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  • Writer's pictureTony Harris


When I went to university, I had already had the best part of a year away from education. I did a little work experience at a newspaper, for instance; I worked on a factory line, packing Mum Deodorant; and I worked as a van driver delivering graphic supplies to design studios and ad agencies. There's not much I can't tell you about Letraset.

Yes - it was that long ago.

I tell you this because by the time I first arrived back into the rarified world of academia, I had initially rather got out of the habit of studying as hard as I probably should have done. I had spent the previous year in the "university of life" and used the proceeds to expand my record collection and musical education, whilst not really spending much time with the loftier works, so to speak.

This was compounded by the fact that I was not given the prospect of any exams for nearly a year and a half. I could carry on broadening my mind without over-taxing myself with "The Iliad" or "The Odyssey" in their original texts. I remember that as the day of reckoning came closer, I still persuaded myself that I needed to ensure that I was still giving vent to all manner of influences rather than just the ones I was about to be tested upon.

For interested parties, I managed to strike up a better working balance between the secular and scholarly in later rounds of exams.

This is a very long way round (but you should be used to that by now, dear reader) to say that I have very clear memories of being in the library on the pretence of swotting up on the prescribed classics but actually reading Nelson George's seminal "Where Did Our Love Go" and "Dreamgirl" by Mary Wilson - such was my fascination at the time with Motown.

Frankly, both should be considered classic texts. And perhaps now after the sad news of her passing, Mary Wilson's first memoir will be considered as such.

Mary had always been one of the most willing and articulate contributors to any discussion on Motown, having joined in the very early 60s as part of The Primettes (later to be The Supremes and then Diana Ross and The Supremes!) and was a member of their family right through to the mid-70s. Often overlooked is the band's continuing success into the 70s long after Diana Ross's departure, despite largely being ignored by Motown's main management. She knew all of the key figures in the label's illustrious history, pioneering so much of its success and also enduring much of its more ruthless modus operandi.

"Dreamgirl" was her first memoir and covers her early days with The Supremes from forming the band with her friends from the Detroit projects - Diana Ross and Florence Ballard - until the eventual schism when Diana left to become a solo artist, at Berry Gordy's prompting.

The whole sad tale of Florence Ballard's expulsion from the band & Motown family, and early death was one of the centrepieces of the book. This is difficult for Mary in that she is the one who stayed while Diana was being pushed forward and there is obviously a sense of guilt about the sad fate of her former bandmate. However, her description of the spectacle of the funeral and Diana's dreadful diva behaviour is an episode where the lines become very clearly drawn.

The Supremes are still the most successful girl group ever with five consecutive US number one singles and the first ever Tamla recording to hit top spot in the UK. Mary Wilson was there throughout all of this. But whilst it is easy to simply write her off as part of the backing group with the occasional namecheck ("Back In My Arms Again"), she has always been "the keeper of the flame" for the legacy of the band.

Her latest book "Supreme Glamour" came out a year or so ago and I was lucky enough to get a signed copy. It is a wonderful book which really brought to life the astounding exhibition of the Supremes stage costumes that was held at the Rock n Roll Hall Of Fame Museum. The attention to detail and overwhelming grandeur of the items really demonstrated the lengths the Motown Corporation were prepared to go to create stars that would be able to find fame across the globe. Mary was the driving force behind this historic display.

Because, Mary Wilson was always a Supreme.

Often overlooked, in the Motown history is that despite an imperial period for the band until around 1967, during the last two years with Diana Ross as the lead, their chart success was considerably more patchy.

This is is stark contrast to the period after Diana left the group, when Mary flew the flag for The Supremes and a slew of excellent but often overlooked hits followed during the first half of the 70s. The partners may have swapped around between the excellent Jean Terrell (sister of heavyweight boxer Ernie Terrell), Linda Laurence, Cindy Birdsong, Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene, but Mary Wilson was the constant until the eventual break-up in 1977.

This period is interesting because The Supremes had very much stopped being a priority for the label but continued to have hits and ones that often sounded more contemporary than Diana Ross's easy listening catalogue. What's more we even had the chance to hear more of Mary's vocals as she would sometimes take a co-lead on tracks like "Floy Joy".

It is such pleasure to hear her smoky vocal and it seems such a shame that it was hidden through the early part of their career as Diana Ross was highlighted at Berry Gordy's instigation and The Andantes (the in-house vocalists) more often stood in for studio vocal parts.

My particular favourite of this period is the wonderfully psychedelic "Automatically Sunshine" which sounds far more Haight-Ashbury than Detroit. There's a lovely guitar part that surely must have been lifted from The Turtles that links into the catchiest of choruses.

Once more you get to hear the interplay with Mary's distinctive vocal given a spotlight. It just leaves you to reflect on what a shame it is that more vocal interplay was not used in their earlier work with Mary's velvet vocal and Florence's gospel delivery both providing potentially dynamic counterpoints to Diana's unique voice, in the same way that The Temptations had to such great effect throughout their career.

Just above, I listed a whole troupe of singers who joined The Supremes at various stages in their final years and all of them have at some stage performed under the banner of The Supremes, more often than not with substitute performers alongside them. Mary has constantly tried to stop them (not always successfully) and set up an organisation called "Truth In Music" which stood up for the rights of performers and audiences alike. There is an old showbusiness joke that there are currently 12 bands called The Drifters performing somewhere in the world.

Mary felt that unless an original member was in the band then they had no right to perform under that umbrella. In truth, she was absolutely right. You wouldn't think you had seen a Beatles reunion with Jimmy Nichol and three of his mates down the pub would you?

However, even so, when she was offered $4m by Diana Ross for a reunion tour with Cindy Birdsong (Florence's original replacement) she still demurred as too many of the old tensions still remained.

Mary Wilson was always the most honest commentator on life at Motown and she will be missed for her candour and humour, as well as her guardianship of the legacy of such an important group.

She was always glamorous, with a string of notable 60s admirers, such as Tom Jones, always articulate, as an outstanding graduate of Motown's famous charm school, and always but always a Supreme.

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Feb 14, 2021

A lovely piece: informative and empathetic, just like its esteemed subject was, bless her.

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