The Supremes recorded 12 US No.1 hits between 1964 and 1969, including an unprecedented five consecutive chart toppers. Set against the backdrop of the meteoric rise of Motown Records and of the American civil rights movement, The Supremes played an inspirational role in changing racial perceptions and they influenced subsequent performers for many years.
Detroit, Motown and the Civil Rights Movement
In the 1920s and 1930s, one and a half million African Americans left the impoverished rural South seeking better opportunities. Most moved to the Northern industrial cities of Cleveland, Chicago and Detroit. By 1940 Detroit was one of the greatest industrial cities in the world and dominated auto production with it’s ‘Big Three’ companys of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. It became known as 'Motor City', and saw further mass migration when its famous assembly line factories shifted to making armaments when America entered World War II in the early 1940s.
Black migration boomed, with 350,000 people arriving between 1942 and 43. Competition for housing and employment sparked racial unrest, and the summer of 1943 saw extreme racial rioting, resulting in martial law. The ‘Great Migration’ also brought the religion and culture of the South to the Northern cities, particularly blues and jazz. In the 1950s the Hastings Street area became the heart of black music in Detroit, where many black stars including Howlin’ Wolf, Duke Ellington, Nat ‘King’ Cole, Billie Holliday, and Louis Jordan played. It was on this thriving entertainment strip that the entrepreneur Berry Gordy, and many of Motown’s future musicians would meet and perform together.
In 1959, Gordy created a music business which evolved into Motown Records. Inspired by the assembly line process at the Ford plant where he worked, Gordy aimed to create a hit factory (‘Hitsville USA’), where 'a kid off the street could walk in one door an unknown and come out another a recording artist - a star'. The Supremes soon became the embodiment of this vision.
Florence 'Blondie' Ballard, Diane Ross and Mary Wilson met as children in the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects in Detroit, America’s first federally funded housing for African Americans. In early 1959, the three girls with Betty McGlown, started ‘The Primettes’, an all-girl singing group. They auditioned for the fledgling Motown label and in January 1961, they were eventually signed as ‘The Supremes’.
By blending the spirit of the soul movement with a touch of old showbiz, they became the epitome of Motown glamour, appealing to black and white audiences alike. Once Gordy had paired their image with the writing genius of Motown’s in house composers, Holland-Dozier-Holland, there was no stopping them.
By 1965 The Supremes had made history by achieving five consecutive number one hits - a record to this day. Motown was the most successful black owned enterprise in America. Gordy had seen the commercial potential of creating a pop version of rhythm & blues music which, while still being generated by black culture, could also cross the race divide to attract a white teenage audience. This became ‘The Sound of Young America’ that was shared irrespective of class or race.
Motown produced many stars. From ‘Smokey’ Robinson and the Miracles, Martha and the Vandellas, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, The Four Tops and of course The Supremes.The recording techniques Motown developed in the mid 1960s were part of the formula for the company's success and their distinct ‘Motown Sound’. By altering the balance between vocals and bass, Motown made songs where the rhythm was key, songs that made the kids dance. Most rock and pop records are still mixed in this way today.
In the 1940s and 50s, America was still racially segregated and most African Americans had still not been granted the social freedom they had expected from slavery emancipation of 1868. The Jim Crow Laws which called for ‘separate but equal’ facilities continued the racial injustices against blacks in housing, education and voting.
In the 1950s and 60s, the Civil Rights Movement mobilised. Attempts to dismantle the Jim Crow Laws were met with violent resistance. There were major stand-offs and racial rioting, notably in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1954. In that year there was a critical legal change when schools were desegregated in the Brown vs. Board of Education Act.
Further social action was sparked when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white person in 1955. A 381 day bus boycott ensued in Montgomery, Alabama which eventually resulted in the desegregation of America’s buses.
Amongst this turmoil, Reverend Martin Luther King Jnr rose to prominence as the leader of the movement. In 1963, following riots in Birmingham, Alabama, King led 125,000 protestors through Detroit on ‘The Great March for Freedom’. He delivered his famous 'I have a Dream' speech, which mobilised the civil rights struggle into an impassioned plea for freedom.
The ongoing political upheaval led to the Civil Rights Act, 1964 and the Voting Rights Act, 1965, granting most of the demands, in theory at least, and contemporary popular music began to reflect the changing times.
Previously, Motown had generally avoided ‘issue’ tracks, but in the changing political climate Stevie Wonder’s ‘Down to Earth’ (1966) began a trend for ‘message’ songs. Edwin Starr’s 'War', Marvin Gaye’s 'What’s Going On?’ followed, along with The Supremes' 'Love Child' which became number one in the US in 1968, and is their best selling single to date.
On 4 April 1968, Martin Luther King was shot dead in Memphis, an act which led to rioting in cities across America. On the evening following his assassination, The Supremes appeared on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show, singing 'Somewhere'. Diana Ross gave a eulogy to King and his life’s commitment to human rights.
Styling The Supremes
The Supremes - Mary, Diana and Flo, and later Cindy Birdsong, Jean Terrell, Lynda Lawrence, Scherrie Payne and Susaye Green - were always beautifully dressed and elegant.
The artists and staff at Motown were predominantly black but the ‘Motown look’ was deliberately styled with no particular leaning towards race or colour. By refusing to be constrained by traditional barriers but still incorporating traditional show business conventions into its acts, Motown appealed to a youthful record-buying audience within a system that had previously excluded African Americans.
Gordy instituted a special ‘Artist Development’ programme similar to the Hollywood charm schools of the 30s and 40s. Maxine Powell gave lessons on the proper way to dress, eat, sit, walk and how to appear on television.
To hone dance and performance skills, legendary choreographer and dancer Cholly Atkins developed the slick dance routines that were the hallmark of Motown performances, and musician Maurice King handled music and on-stage patter.
As The Supremes graced more stages and television screens, their costumes became ever more glamorous and extravagant. Chiffon and velvet were replaced by skin tight sequined evening dresses to maximise their impact under strong studio lighting. Their trademark wigs were complemented by false eyelashes, big earrings and dramatic makeup as black cosmetics came of age.
Gordy enlisted leading Hollywood designers such as Bob Mackie and Michael Travis to create glamorous and extravagant costumes fit for international superstars.
Bob Mackie started off studying advertising art at Pasadena City College before he went on to win a scholarship to the Chouinard Art Institute in costume design. Following stints at Paramount studios, he moved into television. Mackie dressed many of America’s showbiz stars including Liza Minnelli, Tina Turner, Barbra Streisand and The Supremes. In 1969 he designed the costumes for G.I.T. on Broadway.
Michael Travis was a native of Detroit who moved to New York in the late 1950s to design costumes for Broadway. His spectacular designs resulted in many prestigious clients ranging from the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show Special (1967) to Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In (1968-70). In 1968 he designed The Supremes costumes for the T.C.B. television spectacular. His flamboyant designs include the famous 'Butterfly' dresses that were on show in the V&A exhibition.
The stage wardrobe of The Supremes was a major expense. Lavish outfits with beading and thousands of sequins could cost between 1000-2000 dollars each in the 1960s ($13-26,000 at 2007 prices).
The performance costumes of The Supremes, one of the most successful groups of all time, were on display at the V&A in 2008. On show were over 50 outfits that chart the changing image of the group, from their dresses in the early days as The Primettes, to the glamorous Hollywood designs worn at the height of their fame.
The display included costumes worn by the original Supremes, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, as well as the 70s Supremes. It examined how the group was carefully styled by Berry Gordy and his Motown associates to appeal to the widest possible audience.
Based on the collection of Mary Wilson, the display featured the group’s music, album covers and archive performance footage as well as new video interviews with Wilson and Maxine Powell, Motown’s in-house Artist Development Director. This was a V&A exhibition in collaboration with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum.
Written to accompany the exhibition The Story of The Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection
Video: An interview with Mary Wilson
Mary: I gotta change shoes.
Mary: Okay, there we go. Now, that' s so much better.
Stuart: Ladies and gentlemen, obviously, let' s begin at the beginning. Normally, the protocol is that we give people a round of applause at the end of the event. In this particular case, we' re going to break with all the protocols, because I know a lot of people that are in the audience, I' ve seen faces, I' ve seen people with reputations in the audience, and I think that all of us can say, unanimously that, Mary probably doesn' t really deeply understand how much impact her singing and her reputation has had in our lives, the way it' s shaped the love that we' ve got for the music. So, ladies and gentlemen, Mary Wilson of The Supremes, come on.
