THE LEGENDARY MARY WILSON is a woman of many talents—singer, best-selling author, motivational speaker, businesswoman, former U.S. Cultural Ambassador, mother, and grandmother, to name a few. Wilson grew up in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Projects where she enjoyed a passion for singing. Performing at an elementary school talent showcase, she met soon-to-be long time friend and future group mate, Florence Ballard. They made a pledge to remember each other if they ever joined a singing group.
In 1959, Milton Jenkins, manager of male singing group, the Primes, decided to create a spin-off girls’ group. A friend of the Primes, Betty McGlown, was first asked to join, and then Florence Ballard, who invited Ms. Wilson to join. At the same time, Ms. Wilson’s then neighbor, Diane Ross, was asked by a member of the Primes, and completed the quartet the Primettes. After performing various gigs around Detroit, covering songs by popular artists, such as Ray Charles and the Drifters, the Primettes decide to audition for the up and coming Motown record company. Unfortunately due to their young age, Motown President, Berry Gordy, Jr. turned them down and suggested they come back after they graduated high school.
Eventually, The Primettes convinced Mr. Gordy to sign them to his label under the condition that they change their group’s name. In January of 1961, the Primettes officially became The Supremes.
As an original/founding member of The Supremes, Mary achieved an unprecedented 12 #1 hits with 5 of them being consecutive from 1964-1965. Those songs are “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Back in My Arms Again.” In 2018 Billboard celebrated their 60th anniversary with a list of “The Hot 100’s Top Artists of All Time,” where The Supremes ranked at #16 and still remain the #1 female recording group of all time.
With the same passion as she did singing with the original Supremes, as well as her solo career, the world-renowned performer is an advocate for social and economic challenges in the United States and abroad. Ms. Wilson uses her fame and flair to promote a diversity of humanitarian efforts including ending hunger, raising HIV/AIDS awareness and encouraging world peace.
Wilson’s literary career is nearly as impressive as her musical career. Wilson’s best-selling autobiography “Dreamgirl - My Life as a Supreme” remains one of the top selling rock and roll autobiographies of all time. Ms. Wilson later authored its sequel, “Supreme Faith - Someday We’ll Be Together.” In 2000, these two books, along with updated chapters, were combined to complete her third book. Her fourth book, “Supreme Glamour,” is a coffee table hardcover featuring the gowns, history and legacy of the Supremes.
Coming of Age had extreme pleasure of speaking with Mary Wilson about her childhood, her life as a Supreme, her writing career and more.
COA: Hi Mary. Can we start with a little bit of your background? I know that you were born in Mississippi and you moved around a good bit before landing in Detroit. What was your childhood like and what kind of a little girl were you?
MW: Well, I grew up in Detroit, Michigan. I grew up with my aunt and uncle who were my mom and dad, actually. They raised me until I was 11 years old. I had an ideally wonderful childhood. I was the only child of my aunt and uncle, so I was kind of—I wouldn't say spoiled—but I was given everything that a little girl would want. My aunt and uncle had bought a house, because my uncle was in the Army, in the suburbs of Detroit. So, I actually grew up pretty well off and very happy.
Then, at the age of about 11, I finally met my mother, my brother and my sister. I moved in with my mom and my siblings, and it was a totally opposite environment from what I had grown up in and what I was accustomed to. My mother couldn't read nor write. She was a domestic worker. We moved into the Brewster projects in Detroit, which surprisingly, I was probably happier there than I was when I had this little princess-like environment. There were so many people and as I mentioned, I had been an only child with my aunt and uncle. So, for me, it was really wonderful. I had all these new people--hundreds of people in the project. So yeah, that's where I met Florence and Diane and we started singing.
COA: What were you like as a little girl?
MW: When I was little, I was very, very shy and very quiet. I grew up at a time when children were seen and not heard. I was that way until I was about 10 or 11. Then, when I moved in with my mom and my siblings, I became really more outgoing. Rock and roll was new, so everyone was really out in the streets dancing and singing, and I became a part of that type of environment. I really became interested in music because of the environment of the Brewster projects.
COA: You mentioned that that's where you met Florence and Diana. Tell me about that.
