Adventures in Feministory: Ms. Mary Wilson, Supreme Lady
Mary Wilson was born in 1944 in Greenville, Mississippi. She later moved to the Detroit Brewster Projects where at the age of 13 she met Florence Ballard and Diane Ross, the girls with whom she would become the greatest girl group of all time–The Supremes.
The story of the Supremes is one of friendship, dreams, tragedy, success, and glamour, as well as groundbreaking firsts in a time of social change. All of this is on display in the Reflections: The Mary Wilson Supreme Legacy Collection–a retrospective currently being exhibited at Seattle’s Experience Music Project|Science Fiction Museum (EMP|SFM).
The Beginning & The Music
It started with a grade school talent competition, in which Wilson and Ballard showcased their respective abilities. Wilson rallied the crowd with a lip-synched rendition of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers’ “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent”–while dressed as a do-ragged greaser. Ballard impressed with her beautiful voice when she sang “Ave Maria.”
The girls walked home together that night and immediately bonded. They decided if either one ever heard of an opportunity to form a singing group that they would immediately let the other know. A few months later, Ballard approached Wilson to say that a group of guys calling themselves The Primes (who later became The Temptations) were looking to put together a sister group and wondered if she was interested. Along with Diane Ross (later “Diana”), and Betty McGlown (who left the group) the girls became the Primettes. The Primes’ manager booked their gigs, and Ross, who knew Smokey Robinson, asked if he could get the girls an audition with Berry Gordy of Motown records. Gordy thought the girls had talent, but told them to return after they’d graduated from high school. Wilson, Ballard, and Ross, who had been getting together everyday after school to rehearse, decide what kind of clothes they were going to wear, and where they were going to buy them, as well as playing professional gigs around town, were disappointed. Richard Morris, who was also at the audition, told the girls that the small label Lu Pine would sign them. The Primettes recorded a handful of songs with them, but as Wilson would later say, Lu Pine “just didn’t have the vibe that Motown had.”
The girls were tenacious, and decided to try again at Motown. Every day after school they would hitchhike over to the studios and stand outside, waving and shouting “Hello” to the likes of Mary Wells and Smokey Robinson. They started out on the sidewalk, made their way to the studio steps, and eventually found themselves inside. One day somebody announced that the background singers had left and they needed some hand-clappers. The girls volunteered.
Gordy, realizing the girls were serious, signed them in January 1961. For their first few years they were called “the no-hit Supremes” that is, until Gordy put them with his best songwriting team, the famous Holland-Dozier-Holland. Ross was made the lead singer of the group, in order to create a recognizable group sound.
Wilson, who is extraordinarily gracious both in her autobiography, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme–the first major book about the Supremes–as well as in public appearances, recently told the crowd at EMP|SFM’s Oral History Live!:
“We loved each other. The three of us - We were best friends. So it didn’t matter to us which one [Gordy] chose, that wasn’t a big deal as long as we were chosen, because then we knew we were in. So that was not a major thing, and a lot of times people have thought that there was that sort of division in the group because of that. But there wasn’t at all.”
She explains the problem was that after a while she and Ballard, who had originally took turns with Ross singing lead, never got a chance to sing anything but the “baby, babys and oos baby babys.” Wilson especially laments that Ballard was a fantastic singer, with “a huge, beautiful voice” and to have that kind of talent and not be able to use or develop it is a tragedy.
The Supremes with their first hit, “Where Did Our Love Go?”
By the mid-1960s, The Supremes rivaled The Beatles in popularity and became the biggest act in America. They had 23 Top 40 singles in the 60s (including 12 number ones between 1964 and 1969) and another 8 Top 40 in the 1970s. They were regular guest stars on the Ed Sullivan Show and participated in Royal Command performances. They became trailblazers for other black acts, such as Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 and helped make Motown a legendary recording label.
Ballard, who had suffered a sexual assault as a teenager, developed a severe drinking problem and eventually was replaced by Cindy Birdsong in 1967. The group’s name was changed to Diana Ross and The Supremes. In 1970, Ross left to pursue a solo career and was replaced by Jean Terrell (no relation to Tammi Terrell, who had sung duets with Marvin Gaye before her untimely death).
The girls came to Motown with their image. “We were always ‘girlie – girls’ and we really liked to play dress-up,” says Wilson, adding that they bought themselves $5 pearls from Woolworth’s, “But we were wearing pearls.” They added white gloves, sweaters and pleated skirts in tribute to Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, looked up to the beautiful, Lena Horne, and sewed many of their early dresses themselves. In fact, Diane had been studying to be a designer.
One of the earliest dresses, the Primette Pristine is an elegant long black gown typical of the girls’ style around age 18 or 19.