Stuart: So, where to start? Let' s start with a quick question. Mary, I wanted to -
Mary: Well, I need to explain something.
Stuart: Yes, my dear.
Mary: Okay, before we go any further. I' m not the founding - the only founding member of The Supremes, as most of you know. Florence, Diane and Betty McGlown, are the founding members of The Supremes, and I cannot take that credit all myself. So, the people here in the audience understand and know that, so, let' s make that very clear.
Stuart: Well, let' s start with the first question, I was watching you last night in the opening of the exhibition, singing, and sung a couple of songs for us, it was great, and one of the things that struck me is, actually, without any hesitation, I' d forgotten how great a solo singer you are, how great a singer you are. And I wonder if that actually, when we go back to The Supremes, there' s been criticisms in the past, for example, that Diana was actually the least good singer of The Supremes, she had a very specific voice. And I just wanted to get your thoughts about - just describe the different voices that were in The Supremes.
Mary: Well, I don' t think that you can - anyone said that Diane was the least good singer in The Supremes, that' s not true, and I' ve never ever said anything like that. My point was always to sort of bring forward the fact that Florence Ballard was a great singer, and I was also a good singer. So, I think people - and sometimes when we tried to explain or say things like that, people think that you' re saying that the other person is not that good. That was not my point, at all. My point was saying that Florence Ballad was a Gospel, strong singer, Diane was a pop singer and I was kind of, like, the ballad singer, so, we each had our own, you know, good points.
Stuart: And at a time, and in a city, which probably, without any hesitation, you could say was probably, at its time, the greatest musical city in the world, bar none. I mean, if you actually compare and contrast it with the other great regional city of the time, Liverpool, many of the Liverpool acts moved down to London and whatever, but there you were, in Detroit, touring the world, phenomenal place. Just to get some grasp on this, simply your high school alone, who did you go to school with?
Mary: Well, in Detroit, we all kind of grew up in the projects. Detroit was really a small - is, a small town. And Smokey Robinson, I guess, was in the same - lived in the neighbourhood as Diana Ross. I went to high school with some of The Miracles, which was Bobby Rogers. The person that did a lot of singing - or writing, with Smokey Robinson, was Al Gutierrez, Marvin Tarplin, and he and I went to high school together. Florence went to the same high school as some of The Temptations. So, we all came from pretty much the same neighbourhood, even though it was kind of large.
Stuart: And when did you first remember the sense that Mary Wilson had the desire to be a singer? Where did the desire come from?
Mary: Well, you know, people like Little Richard, you know, there was Jackie Wilson, there was Frankie Lyman and The Teenagers was one of my favourite...
Stuart: He was a bad boy, though, wasn' t he?
Mary: He was a what?
Stuart: He was a bad boy.
Mary: I don' t know, I was too young.
Stuart: No, he was a very bad boy, Mary.
Mary: Well, you know, doctors don' t tell secrets on other doctors. But, we all kind of bad later on. But, yeah, you know, from just - oops, we don' t want to go there right now - but, anyway, when I was born, my mother said that when the doctors spanked me, I started singing. So, I mean, I did that, but I never ever thought that it was different, I thought that everybody woke up in the morning singing. You know, I thought that everyone did that. I didn' t realise, until I became one of the members of The Primettes, that that was something very special. Then I realised that that talent was special, but, prior to that, I would just, you know, woke up and start singing, " ooooooo," you know, whatever, and just...
Stuart: And say a little bit about that photograph, because it connects you back to, like, many Detroit people of your generation, to the Southern States, doesn' t it? And to the experience of moving north to Detroit, your family and whatever. So, how big was your family? Was it a musical family? What were its origins?
Mary: I actually had one of the smallest families that lived in the Brewster Projects, because my mother had - there were three of us, my baby sister, Cathy, my brother, Roosevelt, and myself, but everyone in the projects had families like, what, you know, eight, nine, ten children, so, we were kind of special, we didn' t have that many people in the family. But, you know, it' s amazing, because my mother couldn' t read nor write, and it' s something that I' ve often thought about, how music was something that we had more in our family, because we didn' t read papers, as my mother didn' t read nor write, and it was just a fun - a fun time, even though it was very, very difficult. My mum was on the welfare, you know, we got cheques every week, we got food for the government, you know, processed cheese, powdered eggs, you know, and stuff like that. But we had the music, so, we were very, very happy.
Stuart: And in terms of the music itself, you talked about that music was around, what kind of music?
Mary: Yes, well, you know, this was in the early days of Rock ' n' Roll, and you had people like Chuck Berry, you know, as I mentioned, Little Richard, and when I was a teenage girl here, I remember I used to be crazy about Jackie Wilson, that was one of my favourite people. And, obviously, Frankie Lyman and The Teenagers was one of my favourites. So, I listened to Rock ' n' Roll, that was my favourite music. However, I grew up listening to Jazz in the household, because that - Jazz and Blues, because that' s what my family more or less listened to.
Stuart: And were you someone that was, in any way, as you would describe, trained as a musician? Or was it something that was just evolutionary?
Mary: I remember that, when I was in about the sixth grade, maybe earlier than that, actually, I was in one of the glee clubs, and they just pulled me in there, and every year after that, I was always in some type of musical group, in school, you know, like the glee club, the choir. And when I went on to elementary school, like the eighth grade, that' s when I met Florence Ballard and started really, really singing. But I never had any formal training other than what we received at school. And we had great teachers. That' s one thing about Detroit, Michigan, the educational system was so good that we had trainers to teach us. And one teacher wanted Florence and I to be opera singers. And I remember, we would sing arias, like -
Stuart: Yeah, it was really good. I' ve sure you' ve all heard it, it was the B side of Baby Love.
Mary: Right, right, right. And, you know, what was really funny, is that our teacher, when we went on to high school, Mrs Br- I will never forget her, because she had Florence as the - Florence was the soprano lead singer in the girls' choir, and I was the alto singer in the girls' choir, soloist, and she would really say to us, she would say, " well, why are you going - why are you singing that music? You and that group, you guys should be doing, you know, doing opera, instead of singing all this stuff." So, anyway, years later, she would come to our concerts there in Detroit, whenever we worked there, and she would say to us, " thank God you didn' t listen to me." That' s not cool. She taught us all the basic things about music, so, we really did - but that was the only formal training that we had.
Stuart: At that time in your life, as Rock ' n' Roll was started to influence, and R ' n' B and whatever, and you were having all these other influences from Jazz and from music at school, were you aware that music was, to some extent, still segregated, in that sense that there was a differentiation between race, was that very clear to you?
Mary: Well, I don' t know about being clear, because when we were growing up, being black was just the way it was, you know, being " coloured," which we were called in those days. That was a way of life. And you listened to - we listened to all, basically, black music, which was, you know, the Cheravons, the Joe Williams, the BB Kings, and it was basically Blues, Rhythm ' n' Blues, that we listened to, and we just felt that that was what everybody was listening to. However, then, when Rock ' n' Roll came along, it sort of changed the demographics of the music in terms of what everyone was listening to, and listening to everything open. Then I started listening to people like Doris Day, you know, in fact, that' s when I became a blonde. I thought it was Doris Day, you know. Yeah, you thought Tina Turner was the first blonde, but, no, I was.
Stuart: Yeah, no chance. Now, of course, this sort of thing that' s going on, was the rise in the, if you like, the kind of live music scene in Detroit, the club scene, so, take us back to some of those places that maybe you first started to grow up trying to get in, as a young teenager, The 20 Grand or The Greystone Ballroom or whatever. What was growing up as a teenager like?
Mary: Well, one thing about Detroit is that it really was filled with music, and as we said earlier on, we were surrounded with music, everybody. Music was just a music town, you know, I know they say it was a car factory town, but it was really filled with music. And there was a street called Hastings, if you go into - when you go into the exhibit, you' ll see that they have something written about that. It was a strip of nothing but clubs. So, I mean, the scene was everywhere. Does anyone have a napkin? I really need one.
Stuart: Yeah, could we - has anybody got a tissue or anything like that? There you are, that' s -
Mary: Oh, thank you. Thank you, so much.
Stuart: No, no, you need to dip - he' s getting it back, yeah, he wants it back.
Mary: No, no, no, we can' t do it.
Stuart: No, hey, wait, trust me, that would be framed, and if it wasn' t framed, it would be on Ebay tonight for 30 grand.