MW: Florence and I attended the same elementary school. We all lived in the projects, Diane (as we called her back then) was there, too, but we went to different schools. So in the eighth grade, I actually was just a part of a school program that said anyone who wants to perform or do whatever they do, sign up. So I signed up because, as I mentioned, I became very interested in rock and roll music—Little Richard, The Platters and all these new groups. My favorite was Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers. So I signed up. I had never really sang anything. I mean, I went to church and we sang in church. I would wake up every morning singing, but I thought everyone did that. I didn't know it was a gift.
When I did the program, Florence Ballard was also in the program. I didn't know her even though she lived right across the street. After the program, we kind of migrated together and we said, "Wow, you know, this rock and roll is so new and they're starting little groups and things. Maybe we should think about putting the group together." So she and I became good friends walking home that day.
A couple of weeks later, she came up to me and said her sister knew this guy group who was trying to put together a girl group. They were going to ask this girl across the street named Diane. Her sister told them about her and she told them about me. There was another girl, Betty McGlown, who was already dating one of the guys.
So, we went over to this little audition at the guys’ apartment, which my parents probably would have killed us because we were something like 13 years old at the time. The guys group was called the Primes and they said, "Well, we want to have a show, and we want to have you girls come up and sing and open up the show and then we'll come out and do our bit."
So, we had never sang together. I think the time was when The Drifters had the song "There Goes My Baby," so Diane started singing that. Florence started singing one of Ray Charles songs, "The Nighttime is Right Time." We all kind of just started joining in. One person started singing the song then the other two would join in and do the background—without rehearsing. That's how we became the Primettes. This was couple of years before we actually went to Motown and auditioned for Mr. Berry Gordy. In 1961, we signed our contract with Mr. Gordy. All that time—from 1959 to 1961—we were just doing record hops. I know kids today have no idea what a record hop was. For us, it was all dances. It was school dances, the neighborhood dances and the community dances at places like Brewster's Center and the YMCA. They all had these places where, as young people, you could go to their little dances and that's where we would do our little shows until we finally decided that we wanted to really do this professionally. That's when we went to Motown records for our big audition.
COA: You were so young when you signed with Motown. How did the Berry Gordy and all the other Motown employees treat you? Did they treat you as artists or as children or as a product?
MW: First of all, everyone there was young, okay? So it was not like today where you have adults and CEOs and all those kind of things. Mr. Berry Gordy was very young, probably in this early 30s. He was a young man who had started this company and everyone was like us—people who had been out there kind of working as children just singing. We weren't really out there to make a career, because first of all, we were all black—most of us were black. Therefore, we didn't have those big ideas like today—everyone knows they're a star or wants to be a star. Back then, as black people, the Civil Rights bill hadn't even been passed. So we didn't have those kinds of dreams. We were just singing because that's what we did. We weren't really thinking about making money. We weren't thinking about a career—that was unheard of. I mean, you had the great artists, and that’s what they did, but they were all older— you know, the Ella Fitzgeralds and the Lena Hornes. I mean, our parents would listen to them, but we never thought of ourselves like that because we were still kids. We were children.
So, for us black people, people of color I should say, we were not looked upon as being citizens. So, what we were doing there was just having fun. I always say that Mr. Berry Gordy had this place where everyone who had talent would just kind of migrate to because it was a place where we could go and explore our talent. So everyone there was pretty much young. I would say most of the people were not even in their twenties yet.
COA: How was Mr. Gordy to work with? He's sometimes portrayed as very intense and demanding. How did you find him?
MW: First of all, the thing about Mr. Berry Gordy is that he is a very creative person and all he wanted to do was write music. When his company started, as I said, he was probably the oldest of all of us. He was still very young, but he was so focused on what he wanted. That's why people say that—because he was so focused on creating music and music was his whole life. So yeah, he was like that, but he was a wonderful guy. He still is a wonderful guy. He loved to have fun. He would hang out with all the male groups, and he and I would always hang out together. So he was a fun guy when he wasn't working, but he was always working. He was a very serious guy, too. He was serious about the focus and the music, but he was also a guy that everyone wanted to be around him.
When The Supremes became famous, we would travel the world and Florence and Diane would probably stay in, but he wanted to go out, and I wanted to go out and we explored. The first time we went to Japan, he and I went out and started eating and exploring all the various restaurants. I mean, I think I was one of the earliest people I knew to start liking sushi in 1966. It wasn't really even heard of here in the states. The point I'm making is that we were very good friends.
COA: Once the original lineup of The Supremes changed, how much of a say did you or each individual member have in who became a part of the group?
