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Asked and Answered | Mary Wilson

Posted in News on August 18th, 2011 by MaryWilson

From the NYTimes.com, by Christopher Petkanas

A Supremes fanatic gets to quiz a musical idol.

If the Supremes had survived all the catfights and wig fights (and its revolving-door membership, including Diana Ross’s grand drum-roll exit in 1970), they’d be celebrating their 50th anniversary. As it is, the group was with us 16 years, 19 if you count their initial, raw iteration as the Primettes.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that Mary Wilson is a founding member — and the only one to have stuck with the Supremes the entire time, through thick, thin and respirator, before Motown finally pulled the plug in 1977. But don’t cry for Mary. Her new single and forthcoming album are entitled “Life’s Been Good to Me” (Demon), and she means it.

T caught up with the still-sultry songbird the other week in her trailer dressing room at Coney Island before an open-air concert with her old label mates, the Spinners. No subject was off limits, including the infamous Supremes “reunion” tour, which sadly never happened. (Well, it did, in 2000, but without Mary; see below.)

Since you’d have to be a Supremes freak of the highest order for the following conversation to make sense without a road map, it seemed only fair to supply a list of the group’s various lineups: 1959-1960: Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, Betty McGlown; 1960-1961: Barbara Martin replaces Betty; 1961-1967: the girls continue as a trio, sans Barbara: 1967-1970: Cindy Birdsong replaces Florence; 1970-1972: Jean Terrell replaces Diana; 1972-73: Lynda Laurence replaces Cindy; 1973-1976: Cindy’s back! She replaces Lynda, and Scherrie Payne replaces Jean; 1976-1977: Susaye Greene replaces Cindy, who decides once and for all that being a Supreme is just too much trouble.

Q.

So tell me about the new album.

A.

The songs are kind of written from my diaries. There’s one about the three of us, the Supremes.

What’s the story line?

It’s speaking about the good times, friendship.

Who produced the album?

Except for the single, a team from Holland, Dozier and Holland’s record company [HDH Records].

The Holland brothers are all over “Let Yourself Go,” the new expanded edition of the last three of the Supremes’ 1970s albums. I know they fell out with Motown in the ’60s. How is it they came back?

Hopefully when you have litigation or divorce or whatever [laughs], friendships can be resolved and you can come back to work. I guess they and [Motown chief] Berry [Gordy] decided, We’re over this.

Are you pleased with the “Let Yourself Go” package?

Oh, yeah, I worked on it. Whenever Motown-slash-Universal put out a new Supremes product, they always run it past me. I correct, edit, add. Because you know people think they know the story of the Supremes, and they often get it wrong.

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Getty Images Diana Ross, Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson.

What I loved in the recent expanded re-issue of “Meet the Supremes,” was that you went back and found Barbara Martin.

Barbara and I have remained friends all through the years. We talk all the time on the phone. And so because fans are always asking, “Where’s Barbara?” the next time we talked I said, “Do you want to do an interview?” And she said, “Sure.”

Does she have any regrets?

Everyone wants to know that question. She’s said occasionally, “Oh, God …” But she’s with the man she fell in love with when they were teenagers.

A lot of Motown scholars…

There are scholars?

Absolutely.

So-called “scholars.” Yourself included? [Laughs.] Go ahead. [Claps.]

I was going to say that when Florence left in ‘67, Motown was incredibly rich in girl singers. Why did they have go outside the company to replace her?

Cindy was a Bluebell, we always worked with the Bluebells and that was always the conversation, how much she and Florence looked alike. Cindy and Florence are almost like the same person. No one else was even considered.

Cindy has said Motown made her a very foggy offer, that nobody even told her who she’d be replacing.

I don’t know what stage she’s talking about. Because when we met with Cindy, she knew.

Were there rehearsals with you and Diana to bring her up to speed?

It was all up to me to teach her the harmonies, steps, everything. We didn’t have a lot of time. Later, of course, she joined us with [choregrapher] Cholly Atkins…

But there was so much riding on Cindy being absolutely perfect.

I just told you the way it was.

Has there been any discussion of any of the ’70s lineups getting back together?

People always want it. But there’s no discussion, no.

How sad …

It doesn’t mean anything might not happen. I’m just saying there’s no discussion.

Yes, but what about, say, you, Susaye and Scherrie?

Like I said, there’s no discussion, pro or con.

Are you in contact with any of your old group mates?

Cindy and I speak. Actually I haven’t spoken to her in, like, a couple of months, so I’ve got to call her. And Scherrie and I e-mail. But everyone has their own life.

What’s Cindy up to?

She’s not doing anything. She had become a minister. She was trying to get a church, but I don’t think that ever materialized.

Tell me about the book you’re working on.

It’s a coffee-table book on the Supremes gowns. Many have been sold or went missing when they were in storage in Detroit. There are a couple at the Hard Rock Hotel in Vegas. I don’t know how they got there, because they should be in my possession.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. An exhibition view of the Mary Wilson Gown Collection at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. The copper gowns at far left and the one-shoulder black-and-white one are by Michael Travis. Diana Ross and the Supremes wore them on their 1968 television special “TCB.”

I saw them, but this was 15 years ago, in a vitrine in the lobby, the famous sleeveless pinstriped ones, by Galanos, weren’t they?

Some gowns I’ve gotten off of eBay. But I just haven’t had the money to invest in a lawyer [to track them down]. I’ve spent so much money on legal matters, I’m not going to throw away millions of dollars again. But we’re going to put on a massive search. I’m saying to people, “O.K., I want my Supremes gowns back.”

I think a lot of people assume, especially about your dresses in the late sixties, that they were all Bob Mackie. But the really famous ones were by Michael Travis.