Mary: Well, anyway, so, music was everywhere. And on Hastings, there was lots of clubs. So, I mean, that was something that everyone did, you know, just singing and go to clubs, we were far too young to go to clubs. But, I remember, one time, we did go to The Flame Show Bar, and all of you Motown historians out there, would remember Maurice King, who, he was a big band leader, and he was a band leader for all of the people who came through The Flame Show Bar, like Sarah Vaughan. And I remember we went there and we met Sam Cooke there, and we were too young to even be there, but..., he was very nice. But Maurice later got a job at Motown, and he was the guy that taught us all the harmonies and the things there, so, that was really cool. But there were many, many clubs. The Flame Show Bar, 20 Grand, as you' ve mentioned, The Greystone Ballroom, I remember seeing Jackie Wilson there. Oh, let me tell you a story about Jackie Wilson. There was a time when - I had him up here - oh, he was there, okay, he was there, okay, okay, we passed him, okay - anyway, but I remember, later on in life, when we became famous, well, we weren' t really big things, but we kind of, a few hit records, we were working at this theatre in Baltimore, Maryland, and Jackie Wilson was on the show, Diane' s mum was our chaperone at the time. And so she wanted to go to lunch. And, at these shows, you did, like, five or six shows per day, and you had movies in between each show. And so, Mrs Ross said one day to Jackie Wilson, she says, " Jackie, honey, would you watch the girls while I go and have lunch?" Which I' m like, " Yes! Yes!"
Stuart: Yeah, one of the... - and probably one of the more romantic guys, yes, in every sense.
Mary: Oh yes, that was so much fun, yes, yes.
Stuart: Now, one of the other tributaries that coming along at this time is the rise, really, of, kind of, image and style, and that' s one of the things that the exhibition explores. When did you first begin to become passionate about fashion and look and visual style and the way in which you deported yourself?
Mary: Well, personally, that was something that I was always involved in, and Diane was always involved in, we all liked fashion. I remember having a tea party when I was eight years old, and I dressed up in my Aunt Ivy' s clothes and got the first spanking of my life, ' cause I destroyed her clothes in my little tea party that I was having at eight. So, I was really always into fashion, Diana was into fashion, in fact, she was taking up fashion in school and studying fashion design, and Florence, we all liked to dress up. So, when we started singing, initially, Diane and I would make some of the clothes, some of the inexpensive dresses, and then we started buying clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue, which was definitely a dream come true. And then when we became very famous, we started having the designers. So, fashion was something that we always loved. And when a Motown - or Berry Gordy, saw us, when we auditioned, I think they recognised that we really liked being pretty, and so they used that, you know. And people have this misunderstanding that Motown made us dress up and they made us look like this, and they picked our clothes. They didn' t do any of that, you know, we did it all. Of course, some of the chaperones would assist us, you know, and suggest things or whatever, but it was basically our - just the way we were.
Stuart: And was that same... you were actually coached? I mean, you read all the histories of Motown, and they all talk about, you know, deportment and how to conduct yourself.
Mary: The charm school... development.
Stuart: The charm school, yeah, what was the charm school really like?
Mary: Well, here it is, because, you see my legs here, they' re kind of nice now, but they used to be - I mean, when thin was kind of like nothing -
Stuart: Mary, I' m trying not to look, but I can see what you mean, yeah.
Mary: Okay, well, but I mean, but, you know, when you' re young, you don' t know how to sit, because I' m teaching my grandchildren, my granddaughter, right now, how to sit, so, I can' t really do it - I should have on pants and then I could really do it. But, you know, girls sit like this, you know, and stuff like that. And so, in charm school, Mrs Maxine Powell, would teach us how to sit, because she said, " one day, you girls are going to be singing before kings and queens," and we' re like, " sure. She must be off her - what is she drinking? Right." And so, I mean, yeah, 16, you know, and coming from where we came from. Well, of course, this was nowhere to - but she taught us how to, you know, sit, and she said, " ladies are always supposed to sit with their knees closed, no matter how short" - you know, because minis were in, you know, " so, your knees are always closed. And then you can cross them at the bottom, or you can sit, really, your body language is very important." So, we were taught that at Motown by Maxine Powell when we were 16 years old. And it' s something that I think we' ve always used. I remember, we were doing the Murray The K Show in New York, and lots of people on the show, Dusty Springfield was on the show, The Ronettes. And everyone would always say, " we could always tell all of the Motown acts when they came on, because their sort of body language, everything was really professional." So, that was something that we got from Motown Records.
Stuart: Yeah. One of the things about Motown Records that is often said is that Berry Gordy or, at least, the Motown system, borrowed a lot from Detroit and from the car plants in the sense of the division of labour, that people had a job and they did the job and they did it for high specification, and some of the tracks kept coming and were reused again. Is that the way that you saw it? Did you see this as a kind of, you know -
Mary: No, we didn' t see it like that. You know, the one - another misconception that people have is that we were just taken and just totally changed over. What people have to understand is that the black experience in America at that time was very important to the black family, and we were taught, by our own families, how to be good little girls or good little boys, they would tell us, " when you go out on the street, you represent the black race, so, you must act accordingly." So, we were taught very well before we even got there. Now, the professionalism that we gained at Motown was more of teaching us the etiquette, you know, the finer things, so that we would know. But Mrs Powell put it best, and she said - she would tell us this, and it was so wonderful when she would say it, because we' d feel so good, you know, she would say, " you ladies and you guys are just diamonds in the rough, we' re here just to polish you up." And that' s really what was going on. And that was such a great compliment, because we really were - it was our decision to be there, you know, no one just said, " okay, you, you, you, we' re going to make you into stars," we were there because we wanted to be there.
Stuart: You mentioned earlier on there in the conversation, " when we became really famous," you say.
Mary: Well, we were always famous in our minds.
Stuart: Indeed, yeah, indeed, but what was the moment, the one moment in time, that Mary Wilson personally has imprinted in her mind as the time she became really famous? What made you think, " wow, this is a bit different?" What was the moment or the time or the experience?
Mary: Well, let me just add something a little bit more, for me, that was more important than that, it was when I met Florence, Diane and Betty. That' s the moment that I really knew what and who I was. Because, when I met them, it was almost like they were the other parts of me that I didn' t possess, and I loved them equally, and I saw just who I was, through them, and just singing, sort of, at that moment, I' m the same person now that I was at that moment, because of meeting them. I think had I not met Florence, Diane and Betty and, eventually, Bob, I wouldn' t be the woman that I am. So, that was, for me, more defining, as a human being, to find something in life - and I try to tell my son this, he' s still looking for himself, he' s 30 - you know, sometimes you' re not fortunate to find something that you can be passionate about in life, to make your life meaningful. And I think we were very - for me, that was the most fabulous thing that ever happened. So, the records - as I said earlier, in our mind, we were already famous, because when we found each other, we knew just who we were, what were good at.
Stuart: And were you conscious of having a kind of driving ambition or whatever, because there' s so many other great singers - you' ve listed some of them - who didn' t have quite the same level of fame as The Supremes, other people who were fantastic at Motown, that just simply disappeared after maybe one or two songs or whatever. So, what was it that gave you that sense of longevity?
Mary: I would say, you know, Berry Gordy taking a big interest in us and believing in us, and seeing how dedicated we were - because we were young girls, I mean, originally, he didn' t want us there, because he only saw young girls, and for him, he probably said, " you know, I don' t want these teenage girls running round my studio and getting in trouble and then I' m the blame, you know," so, he turned us down. But, after seeing that we were so dedicated and so in love with what we did, he believed in us, too, and he gave us the writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, and that was that defining moment, because they gave us the music.
Stuart: Yeah, and all those great songs. But, before that happened, he put you on -
Stuart: You were on this big - I' ve seen the photograph of you, on the bus, the coach, the bus that takes you all over America, and you were doing the Motown Review, probably 63, 64, something like that. What was that experience like? You know, here you are, a young black Detroit girl, in a single coach, with some pretty heavy guys, let' s be honest.
Mary: Oh, it was fun.
Stuart: Yeah, yeah.
Mary: It was great.
Stuart: Was it great? And were you always chaperoned, Mary Wilson?