MW: I'm not sure which point you want me to talk about, but the main thing is that the original group— Florence, Diana and myself—we were the people who recorded the five consecutive number-one, million selling records and that was all between 1964 and when Florence left in 1968. So, once Florence was out, Cindy Birdsong did join the group, but the group was still managed by Motown Records. We always listened to Berry because he was the one who believed in us, so whatever he said, we did. We were his girls. They knew what they were doing. We started with Holland-Dozier-Holland—our writers. People ask, "Did you ever write your own material?" No, because we have the best writers in the world. If they gave us ten number-one, million selling records plus, you know, why would we want to put our little two cents in? Unless we were Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder who, you know, that was part of their creativity. They were writers within their hearts, but we were singers and performers. So, in terms of who made decisions—all of the decisions were made by the company and our writers. We went along with it because it was working. After Diane left, that's when I took over the management of the group and all the business. At that point, I made all the decisions. Prior to that, Mr. Berry Gordy did.
COA: Do you remember a singular moment in your early career where you thought, 'I've made it. This is it. I've done it?'
MW: For The Supremes, when we made it was when we got the audition at Motown. That was the first time, because now we were recording artists and we had a contract. After that, it was when "The Light Shines Through His Eyes" went on the charts. I think it was Billboard or Cashbox. We made it onto the charts and that made us happy. We had made it at that point. But the big moment came with our first number one record, which was "Where did our Love Go?" When that became a number one, we knew we had made it.
Now also after that, we had five more consecutive number ones. That was when the British invasion people came over here—the Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, The Beatles, all those guys. So, we were battling them on the charts. We would have a number one, and one of them would have a number two. Next, they'd have a number one, and we would have a number two. So we were right up there. We were the only female group battling the British invasion on the charts. Of course, we had some great artists. I mean, we had the Ronettes, we had Aretha Franklin, we had Mary Wells—all these people were recording, but nobody had five consecutive number-ones like we did.
And then we had a couple that were not number-ones, and after that, we had four or five more number one records. So, our record, I think, has only just been broken today by maybe someone like Mariah Carey. I'm not sure, but you know what I mean. Now, it's a different market, but back then, as I mentioned earlier, black people were not up on that pedestal like that. Even the great singers like Sammy Davis, Lena Horne, Josephine Baker, I mean, they were big, but we did something internationally that no one had done before as black people and as three black women.
COA: Yes, That is just amazing. Your family must have been blown away by your success.
MW: Yes, I wrote about this in my first book, Dreamgirls: My Life As a Supreme. When we received our first money from our first couple of number one records, we each went out and bought a home for our parents because we all still lived in the Brewster projects. And that was really something for our parents because, as I said, my mom could neither read nor write and she could never have imagined owning a home. This was a really wonderful thing that the three of us decided to do for our moms and dads. It ended up we were on the same street. We didn't go out looking at homes together. We were on the road most of the time traveling around the world, so we had the real estate people go out and look for homes. They had gathered up several homes, and we ended up choosing homes on the same street, which is really odd.
COA: You talk about that time period and about being women and black women in particular. How did your style develop?
MW: We were just being ourselves, and I think that's part of what made us so unique is that we— as three little black girls who dared to dream at a time when it was really an impossible dream—for us to become famous was really something.
We were just three girls who loved to dress up. We were girly girls. We loved fashion. Our mom's and our aunts, when they went to church everybody would be dressed to the nines with hats. I mean, black people really dressed well. But people would say we were from the ghetto and poor and all those kind of things. I mean, that is not what I remember—especially growing up with my aunt in the suburbs. I mean, that I had the prettiest little dresses. So, that's who we were as girls. So even before we were famous in the early days before we started wearing gowns and we were doing the little record hops, we always looked cute. Diana and I used to make our own little dresses out of Butterick Fabrics. We would go to Woolworths, and we bought five-dollar pearls. That was just kind of who we were.
Thank God Motown saw that and no one tried to change us. As we became richer and more famous, instead of making our own clothes and buying them at shops, designers started bringing in great dresses to make and design for us. So, our fashion became almost as famous as our ten number-one, million selling records. I have gowns that we wore back in the day and my exhibit tours. It just left Newark. It was at the Grammy Museum. It's been in loads of museums.
COA: I understand that you went to college in your 50s to fulfill a promise to your mother. What did you study?