Yes, Bob only did two of our gowns. Michael did the majority.

How did it work when Diana left and you continued to wear those dresses? Was a new one made for Jean, and then Lynda?

No, we had the existing ones altered.

That couldn’t have been easy with the elaborately beaded ones. Did Diana’s gowns go to Jean?

Whoever the dress fit. Each time it was different. I don’t have a set answer.

Lynda and Scherrie did the notorious fake Supremes “reunion” tour with Diana. Do you feel betrayed by them?

No, because people need work.

That’s a very generous position.

But I mean, it’s true. I do think it was a misjudgment, not them, but the people — the agents and the da-da-da — who were assuming that they could do a reunion tour without the actual people.

The proof is that it was shut down.

Yes, well, I try not to get into that too much [laughs].

Did you attend any of those shows?

No, I wouldn’t do that.

And you haven’t seen any video?

I’ve seen certain things, but I don’t go out there looking.

Do you think you’re single-handedly responsible for crashing that tour?

Oh, no. No-no-no-no-no. I think that people anticipated this so much, and wanted it so much, that when they were given something that was not it, they shut it down. I didn’t do that. People were like, “This was not what we wanted to see.”

When negotiations broke down between you and Diana, she famously said, “You could give Mary the moon and it would never be enough.”

I think that most people know me, and they know that just wasn’t it. That was something said at the moment just to get beyond it. You know, sometimes when we’re caught, we have to get out of it. That’s all that was. And I understood it. The most hurtful thing was that I had to defend myself. Which meant that I had to be right and somebody else had to be wrong. I did not like that at all.

Was Cindy on board?

Yes. The person negotiating for me was also negotiating for Cindy.

Some people take the position that you should have put the legacy before everything else and just swallowed that very big, very bitter pill.

Yeah, I’ve heard that.

For the sake of history.

Sure. And I understand that. I had to think about that too. But I was hurt, and I couldn’t do it just for the sake of doing it, because then it would be a lie. My heart said: “Mary, they’re treating you really badly. Are you going to be able to stand up there and smile and make people happy? No, you’re not.” That too hurt, that I had to go against something I had waited for and wanted. I kept the Supremes on a certain level — I mean, had I not, it would be like some of the other groups you wouldn’t care if they got back together again.

Did Mr. Gordy try to intercede?

Yes. We had a three-way conversation. I called him and then got Cindy on the phone and we talked it out. He tried to help but couldn’t because Diane was with a whole other company, this huge SMX or something like that. Berry was on our side, “our” being Cindy and I. But they wouldn’t budge.

Have you read Peter Benjaminson’s biography of Florence? It was supposed to be made into a movie with Faith Evans, but she dropped out, and now Terry Dexter’s got the part.

I’m thrilled there’ll be a movie, but they haven’t really interviewed me, nor I’m sure they haven’t interviewed Diane … that to me is a little one-sided.

How do you mean “one-sided?”

Well, if they haven’t interviewed her best friends, how can they do an accurate portrayal? [Benjaminson says he interviewed Mary twice.]

You’re active in the Truth in Music legislation. Do you think it should prevent Scherrie and Lynda from appearing with Joyce Vincent, one half of Tony Orlando’s Dawn, as “Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence, formerly of the Supremes.” It’s a pretty dumb name, you have to admit. Poor Joyce, it’s like she doesn’t exist.

The bill states there has to be at least one original member who recorded the music in order for the group to be called, say, the Drifters. Otherwise it’s a tribute band. Scherrie and Lynda were bona fide members of the Supremes, so no one can stop them from saying the Supremes.

Where do you stand now with the name “Supremes.” You’ve had your own trouble.

Motown/Universal owns the name, period. I spent millions of dollars in lawsuits, so I just stopped fighting them. It’s like, why fight City Hall? I’m 67. I don’t feel like being in litigation all my life.

In the very last Diana Ross and the Supremes show, on Jan. 14, 1970, in…

… Vegas, at the …

… Frontier Hotel, you had those two great solo spots, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” and “Falling in Love with Love.”

I only had two? You know more than I know [laughs].

Well, on the “Farewell” album you…

Oh, oh, O.K., O.K. You know what, see, you guys listen to all those things all the time over and over, and everyone knows more than I know because I’ve forgotten. I didn’t sit around and say, “I had two.”

You’re not going to tell me you don’t remember singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” on the Hollywood Palace?

I did? Oh, O.K.

In the late ’60s there were Diana Ross and the Supremes songs you didn’t sing on, but you were pictured on the album covers, and performed the songs lip-synching on television.

You mean “Love Child.”

To give just one example.

And “Someday” ["Someday We'll Be Together"].

Right. Why did Motown use the Andantes, the label’s in-house backup singers, and the Waters sisters rather than you?

“Someday” was brought to Berry as Diane’s first single after leaving the Supremes [though it was actually recorded before she left]. So in so doing they had already put the backing vocal on for Diane. And then Berry said, “This is a great song for the Supremes.” So it was not really thought about or thought-out. Of course, we suffered.

Were you angry having to lip-synch a record you weren’t even on?

Angry is always a very strong word. I was extremely hurt. It was one of those things where you say, “How the hell did I get here, and what am I going to do about it?” What is that saying? “Help me to…. give me the wisdom…?” I knew I couldn’t change it, so I had to live with it. Just to have blurted out [that I wasn't on the record] wouldn’t have done anything but alienated me from everybody. And why spoil the dream?

Again, very magnanimous. Is there anything left in the vaults?

A few things. But no hits.

I have a great bootleg, “Live at the Roostertail,” recorded in Detroit in 19 …

Florence isn’t on that, is she?

She is, indeed.

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