Mary: Yes, we were, yes, we were, we were. We were chaperoned until we were well into our 20s, we were probably 25, when we had chaperones. In fact, the first trip here, I think Diane' s mum was with us on that particular trip, and that was 64. So, we were - you know, as I said, Berry Gordy was very afraid that we would, you know, probably end up pregnant or something like that, because there was, like, all these guys running around Motown, you know, Marvin Gaye, you know, The Temptations, The Four Tops, you know, The Spinners, The Contours, it was like, " well, I' d better" - you know, so, he was pretty adamant about always having someone with us, to take care of us.
Stuart: And you' re driving through areas where, in the past, where Black R ' n' B singers or Soul singers or Jazz singers or whatever, were actually living largely in segregated lifestyles when they toured the Southern States and that, did you ever feel that you witnessed that, that you were party to that, that you could see it close up?
Mary: Party to what?
Stuart: Well, the segregation in the South at the time?
Mary: Oh, you know, that' s a very good point, because when we were living in Detroit, you know, in your own neighbourhood - I' m sure it' s like that in most areas, that your ethnic group lives, you know, you live in one area, you know, there' s the Irish area, just whatever area it is, Italian area, the Chinese area, and all this kind of stuff. Well, we were the same way, we lived in the black area. So, you know, we didn' t have a lot of interaction with segregation, because, in our area, it was cool. And the people who had stores and things like that, who were of other ethnic groups, well, our teachers, some of them were white, some of the store owners were white, so, you know, they were all - they knew us, by names, so, we didn' t really come in contact with that. When we started travelling, yes, we did. Or, like my family was originally from the south, and I would travel down there, to the south, you know, on summers, and that' s when I would see a lot of this. So, we were well aware of what was going on, but it wasn' t so blatant. You knew, if the water fountain said " Coloured," that' s the one you drink out of, you didn' t drink out of the one that said " White." So, you just did what you were supposed to do, and it was never really a problem, you know. I remember, when my father passed, it was the year I graduated, in 61 or 62, something like that, and I had to go south to bury him, with my family, and my cousin, who lived in the south, Josephine, and I, went to buy his little socks and the gloves and all the kind of stuff, and so I was telling the guy, " I want some nice socks for my dad." So, he gave me these cheap pair of socks. So, I looked at my cousin, " oh, these are cheap, I don' t want these for my dad, give me something else, da-da-da-da-da-da-da-da." And she was saying, " sh, don' t say it too loud,..., you might get hurt." And I' m like, " what? I mean, you know, I' m paying for what I want." I mean, I wasn' t being disrespectful, but it was just - the idea was, that was what I was supposed to just have, and, you know, accept it. No, my money is here, so. In those instances, you know, you knew what your parents had been telling you about, and you understood, so, when we got to the south, we understood that then, because we were young adults at that point. And it was kind of odd to perform, you know, you have to remember that Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, Marvin Gaye, all of us were on the same bus, and we were, you know, doing these great shows, and one show, say, the black audience would be on the bottom of the floor, and the white ones would be in the balcony, and then another one, they will switch, you know. But, there is a story, on this particular bus, we were in Florida, and we were driving in, and there was a motel and there was a pool, and so we had been driving all day and was really tired and hot and everything, and we' re like, " oh, a pool, okay, great, check in there, we' re going to jump into the pool." And all the white people who were in the pool jumped out. They were like, out. And so, anyway, we didn' t care, we just come - because we were young, you know, when you' re young, you know, you' re not trying to do anything, you just want to have fun. And so there was music playing, and some of the music from the show was on there, and the people found out that we were the -
Stuart: The show, yeah.
Mary: The stars. They all came back in the water, we had a great day. We all just partied together, you know. So, music is one of those things, I' ve found out, that it' s really - it brings people together, it really, really does.
Stuart: Now, you mentioned Holland-Dozier-Holland, now, I' ve got to ask you this, Mary, if it was reduced to - there it is, Hitsville USA - if it was reduced to one single song that you - there they are, the ten... there they are, Holland-Dozier-Holland, right?
Stuart: One single song, you' ve got to reduce it all down to one song, what' s the greatest song and why?
Mary: Of Supremes, Motown, or any song?
Stuart: Of Holland-Dozier-Holland for The Supremes?
Mary: Oh, oh, oh. Oh, gee, that' s hard, that' s hard.
Stuart: That' s hard, yeah, I know, but there' s no such thing as a free lunch, Mary.
Mary: I know, I know, I know. Yeah, right, I' ve learned that. Gee, you know, I really like some of The Four Tops, their songs, " Baby, I Need Your Loving," that' s one of my all-time favourites, " Seven Rooms of Gloom," I don' t know if they did that or not. But, you know, of The Supremes' songs, gee, " Reflections" is great, " I Hear a Symphony" is great. I wasn' t as crazy about some of the earlier ones, because they were kind of young, and we wanted to be grown up, yeah, so, they were like too bubble gum, whereas, then we started doing " You Can' t Hurry Love" and things like that, and we really liked those.
Stuart: Well, last night, when you came on stage, you even did that.
Mary: Yeah, well, because, you know that, because people - that hand movement - Charlie Atkins, too, we had to bring Charlie up into this, Charlie Atkins was also in the Artist Development Department, and he taught everyone the moves. And that was one of the most famous moves, other than The Temptations walk... And so, you know, when I do that, it' s because almost like " The Happening," you know, the record, " The Happening," was the soundtrack to a movie, and " The Happening" record became a hit record and the movie was a flop. But, you know, we were all thrilled that we were doing a soundtrack back at that time, you know, we Supremes did a lot of firsts, you know, television specials, we had the first television special, with The Temptations, we did a lot of commercials, so, there was a lot of firsts that we did. But that hand movement was great because it is as famous as the music itself, which shows you what a combination that Motown machinery was. You know, people say, " well, don' t you hate Motown? You said this and you said this, you didn' t get paid." But that' s a whole another story, it has nothing to do with the beauty of it, that, you know, when you look back when you' re young and you see that you didn' t get as much money as you should, but, I mean, the adults, they know their stuff and, you know, you don' t know it. You' d sell your soul just to get in there and sing a song or record, so, you' re not thinking about the money. Later on, you' re thinking about it. And the fact that I brought all this up, people think that I hate Motown, but, no, I love Motown, I just think that they should have been fair. But all the record companies were doing that, you know. I spoke to some of The Drifters, and they were saying the same thing, you know, in fact, they said they were on salary, which was really bad, you know. So, anyway, the hand movement became very, very famous, yes.
Stuart: Now, I want to talk a bit about the year 1967, when you were already very, very famous, and it was the beginning - you mentioned there the release of " The Happening," which I think was about February or March of that year.
Mary: Was it? Oh, you know more - you remember that stuff? I don' t remember.
Stuart: I complete -
Mary: I don' t remember, I had to ask one of my friends, you know. I call them up and say, " Hey, Rossty, what did we make in 1965?" You know.
Stuart: Well, Mary, excuse me, I' m one of these complete bores, of whom there' s thousands in the audience.
Mary: Yeah, right, right, right, okay, yes.
Stuart: January, 1967, it' s the new year, and I think, actually, you' d been doing the Orange Bowl in Florida, you' d been doing an icescapade or something like that, that you were doing in Florida, and you were turning back and there was snow all over the city -
Mary: In Florida?
Stuart: And it was the beginning - not in Florida, no, in Detroit, alright, you remember, right. No, Florida was where you dived into the pool.
Mary: I' m 64, I' m not senile. Quit . . .
Stuart: Okay, right, snow on the ground, Florence Ballard is beginning to - something' s happening in The Supremes, what was happening? Give us your truthful version of what actually was happening.
Mary: Well, you know, if you really want the real true story, you' ve got to read my book.
Stuart: I' ve read both versions.
Mary: I know it' s not here in the VA, but maybe you can tell they should get it here, okay. Alright, this is the real story, and I really wrote about that, about Florence, in depth. It' s a very long story to explain it all, and perhaps I can just do it quickly, just so everybody really understands. You know, Florence was abused when she was very young. We were in the Pr- as well, during the time, and the young man who did this, I think he was caught and put in prison. But, she was a virgin, and was raped. So, then, of course, we got to deal with Motown and we became famous and all these kind of things, and I think that Diane and I really felt that, you know, she was over this, and we didn' t know the depth, because we were very young at the time, we just didn' t understand it. But it totally destroyed Florence. I mean, she was distraught at that point. Thank God, we still had our - you know, we had our fame and all that stuff and, as I said, we really felt that she was okay, but she wasn' t. So, eventually, it came - and she never got help, because during that time, unlike now, people are helping children who are abused, and they really, you know, you go therapy and you do all these things, but, in those days, you didn' t do that, you kept quiet.