MW: The first thing is that this all came about differently. My son passed away in 1994. But back to my mom—my mom could not read or write, so the one thing that she always stressed was that she wanted to see her children go to college and that education was so important.
So when my son died in the 90s, I was so down that I said, “I need to do something so that I can get my spark back." I was still living in Hollywood, and I needed a change of environment. I always wanted to live in New York, so I just picked up everything and moved to New York. And that's when I went to NYU because I needed to do something to get my mind off myself. And I wanted to do it for my mom. I had not made a promise to her. This was just something that I knew would have made her very happy, but she had already passed. I went to NYU and I got my associates degree. I studied everything I wanted to study except math. I always wanted to paint, so I had a painting class. I had a psychology class. English was one of my favorite things. When I was in high school and getting ready to graduate, my English teacher said I should consider becoming a writer because he thought I was writing so well. I said, "Well, all I want to do is graduate and get down to Motown and record. Because you know, that’s what was stopping us from traveling because we were still in school. I felt so much better after college.
I remember in 1968 we were in Sweden, and the princess of Sweden, Princess Christina, came to our show and she brought her younger brother with her who is now King, right? We all became very good friends. But, I remember one time she and I went to a museum, and she was showing me all the paintings and she named every one. That's when I thought to myself, "Wow, even though we are famous, I feel so small next to this woman.” We were about about the same age. So when I went back to school, that was one of the other reasons that I went back because, you know, there's something about education that's so important, especially for black people. We have this innate thing of feeling less because we were told we were less. I mean you look at my aunt and my mom and everyone used to tell stories about how they were picking cotton and their parents were slaves. All of that and going back to school really helped me to feel, not only better about myself because I always felt great about myself, but there was still something that I didn't have any control over that made me feel less. I got that education and I said to myself, "Well, this is what mom was trying to tell me, you know, you really feel much better."
And look at all the deaths we had of people like Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe. These people who were great in some kind of way, but they still felt like little Elvis or little wherever. So, you don't know why this little kid inside you still feels less. So, can you imagine being black and having the whole of America tell you that you're less? Yeah. And so there you go. Going back to college was so great for me, but there were many things that drove me back there. I hate it that I lost my son, but it really gave me the impetus to do that. You never know why things happen in your life.
COA: I know that you and Diana Ross have had your ups and downs. I'm wondering what your relationship is like today.
MW: I don't know why people say we have our ups and downs. I think it was business. You see, there's another thing that happens, and it's not a choice, you know, we didn't have a choice to say, "I don't like you." It wasn't anything like that. It was more business—and it's different in a group. I have a lot of friends in groups—The Pointer Sisters, The Dixie Cups, The Ronettes—and we talk about that. What happens a lot of times is that you start off all together loving each other. Then you can become famous and people started coming in the middle of you and saying, "Well, you know, you should be doing this, but you should be doing that and you're not good enough. You're not a good enough singer. You can't be the lead." They come in they kind of tear you apart. So, what happens in this business is that it's so hard to keep a sane mind and to not to allow that to destroy friendships. With Diane and I, we'd never had an argument. It was never anything like that. She became the lead singer and the company kind of forgot about the other two.
Things like that happen, so then you grow apart. What people don't really understand is that we love each other. We're just not together now, but the love that we have in our hearts for each other is still the same.
COA: That's wonderful to hear. You recently did Dancing with the Stars. How demanding was that physically?
MW: No, not for me. If you've seen our videos, you know we've always danced. We've always had choreography, so that wasn't hard for me. The only difficulty was that we only had a week to learn the dances. That, to me, was perhaps the hardest thing, if I had to say anything was hard. But, I mean, when we learned our own choreography for our hit records, we would be on a road and we'd have to fly home to Detroit for maybe two nights. We would have to learn the choreography for the dance before we went back out. So, I'm used to that, even though I'm now almost 76 years old. So, you know, it's like riding a bike. It might take you a minute to get back up there. But, if you've done it once when you were young, you can probably still do it. I had a ball. The people were great.
COA: So you mentioned your English teacher encouraging you to be a writer. You've written three books, one of which is still one of the best selling rock and roll autobiographies of all time. So, even though you knew you were a good writer from a young age, what inspired you to actually put pen to paper and get it published?