Motown provided the girls with chaperones to help with shopping, and to keep boys away. Additionally, the girls received finishing school lessons from Mrs. Maxine Powell, who taught the girls how to sit, as well as how to properly enter a limousine (much to the amusement of the girls from the Brewster Projects, who had never even seen a limousine).
Mrs. Powell encouraged the girls, telling them words Wilson has never forgotten: “You ladies are diamonds in the rough, and we’re here just to shine you.”
The EMP|SFM has 46 dresses on display ranging from the early days of the group in the late 1950s until the late 1970s and runs through September 6, 2010.
Whenever a member left the group, they had to leave their gowns because they were part of the group’s ownership–as each one left, Wilson, as the sole original member throughout its various incarnations, inherited the gowns. When the Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame it became known that Wilson had the remaining dresses in storage all these years and it was decided to exhibit them. But some gowns have been lost to time, and a few are out there somewhere waiting to be rediscovered.
“We would retire gowns after having worn them on television and they were relegated to the road,” says Wilson.
“Many times the gowns would be stored, and initially they’d be stored in Detroit at a Motown building. Motown moved to LA and the building was left empty. We forgot the gowns were there and all of the earlier gowns were likely stolen. They’ve shown up in various places. There’s a set in Vegas at the Hard Rock Casino–that they didn’t get from me. And then I retrieved 3 sets from eBay–that, thank God the fans from around the world helped me get.”
One of these retrieved sets is at the exhibit.
The full collection, which consists of over 50 dresses, was previously hosted by the Victoria & Albert Museum (more commonly known as the “V&A”) in London and had situated the girls, the group, and the clothes in the contexts of the Civil Rights and Feminist movements. Here, at the Experience Music Project, the focus is solely on the gowns–but oh, what glorious gowns.
Displayed out in the open instead of behind glass, every detail sparkles and shines. With Bob Mackie designs in the house, that’s a lot of sparkle.
Many of the gowns were designed by Michael Travis (Mackie actually studied under Travis) who also designed for Carol Burnett and Liberace. Possibly the most special of these would be what Wilson calls the “Pink Beaded” gowns. These dresses, designed for the Supremes Royal Command performance in 1968, were embroidered with pearls and rhinestones and weighed 35 pounds each. “We know. We weighed them!” she says.
Mrs. Powell had told the girls back when they were teenagers that one day they would be performing before kings and queens – to which the girls rolled their eyes – and here they were before the Queen Mother, Charles, Anne, and Margaret.
“We didn’t realize we were making firsts, we were just singing.”- Mary Wilson
Motown–the sound of young America, and the Supremes in particular, had crossover appeal and found success with audiences of all colors. My father, who gifted me his Motown collection many years ago, had to special order his Supremes albums as a teen from the one record store in the small, white, Northwestern farm town in which he grew up–a fact that makes those albums ever more precious to me. That the Supremes could so deeply touch a teenage boy in Washington state in the 1960s, his Californian daughter in the 1980s (and beyond), Bitch’s own Kjerstin Johnson, who recently wrote, “The day I stop wanting to listen to Diana Ross and The Supremes is not a day I ever want to come,” as well as successful black celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg, speaks to what a phenomenon they were.
Though there had been successful black performers prior to the Supremes like Ray Charles and Lena Horne, to see three beautiful black women, seemingly empowered, commanding a stage, charming audiences on a global level, was something new and different. “It was a good feeling to know that we were one of the people, or groups, or entities that had helped society go to another level,” says Wilson. “I think it was a time where the world had sort of opened up, and we all as human beings were looking at each other different – you know ethnic groups, different countries–the world was getting smaller. The acceptance of people, for our color and for women was really phenomenal.”
Wilson also reflects on her mother, who was a domestic worker, “I will never forget my mother–her happiness to see me succeed like that because she had been a woman who could not read or write. And for her to see her child grow up and become someone like myself was just beautiful.”
In addition to being a motivational speaker, and doing charity work, including for the Humpty Dumpty Institute, Wilson continues to sing, and is thrilled that her voice is better than ever before. “When Diane left the group I had to make up in my mind ‘what do I want to do with my life?’ Then I said ‘Just because Diane and Flo changed their dream or forgot their dream or whatever, I still love doing this.” Wilson trained with the same singing coach as the also-legendary, Nichelle Nichols, and toured Europe for 15 years. She raised her children there and learned her craft on the road.
We love the sound, but it’s not just the music that makes the Supremes so iconic, so idolized. Nor is it simply the triumph of a good “rags-to-riches” story, the captivating appeal of a fairy tale where dreams do come true. It was their presence, their poise, their moves, their glamour, sophistication, and beauty–and the impact that three black women had, and continue to have, on American culture that makes them so supreme.
Mary Wilson: Dreamgirl Supreme More of my chats with a legend about fashion, race, and the awesomeness of YouTube!
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