Stuart: You just closed it off, yeah.
Mary: You kept quiet, you didn' t want people to know, no one - you know, so, you didn' t get the help that you should, and that' s what happened to Florence. She didn' t get the professional help to help her get rid of some of these things. So, whenever anything would go wrong, then she would get unhappy and then, of course, she would get more and more unhappy. And, you know, you start drinking to cover up the pain. So, people were saying that she was drinking too much, but she was just hurting. And eventually, it got to the point where she was unable to really do her job well. And that' s basically what happened to her. So, she was put out of the group, I mean, she didn' t just leave. But, and I try to say this in all fairness to everyone, there are many times you hurt yourself when you' re in pain, and so that' s kind of what happened to her. It was very, very, very hard to look at, as a friend. It was very, very difficult for me. It probably destroyed me, as well, in many ways. I mean, I learned a lot, I grew up. Seeing a friend in pain is so horrible. So, even now, you know, I think that friends need to help friends. You know, if you see that they' ve been doing something, really try to get them to get professional help.
Stuart: And during that period, so many myths were built up about Motown, about the break-up of The Supremes or, at least, Florence leaving The Supremes and that, what' s the thing that you think is now commonly said about Motown or about The Supremes that just simply is wrong? What' s the common -
Mary: Well, I don' t know so much about Motown, but I' ll tell you the one thing that' s very wrong, is when people don' t understand how much Flo, Diane and I, love each other, always. Florence went to her grave loving Diane so much, and never really, you know, saying anything. And Diane loved Florence, very, very much. And I love Diane and Diane loves me. The business and all these things, and money, fame, has destroyed a lot of people, it really has, their relationships, because it' s just - anyway, that' s one of the things that I would really like, people to understand how much we loved each other. And that' s why when the young lady introduced me as the founding member, it' s like, I can' t take that -
Stuart: Credit, yeah.
Mary: Yeah, it' s all three of us, we were totally, totally equal in that.
Stuart: And if we move a bit forward, in the year 1967, that' s also the year of the riots in Detroit.
Mary: I thought it was 68.
Stuart: 67, yeah.
Mary: He knows everything.
Stuart: And 43 people dead.
Mary: What! 43! My God! What if I knew -
Stuart: Well, where, Mary Wilson, were you?
Stuart: Where were you? Because your folks were in Detroit but you were in Las Vegas, I think, weren' t you?
Mary: No, no, oh, no, no, no, I was there. I saw sofas going past my window. That' s an inside joke. But, anyway, [laughs], anyway, no, I was actually at home at that point, and directly after that, is when I decided to move to the West Coast. Because we had been doing television shows and our television specials and everything on the West Coast, and falling in love with it, because the weather was, as you mentioned, it' s cold in Detroit, and the weather out there was nice. And I had decided to move out there. And when the riots happened, I just said, " okay, I' m going."
Stuart: And when you look back to those days, the city was torn apart and all the rest of it, maybe actually tore the heart out of the city for that period of time and whatever, do you know, when you look back to those days now, I think it was the house you bought, Buena Vista, they say?
Mary: Sure, yes, Buena Vista.
Stuart: Buena Vista, and I think all three members of The Supremes bought their first house -
Mary: On that street, without knowing it. Without knowing it, we all ended up having a house there on the same street.
Stuart: Did you stay there?
Mary: We were like, " God, I was trying to get rid of them." But, no, but, I mean, that was really kind of odd, when we found out, because we were actually over here touring, and couldn' t look for homes, so, we had, you know, the people buying homes, and when we got back to Detroit, we looked at all these different houses they had found for us, and each of us chose our own house, without knowing, and then we realised it was on the same street. It was very odd, very odd.
Stuart: And did you sell it when you moved to Los Angeles?
Mary: No, I kept the house for years, yes, until I finally realised it wasn' t going to get any better, because after the riots, as you said, it had really just destroyed the city. But, you know, the riots can' t take full credit for the city dying. The reason for the riots, one of them was, you know, people didn' t have any work, you know, the factories had been closing down, so, it was a lot of different reasons.
Stuart: Now, the other bizarre thing about 1967, I was looking, statistically, it was the year when the most young Detroiters died in Vietnam, and young people dying in Vietnam that year. Your brother, I think, was in Vietnam.
Mary: My brother was in Vietnam, and he said, the things he had to do in the service, he was so embarrassed, he was never the same, he had no idea. I think it destroyed a lot of people' s lives, who are still walking around today, because of that. War is a horrible thing.
Stuart: Yeah, and The Supremes, you went to - you didn' t sing in Vietnam but I think you went to American forces -
Stuart: Okinawa, yeah, tell us a bit about that.
Mary: Well, we were on tour, and we went to Manila, did all the Air Force bases and things like that, you know, performing for the guys and girls over there. And then we also, as you said, we were diverted from Vietnam because they said they couldn' t protect us and they didn' t want us to go there, so, we were diverted to Okinawa and other places. And then, when we came back, we went to the hospital for the vets in Washington, DC. Anybody knows which one? I can' t right now think of it.
Stuart: That would be the Walter Reed in Philadelphia.
Mary: Walter Reed, yes, and that' s where we saw some sights that would just destroy you. You know, young men, 90% burned, you know, it was just really horrible. And I really understood the tragedy of war on the human life. And, as I said, my brother' s never been the same since he came out of Vietnam. He' s still trying to get his life back together. So, ...
Stuart: Although it came much later, the soundtrack, obviously, to that year, was Marvin Gaye' s " What' s Going On?"
Mary: Yes, it was.
Stuart: Tell us a wee bit about Marvin Gaye.
Mary: He was fine. All the girls loved Marvin Gaye. Whooo. Oh, he was - but, more than that, he was a gentle human being, very, very gentle. He was the kind of person that, if you were around him, you felt that you were in the presence of an angel, you know, he was that kind of - his soul was like that. I know that people say a lot of things about him, you know, drugs later in life, and all that stuff, but, from his music, you can tell that he was a very deep, kind of caring person, and I think that' s why he was unable to really cope with life, because there was so much going on, that he couldn' t control and couldn' t understand it, and so he was in pain a lot, you know, for whatever reason other than that. But, yeah, he was a great person, but he also was very talented, you know. A lot of people don' t know that he played the drums on The Marvelettes song, " Please, Mr Postman," he was a great pianist. He couldn' t dance, though. And, you know, they say all black people can dance, it' s not true.
Stuart: It' s not true.
Mary: But, I remember that, we, The Supremes, were jealous of Martha and The Vandellas because they had the opportunity to sing background with him, and we didn' t. Well, we actually did, we did " Can I Get a Witness?" with him, and I think there was another one we did. Howard Kramer from Rock ' n' Roll Hall of Fame.
Mary: I know we did " Can I Get a Witness?" , we did the background for that one. I got one that they don' t know.
Stuart: Yeah, that was a good one, yeah. Now -
Mary: But he was a wonderful, talented, talented man.
Stuart: Now, of course, another towering influence, you mentioned him earlier, is Berry Gordy himself.
Stuart: I wanted to kind of go back a bit in time, back to the Gordy family, because they' re actually quite a remarkable family, when you think about it, the sisters, I think they had the fashion photographic franchise for the Flame Show Bar, they had businesses all over Detroit, I mean, this was actually quite a significant family in the black community.
Mary: Well, you know, people say that like it' s something special, and it is something special, but there are many, many, many families like that. Fortunately for Berry Gordy was that he, you know, started Motown, and that gave him more prominence and more visibility than a lot of black families who are really doing things like that. Everyone can' t become as famous as Mr Gordy did. But his family was, perhaps, responsible for, you know, helping him, giving him the idea that he could, you know, pursue his dream, and they did loan him the money to start Motown. Everybody in the family was very progressive in terms of their work and what they did, and just constantly doing things. So, you know, it paid off, it really paid off. But I really think that the family foundation, as I mentioned earlier, in the black family, was much more structured than people really assumed. And sometimes I become very, very upset when people say, " well, how did it feel being black and poor?" It' s like, you know, " I was happy." So, we had a lot of good roots in the black community.
Stuart: What would Gordy' s real skill be? If you were to describe what it was that he brought, apart from owning the company, obviously, what was the skill?