MW: No, no, no. I didn't know I was a good writer. I didn't know that, but my English teacher told me I was. I had no idea I was a good writer. But what I started was--at the age of 17 after he had told me that and I was going down to Motown every single day and it was this new environment and all of these people were coming in. Stevie Wonder was coming in for the first time, and we were there when he auditioned. Marvin Gaye started coming in and I was there seeing all of these wonderful things, so I started keeping a diary just because my English teacher told me I was a good writer. I just started keeping my little notes. I did that all the way through my time at NYU. I kept a diary for years and years. I just did it because it was a way of me writing out everything that was happening.
Eventually, I guess when Florence left or when Diane left, I decided, "Maybe this is the time for me to go ahead and make something of all of my diaries— all of my thoughts.”
COA: Was it cathartic going back through them and putting them into book form?
MW: No, it wasn't cathartic going back to it because I never went back to the diaries. It was all in my head. That's what was so great. What was good about it was that I was able to get what was in my head out of my head so I could clear my head. It's like cleaning your closet. Once you clean your closet up, you feel so much better.
COA: You mentioned how different the music industry was back then. What do you think about modern popular music? Are there any acts that you really love and follow?
MW: I'm pretty much still in the fifties. I mean, I listen to the old music. I rarely listen to new music—only just to hear what's going on and what they're doing. Because just like in the 60s, the sign that Mr. Berry Gordy put on his building said, "The Sound of Young America." So today, you have the sound of young America. You have the sound of Great Britain. The young people are the ones who are on the radio, you know, and so, therefore, it's not my kind of music. I guess that's what I'm trying to say. Not that it's good or bad. I have no opinion of it really. It's just that my ears still love Gladys Knight and the Pips, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder, The Miracles and The Four Tops, you know?
I should say that, yes, there's some great talent out there. It's not about talent that I don't listen to it. If I had to choose someone, probably Mariah Carey would be my favorite if I had to choose a voice I really love. People are talented, it's just that I still listen to Marvin Gaye every Sunday, you know, and Luther Vandross, and Sam Cooke. One of my favorites is Boz Scaggs. I have a couple of his albums that are all the Great American Songbook, and I love that because I do a jazz show. My show is jazz. I love that music.
COA: You're involved in a lot of charity work. How do you choose what to support?
MW: I keep going back to The Supremes because everything I do pretty much started when I was a Supreme, so I just carried on and I choose the things I really like to do. One of my biggest interests is working with children. I have a couple of organizations that I really try to get behind. One is Figure Skating in Harlem. I really got involved with them when I was living in New York. They're all young girls from the age about six to 18 years old, and they teach them how to ice skate. They bring in Olympic ice skaters and professionals, but they do more than that. They give them the background in school and that type of thing.
I've also always sponsored children around the world. I was very lucky to actually sponsor a child in the Philippines, and when we were working there, I got to meet her.
I also do some things like with the Humpty Dumpty Institute (HDI), which has to do with bombs that have been exploded. I went to Vietnam and Laos and lot of different places and helped in those areas.
I just got back from Belgium where women from around the world were talking about diversity and women's rights and things of that nature. I was the main speaker, which I actually didn't know. I gave a master class over there, and it was all based upon my career with The Supremes and how we, as three black women, were able to achieve the things we did. So, I just do whatever kind of feels good to my skin.
COA: Speaking of your skin, you're almost 76 years old and you're a very beautiful, vibrant and healthy woman. Do you have any secrets to aging gracefully and healthily? Do have an exercise routine or a beauty routine?
MW: I always say I'm 75-and-a-half years old or I'm 25-and-a-half. I enjoy growing because you learn every day. I don't have any real regimen that I do because I travel, and it's kind of hard to keep up, but I do hot yoga. My skin comes from my mom and my dad, I guess. They had good skin, so I got good skin. I drink lots of water and I love to get sleep. I try to do things that are good for me, but I have some bad habits. The doctor says I better stop eating salt.
COA: What are you working on right now?
MW: Right now, I'm actually working on getting a U.S. Postal stamp for Florence Ballard here in America. Hopefully, we can get that for her because a lot of people didn't even know she had passed and no one talked about it. So I feel that it's something that I would like to do for her. But in terms of myself, I'm taking acting classes, I'm still touring and I'm still writing books. All that kind of stuff.
COA: Mrs. Wilson, I appreciate your time so much. What a pleasure it's been speaking with you. Thank you for all of your music.
MW: Okay, I thank you, as well. Have a wonderful day.
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