling Jet, “Why would I want to just show up?…I know more about the Suprêmes than she ever could because I am a Supreme and I’ve lived it. I know the people out there. I know the songs, I know the lead and the background. I know the gowns. I know everything…! should have been involved. I wrote the book.”
Albums with the Suprêmes
Meet the Suprêmes, Motown, 1963.
A Bit of Liverpool, Motown, 1964.
Where Did Our Love Go, Motown, 1965.
Sing Country Western and Pop, Motown, 1965.
More Hits By the Suprêmes, Motown, 1965.
We Remember Sam Cooke, Motown, 1965.
At the Copa, Motown, 1965.
Merry Christmas, Motown, 1965.
I Hear a Symphony, Motown, 1966.
A Go-Go, Motown, 1966.
Sing Holland-Dozier-Holland, Motown, 1967.
Sing Rodgers & Heart, Motown, 1967.
70’s Greatest Hits & Rare Classics, 1991.
Supremes (2000 Box Set), 2000.
Albums with Diana Ross and the Supremes
Reflections, Motown, 1968.
Love Child, Motown, 1968.
Sing and Perform “Funny Girl,” Motown, 1968.
Live at the Talk of the Town, Motown, 1968.
Join the Temptations, Motown, 1968.
TCB (with the Temptations), Motown, 1968.
Let the Sunshine In, Motown, 1969.
Together (with the Temptations), Motown, 1969.
Cream of the Crop, Motown, 1969.
On Broadway (with the Temptations), Motown, 1969.
Greatest Hits Volume 3, Motown, 1969.
Farewell, Motown, 1970.Anthology, Motown, 1974.
Great Songs and Performances, Motown, 1985.
Motown Legends, Motown, 1985.
Sing Motown, Motown, 1986.
Mary Wilson, Motown, 1979.
Love Lessons, Rita Coolidge, 1992.
Hold up the Light, New Jersey Mass Choir, 1987.
Best of Diana Ross & the Supremes, Diana Ross & the Supremes, 1995.
Soul Talking Brenda Russell, 1993. Billboard Top Dance Hits: 1976, Various Artists, 1976.
River of Song: A Musical Journey, Various Artists, 1998.
Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
Supreme Faith: Someday Well Be Together, Harper Collins, 1990.
Wilson, Mary,Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, St. Martin’s Press, 1986.
Ebony, April, 2001.
People, May 23, 1983, p. 107; March 28, 1994, p.53.
Jet, May 15, 2000, p.58.
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