Mary: Well, he' s Sagittarian, so he has his great skill of organising people. He knows what people are good at and what they' re not good at, and I think that' s his forte. He was able to - because he gets a lot of credit for things that were not his idea, but the credit should be that he knows what each person is good at, and he gets that out of them. So, that' s his - even though it wasn' t his idea, he knew that that person could do that job. And so I would say that' s his biggest credit. But, also, you know, he was a great songwriter. He did a lot of songs for Jackie Wilson and all that. And also he overseed all of the music that came out of Motown. So, even though Holland-Dozier-Holland or Smokey Robinson or Norman Whitfield or Mickey Stevenson were the writers and producers, it would still have to pass through Berry, and he could tell each one - well, we never knew if he would say something was wrong with it and change it, just so he could have his name on it. [laughs] Or, if it really made the song better. But, obviously, they were all number one, so it must have made it better. But, that' s his, I would say, his forte.
Stuart: And going back to 67, at the beginning of the year, Mickey Stevenson left, at the end of the year, I think Holland-Dozier-Holland left, Berry Gordy wasn' t that great at keeping people, was he?
Mary: No, no, no, no. No, no, no, no.
Stuart: Oh, you disagree?
Mary: No, no, I disagree. I think that it was at a time when we were growing up. And, you know, Berry started, as you said, with the family structure, and he was the controller, he was a ruler, he knew everything. But when children grow up, and they know become, you know, masters at the trade, then they want to negotiate. And Berry' s the kind of person that, you know, he only wants to negotiate on his terms and, you know, whoever has children out there, you realise sometimes that children are like that, you know, they get up and they say, " well, no, this is what I want." And if you' re too - if you' re unpliable and unflexible, sometimes the children will rebel, or whatever, against you, and that' s kind of happened. So, it' s not that he' s - because we all still love him, and we all go back to him, you know, as you can tell by the Motown 25th, things like that. And we' re wondering if they don' t have a Motown 50th, but no one' s called me.
Stuart: We all look back, and it' s so easy to look back with hindsight and be smart after the event or whatever, but one of the things that did happen is that, in the end, artists started to challenge, across all, not just at Motown, across the music industry generally, about rights ownership, about who wrote songs, about the value of their contribution and whatever, give us your personal perspective on that, on looking back now, from 2008, to the era of the 60s where you were the singer.
Mary: Well, I think I really just answered it. I mean, people grow up and they change their minds. I mean, take the example of Marvin Gaye, who, you know, originally was an artist and then he wanted to write his own material, and that was really something that artists didn' t do at Motown, you left that to the people who did that best. And, you know, he decided, " no, I' ve got to do this, I must do this." So, that was happening a lot, I mean, that was what was going on, people were deciding what they now wanted to do with their lives. Especially since you' re a star now, you know, you say, " okay, I want to do this." And so, you know, it was a time after the riots and all, the world was changing. We had a nice time of people progressing and then, all of a sudden, the world was opening up, things were changing, and that was what was going on, and that' s what happened to Motown, when they moved to the West Coast. And it was the day of the 60s was kind of like, over. And that' s when Diane left the group. When we started travelling all over the world - I' ve got to just bring this up, I want to mention, too. Here, this is Princess Margaret there, on the screen. And we were doing all these great things. You know, we were on the Ed Sullivan Show more than any other artist, except that puppet, Topo Gigio.
Stuart: Yeah, he' s good, I liked him.
Mary: And sometimes I think that Ed Sullivan thought I was Diane, because he always came over and shook my hand. Here we are with Sonny Cher, Sammy Davis, The Lovin' Spoonful, we toured with them, they were, like, really strange. One of our favourite groups, The Andrews Sisters, on the Sammy Davis Show.
Stuart: No, that' s Tarzan, isn' t it? That' s Tarzan. Why the hell were you playing nuns in Tarzan?
Mary: Because we were good girls.
Stuart: Oh, come on, you' ve been on tour with Jackie Wilson, you are not a nun.
Mary: And that was really cool, we enjoyed that, too, we had a great time filming that. And this was the first television special - bless you - that I was telling you about. These girls are in the exhibit, they were made by Bob Mackey. This was over here at The Talk of the Town, what year was it, Stuart?
Stuart: Oh, I don' t know, I don' t do The Beatles, not interested.
Mary: You don' t do The Beatles. It' s like 1968, because Cindy is in there, that' s how I know, see. But that was at The Talk of the Town. Satchmo was one of the - I always said, we' ve got to take... - anyway, this bread wrapper.
Stuart: Yeah, the bread wrapper, I like the bread, that' s good.
Mary: White bread, Supremes white bread, okay, and we got so much flack from the NWACP for endorsing white bread. It was still the 60s, you see. And so we would tell people that, well, that was the only kind of bread that everybody ate. I mean, they didn' t have like, today, you' ve got every colour of bread you want, wheat, rye, I don' t know. Then they only ate white bread, you know. So, anyway, that was ours. And we endorsed Coca-Cola. We were really the first pop group to start endorsing commercial products. So, we endorsed white bread, Coca-Cola, and we also had Arid underarm - I don' t have that one here - underarm deodorant, we endorsed that. We had our own wig line. And then, of course, comes my books, but we' re not up to that point, let' s go back, okay.
Stuart: I just want to ask you - time' s rushing ahead.
Mary:I know, we' ve got to move on.
Stuart: And I' ve got to go to the audience in a bit, but just before we do that, when you look back, and you were talking there about the period, do you ever look back, " Je Ne Regret Rien" the song says, do you ever look back and say, " I regret," is there something you' d change?
Mary: The regret that I would have is that I wasn' t as wise as I am now. But, you know, when you' re young, you' re foolish, you' re young, you' re foolish, and I was certainly that. But I enjoyed my life a lot. And I think that had I been a bit wiser, I would have made a few different choices. Probably would have helped Florence a little bit more, probably would have asked for a little bit more money, probably would have gotten the name of The Supremes, which I did get 50% of ownership of that name. But, you know, just things like that. But I don' t have what you might call real regrets. I may have made some silly stupid mistakes along the way, but I don' t really have any major regrets, so, I' m very, very happy about that. Of course, here, we were inducted into the Rock ' n' Roll Hall of Fame.
Stuart: Yes, indeed.
Mary: Mr Howard Kramer will know, he' s here representing the Rock ' n' Roll Hall of Fame. Stand up, let everybody see you.
Stuart: Yeah, go on, there he is, there he is, absolutely.
Mary: Howard came to my house and looked at all my boxes and trunks with the gowns, so, he was the first person who actually saw them, while they were - yeah, right. So, thank God, I did that. So, this was a great moment here. The only sad moment about this was that I was the only one there, Diane wasn' t there, Florence wasn' t there, so, it was one of those hollow kind of moments of just - I was thoroughly happy, but I was sharing with just myself, and I wanted to so much share it with the other ladies, our success, you know, say that our dreams really did come true. So, we travelled all over the world, we were on that show, at the B- , The Beach Boys, and I think The Drifters was there. We have a star in Hollywood Boulevard, if you ever get to Hollywood, go down La Braer and Rodale, you can walk all over us. And so, that' s it.
Stuart: That' s the story, it' s a great story, as well. Ladies and gentlemen, Mary Wilson. We' re going to come to questions.
Stuart: Mary has to rush in ten minutes, she' s going to do the Jools Holland Show, so, at last, you get some licence fee value. It' s going to be recorded on the telly. Questions, gentleman there and then there, please.
Question: Hi, Mary. Could I just ask you about Jean Tyrell? Jean Tyrell was brought in after Diana Ross left the group, and my understanding is that she left because she became very dissatisfied with the way that Motown was treating The Supremes. Why do you think Motown did change its attitude towards The Supremes in the 70s? And why did the group eventually disband?
Mary: I don' t really, really know, but Jean wasn' t the only dissatisfied, we all were dissatisfied. It just so happens that they could walk away, Jean and Linda could walk away, because they didn' t have a stake in the group the way I had a stake in it. So, even though I was unhappy about the treatment we were receiving at the time, I couldn' t walk away and leave them in The Supremes, I would not do that, and they did walk away and leave. And that' s one of the reasons why, many times, I' m unhappy when they come back and take over the group and tour as The Supremes, because they actually left it and did not help it, so, I' m not very happy about that, and I will never be happy about that. I hope that God will help me to get over it, but it' s something that I just feel very, very bad about. Motown, for some reason, at the time that Stuart was talking about, was making that move and things were changing, and they just weren' t interested in us. And they probably didn' t have the belief. Jean is a great singer, she did a great job, she gave us some of our greatest songs. And it should have, you know, worked, with her doing it. It wasn' t her fault, it was just the machinery was not behind us.
Stuart: And you would never want to fight her brother, would you?
Mary: No, right.
Stuart: There' s another question there.
Question: I' d just like to say, thank you, Mary. I' ve followed you for many, many years in your solo career, and the last time I saw you was last summer, in Lake Taho.
Mary: In Lake Taho, yes.
Question: And I' m sure, as many people here do, through good times and bad times, The Supremes have always been there for me, thank you.
Mary: Thank you.
Question: But, as this gentleman was saying, I' ve got the whole collection, but technically, I think the combination of Cindy Birdsong and Jean Tyrell and yourself are definitely the best, technically, Supremes, to see.
Mary: Oh, thank you. Well, I appreciate that. My take on that - because a lot of people want to hear how I felt about that group - I loved all of us, but each one was different. The Jean Tyrell, Cindy Birdsong and Mary Wilson, we were the 70s Supreme, we were not the hit-making Supremes, okay, we were another group. And I want people to be very clear of why I defend the original group against the 70s group, because we made the history. In the 70s, we were great, but we were another group.
Stuart: There' s a gentleman here who has a question. Yes, sir, with the blue shirt on here. Can we take a microphone here? It' s just passing over. Yes, sir.
Question: I was wondering whether or not there would ever be a chance that you and Diana would get back together for a reunion tour.
Mary: Well, certainly, there' s an opportunity, but, you know, Diana' s got to want to do that and, at the present time, she really doesn' t want to do it. So, you know, I' m of the thinking that it' s best, if she doesn' t want to do it, we can' t do it unless we all want to do it.
Question: There' s still a future...
Mary:Oh sure, I mean, I think there' s a chance, and I' ll be there to do it, you know, yeah, but she' s got to want to do it. I can' t make her, no one can make her, until she gets ready.
Stuart: Could you pass the microphone to the gentleman there. Yes, sir.
Question: I think you' ve got a new album coming out?
Mary: Yes, I have a new CD that' s due out later this year, and it' s with the company of the Holland brothers, and their company is producing me. I' ve already recorded probably 90% of the album, it should be out later this year. In fact, we' re speaking to a company here, Vibrant, here, in the UK, that may be the company to release it here.
Stuart: Reasonably priced, Mary?
Mary:Well, I don' t know.
Stuart: I' m sure there' ll be a lot of people want to buy it. Just right behind you, sir, there' s a gentleman there.
Question: Hi, Mary, I came in from San Francisco to see you.
Mary: Hey, yeah, well, you saw the Jazz show there, yes?
Question: I didn' t get to it, I' m so sorry, I didn' t get to it. Hopefully, maybe, next time you' re back. I wasn' t living in the city at the time. But I just want to say, I' ve been a fan since the 60s, and I can remember being a little white boy in Gary, Indiana, buying your album, and I had to put the cover down because the other white people would look at me, and how much that changed my life.
Stuart: You said in Gary, Indiana?
Question: Yes, the Jackson 5. I didn' t know them. I was just wondering, I loved the exhibit, it was beautiful, I wonder, do you think Diana Ross will get a chance to see it when she' s here, supposedly?
Mary: Well, I mean, certainly, she may be, because she' s going to be working in Liverpool, I understand, and I' m sure she' ll sneak in. She' ll probably have her big glasses and a wig.
Question: It' s such a tribute to all of you. Thank you.
Stuart: Yes, there' s a gentleman over here in the blue shirt. We' ve already had, I think, Lake Taho in San Francisco, can you upstage this?
Question: No, a much more shallow question. The show' s all about your clothes, and I' d like you to tell us about your favourite outfit you' ve ever worn.
Stuart: Yes, Mary Wilson, we' d like to know, throughout the whole period of your singing stardom, the one outfit that you love.
Mary: Oh, you know, it changes all the time, it really does. Since I' m here in London, I like the pink beaded, the ones that we wore for our command performance with the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret, Princess Anne. So, in fact, they' ve always been some of my favourite gowns, because they weigh maybe 35 pounds each, and they' re all heavily beaded with rhinestone pearls, you know, ...everything. So, they' re like the top.
Stuart: And that one you were wearing there, with the shoulderless -
Mary: Which one?
Stuart: The very nice one there, the last one we saw. I like the dress you' re nearly wearing. Now, look, Mary, we' ve got to get a bit serious here. If you were to move into another genre of music, would you have liked to have actually pursued a different - let' s go back, this idea that you started this session today singing an aria, singing an opera, would you like to have done classical music or opera or some other form of non-popular music?
Mary: [sings] " No complaints, no regrets, I still believe in chasing dreams, and placing bets. But I have learned that all you give is all you get, so give it all you got. I' ve had my share, and I drank my fill, and even though I' m satisfied, I' m hungry still" - I can' t get that off - " to see what' s down another road, beyond the hill, and do it all again. So, here' s to life, and every joy it brings. So, here' s to life, to dreamers and their dreams. Funny how the time just flies, a love can go from warm hellos to sad goodbyes, and leave you with the memories you' ve left behind, to keep your winters warm. For there' s no yes in yesterday, and who knows what tomorrow brings, what takes away, as long as I' m still in the game, I want to play, the last, the life, the love. So, here' s to life, and every joy it brings. So, here' s to life, to dreamers and their dreams. May all your storms be weathered, and all, all that' s good get better. Here' s to life, here' s to love, here' s to you."
Stuart: Superb, fantastic. Ladies and gentlemen, the wonderful Mary Wilson.
Mary: Gotta go. Okay.
Stuart: We' ll let you go.
Mary: I' ve got to go.
Stuart: You' ve got to go, babe. Lovely to see you. Take care, all the best. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
Mary: Okay, and I did, too. Alright, my lashes are coming out.
Stuart: All the best. And we' ll see you later. Take care, honey. All the best, all the best, yeah, cheers.
Mary: Bye bye. My lash is coming off.
Mary Wilson, co-founder of The Supremes, talks about her extraordinary career and about the heyday of Motown with Stuart Cosgrove, Director of Nations and Regions for Channel 4, at the V&A on 13 May 2008.
Video: Mary Wilson and Maxine Powell discuss 'image'
Mary Wilson: I think that we wanted - we being The Supremes - we wanted to - make a difference for our race you know. We wanted to - every time we' d go up there - we wanted to be viewed as not only good people but let people see that black people weren' t what they were saying we were - you know. And that we were beautiful and that we were successful.
That' s why people like Mrs Maxine Powell was very important to us because when we went to Artist Development at Motown - you know - we were very interested in the classes. We didn' t try to cut the classes - we wanted to make sure we were in the class, you know.
Maxine Powell: All my life I was thinking of things that would help my race become outstanding and I thought of class and style - and refinement was two things that would be accepted around the world.
Mary Wilson: So going out and travelling all over the world - it was always important for us to - make sure that our blackness was known and that we held ourselves in such a way whereas - you know - we felt as good as the next person.
Maxine Powell: And I know today that to look chic, stunning, elegant and smart can be learnt. And then there' s certain colours that make you glow. So you learn that. And then they always looked good. And then they wanted to do something different. They wanted to glitter.
Mary Wilson: When we first started singing as the Primettes, we never wore make-up, well I think the most we did was maybe smudge some eyeliner round the eyes and I always more Maybelline mascara.
The reason for wigs is because the wear and tear on your own hair. Especially travelling to different countries - it was horrible and until they had black lines - you see there was a time when - there was not - not even - make-up for black faces, you know, and so by the same token, there was not -the relaxing or the - perms that you could do on your hair. When Black is Beautiful became in - well then of course we started doing the natural and - at that point - I had the biggest natural - but it was my own hair - it wasn' t a - you know - a wig. So, you know, as time changes as trends change, you know, we have - changed as well.
Maxine Powell: And they were doing the Shake, a dance called the Shake and I said - what are you doing? Oh, we' re doing - they were just like the youngsters of today - oh we' re doing the - a dance, I don' t know if you know about it - and I said - yeah, I know about the Shake. And I showed them how it should be done.
With the buttocks tucked under, smiling and shaken to the floor, you see. And then coming up and then going into something classy, and smiling and gleaming and whatnot. So they learned how to do those things.
Mary Wilson: But I think The Supremes became the most popular female group around the world internationally because we did start a trend. And we were used as the model, and I mean even today, I would say that - you know - people would look at The Supremes' image and, you know, some will say well we choose to be that, some people say no, but I think that we did set that model.
And it was because we were different - we were - we were not only three pretty girls - you know - like I know the Ronettes were pretty girls too - you know - but we had the style, we had the class, we had the look, we had the sound. It was almost like we embodied the total thing of perfection for women and I think that' s why we stood out, because we had that - we just set a trend. We were like the first.
Mary Wilson and Maxine Powell, founder of Motown's Artist Development finishing school, talk about The Supremes' image.
Video: Trevor Nelson on The Supremes
Trevor: Well. The Supremes legacy really was the way they changed the face of pop music, particularly for female artists, in that, yeah, we had solo artists, we had a lot of male doo wop groups that were successful, a lot of male bands were successful, but for female artists to have that kind of consistency, they took a lot of nurturing and a lot of discipline and you know it was like female groups started emerging and were put through a boot camp almost.
In those days The Supremes would have been churning out performance after performance day after day when they were promoting records.Also, Motown churned records out a lot more then than record companies do today. You know it always had ten hits in the charts at the same time. So the pressure was on, it was hard work and hard graft.
I don’ t think anyone today would appreciate how hard it was back in the day, not at all. I mean you work a record now you work it round the world, you send a video out, the video gets played in every country before they even hear you perform. You’ re a star before you' ve ever performed live. That could never have happened back then.Sure you could have a hit record but you had to cut it live to have longevity. I take my hat off to The Supremes because not only did they perform round the country, they went to segregated areas as well where they probably couldn’t stay in certain hotels, you know. They could probably perform in a hotel ballroom and not stay in that hotel, you know and that' s something. You' ve got to take your hat off to them.
The word ' success' in America were always associated to white, not black. You know if somebody was successful in America they were normally white so to have three black girls who were very young become the biggest selling female artists in the world must have given a lot of hope, particularly to aspiring singers, but to every black girl in the projects, in the ghettos, you know because that' s essentially where these girls came from. And every time they went on a TV show like the Ed Sullivan show for example, a huge show watched by millions of Americans, and they didn’t get huge complaints, people went out and bought their records ... must have given huge hope to everybody.
I don't think it's fair to say anybody can really carry the spirit of The Supremes. I think that would be doing The Supremes a bit of an injustice. In the UK, for example, you see the Sugababes. Three girls, don't move too much ... you know what I mean. I'm not saying they sound like The Supremes, but if The Supremes didn't exist would a record company believe that they could put three girls together like that, not moving too much. Every girl group I look at, I think of The Supremes, I really do. I don't think there's anyone vocally whose got that catalogue of songs that I could even put in the same sentence as The Supremes. You're not looking at The Spice Girls, are you?!
Trevor Nelson, radio and television broadcaster, reflects on The Supremes' influence at the time, their significance now and their legacy to popular music.
Video: The story of the Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection
(music: My world is empty… .)
NARRATOR: In 2008 the Victoria and Albert Museum staged one of its most unusual exhibitions. (music: '… and as I go my way alone… ) Visited by over 60,000 people, the exhibition brought a little bit of Motown to London. ('… I need your strength, I need your tender touch. I need the love my dear, I miss so much… ) The exhibition had at its heart the dresses and costumes worn by the most successful girl pop group ever: The Supremes. (music: '… from this cold world I tried to hide my face… ) It even saw the attendance of one of the band's founding members for a special one-off talk.
[CUT TO CLIP] INTERVIEWER: Ladies and Gentlemen, Mary Wilson of the Supremes, c'mon.
NARRATOR: This show was: The Story of the Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection.
The costumes in the Exhibition show how The Supremes' image was created and how it was the changing face of American society in the 1960s. The show was put together by Geoffrey Marsh and Victoria Broackes.
VICTORIA BROACKES: What we've tried to do in the exhibition is interweave the story of the civil rights movement in the 50's and 60's with the story of the Supremes' success. The Supremes represented a sort of counterpoint to the political activism of the time because they represented beauty, elegance, style, and above all, success. The core of the exhibition is in fact the fashions and the collection here is Mary Wilson's own collection of dresses and we have about 50 dresses in the exhibition. The beaded dresses that you see on the revolve were the dresses they wore to meet the Queen Mother in 1968 and every bead was sewn on by hand and they weigh 35 lbs each.
And this case where you see a cascade of records is about how they found success in 1964 when they released 'Where did our love go?' they'd actually signed with Berry Gordy at Motown in 1961 but they'd had 3 years without a single hit and they had come to be called the no-hits Supremes. But from then on they had five hits in a row and that's a record, I think, to this day.
From then they went on to represent success on an international stage and there's a poster at the back of the case which shows them opening the Lincoln Centre in 1965.
And a very early example of product endorsement down at the bottom in the shape of the Supremes bread where you see them on the cover of the bread.
The recording desk which we've tried to recreate with an example of how the studio looked behind and so on, is where we talk a bit about the Motown technology which was, at the time, amongst most advanced in the world. There was only united western in LA and Abbey road where the Beatles recorded that could compete with them at all and even those not in the terms of numbers of hits. On the desk we have an original version of "Babylove". "Babylove" was actually recorded before "Where Did Our Love Go?" but when "Where Did Our Love Go?" went to number one, Berry Gordy sent them back to the studio. He said he wanted their second hit to sound just like the first. And that's when they added the foot stomps and the hand claps.
('… Break my heart and leave me sad, tell me what did I do wrong, to make you stay away so long? Cause babylove, my babylove, been missin' ya… )
We wanted to bring film into the exhibition where we could to show how things looked at the time. And we recorded Mary Wilson talking about what it was like to be a Supreme… Um… Also Maxine Powell who played such a major part. She ran the Motown charm school which was a bit like the Hollywood star factories of the 1940's and 50's. She taught the Supremes how to… how to sit, how to be interviewed, as she says on the film, 'how to meet kings and queens.'
MAXINE POWELL: So then they learned the basic standing position. How not to protrude the buttocks. How to roll under. And if they didn't know the step, then smile and not act tough about it.
(music: '… my world is empty without you babe...')
VICTORIA BROACKES: We wanted to look at the legacy of the Supremes and what they might mean to people today, er, we talked to Trevor Nelson about that and he finishes off the exhibition by talking about girl groups now and how they've been influenced by the Supremes. And it's not just… it's not that they were the first girl group or the best girl group, it's the fact that following their success one can see just how incredibly successful a girl group could be.
TREVOR NELSON: I would say as you look at girl groups full stop, they all want that Supremes' success. And The Supremes have proved that a girl group can last ten years or more at the very top.
VICTORIA BROACKES: The story of The Supremes it's a good story itself but its also a great story to talk about the history of the 1960s. I think from where we are now, it is hard to imagine a segregated world. Impossible to imagine having two charts: a black chart and a white chart. It's extraordinary. And I think it's good remind people that that was how the world was then.
VISITOR: I heard about the exhibition and it was something I definitely wanted to see, so I specifically came here to see this exhibition. I didn't actually have a favourite part because I loved the entire exhibition. I think the history bit of it was really good and the clothes and of course the music.
MARY WILSON: [SUNG] So here's to life, to dreamers and their dreams. Funny how the time just flies, how love can go from warm hello's to sad goodbyes and leave you with the memories you've left behind to keep your winters warm. For there's no yes in yesterday and who knows what tomorrow brings or takes away. As long as I'm still in the game I wanna play: the laughs, the life, the love. So here's to life! - And every joy it brings. So here's to life! - To dreamers and their dreams. May all your storms be weathered and all that's good get better. Here's to life! Here's to love! Here's to you!
INTERVIEWER: [MUFFLED: So proud of you, fantastic] Ladies and Gentleman, the wonderful Mary Wilson!
MARY WILSON: Gotta go. Thank you, thank you so much. OK.
INTERVIEWER: We'll let you go
MARY WILSON I gotta go
INTERVIEWER: You gotta go, babe. Lovely to se eyou take vcare al the best. Thoroughly enjoyed it.
MARY WILSON: Oh good, I did too
INTERVIEWER: All the best take care honey all the best all the best…
MARY WILSON: byebye…
This video talks about the Story of the Supremes exhibition which displayed not only a sparkling array of dresses and costumes, from Mary Wilson's own collection, but also addressed issues of social history and civil rights.