Tenacious singer who co-founded The Supremes


Tenacious singer who co-founded The Supremes

As a 15-year-old living in a housing project in Detroit, Mary Wilson co-founded one of the most successful (and glamorous) singing groups of the 1960s. She would remain with The Supremes until this Motown hit machine was finally dissolved in 1977 – having weathered numerous feuds, and the departure of both her co-founders, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross. If Ballard – who struggled with depression and alcoholism and died in poverty aged 32 – came to be seen as The Supremes’ tragic figure, and Ross as its international superstar, then Wilson was its “steady, omnipresent and outspoken driving force”, said Variety, and its linchpin; although, to her chagrin, “many viewed her as little more than a supplier of the backup hooks that supported Ross’s lead vocals”. As she put it, in 1986: “They think I’m just an ‘ooh girl’.”

Motown’s bosses cultivated an image of onstage sophistication and offstage sisterhood for The Supremes, but the reality was rather different. Although they were all talented singers, Ross’s star quality was identified early on by Motown supremo Berry Gordy (with whom she later had an affair); he promoted Ross to lead vocals, and she made sure she was regarded as the trio’s standout talent. It was alleged that she made even the other Supremes address her as Miss Ross (though in her memoir, Wilson pointedly referred to her by her original name, Diane); and Ross did much to upstage her fellow stars, said Julie Burchill in The Daily Telegraph. One of her techniques was to end songs by throwing out her arms wide – thereby blocking the faces of the two women standing just behind her. The band was renamed Diana Ross & The Supremes in 1967, and in 1983, during the filming of a Motown reunion, Wilson claimed that Ross had literally shoved her aside, to keep her at the back. Yet she insisted that she admired Ross’s determined ambition, and acknowledged that, as the more confident singer, she had earned her place in the limelight. “Diane always liked to be the centre of attraction, and if you happened to be in her way while she was going toward the centre, that was your fault,” she wrote. “She has done many things to hurt, humiliate and upset me. But strangely enough, I still love her and am proud of her.”

The eldest of three children, Mary Wilson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1944, but her parents travelled in search of work and, as a small child, she spent time in St Louis and Chicago, before being sent to live with an aunt on the Brewster-Douglass estate in Detroit. She thought her aunt was her mother: when her real mother turned up, and demanded custody, it came as a shock. “I’d trusted these people, and they had lied to me,” she said.

As a child, music was all around her. The pastor of the church she attended on Sundays had three talented daughters – Aretha, Erma and Carolyn Franklin. Wilson started to sing before she could talk, and at Northeastern High School, her music teacher suggested she train as an opera singer. Instead, she joined with her friend Ballard to form a female version of a male singing group called The Primes. It was another friend, Paul Williams – a future founding member of The Temptations – who suggested they recruit Ross, who also lived on the Douglass projects. With a fourth singer, Betty McGlown, they began performing as The Primettes in the late 1950s. They started to hang around the Motown studios, and in 1961 they were signed to the label, on condition that they changed the group’s name. The company gave them some options, and they picked The Supremes, and soon became a trio. They were still only 16 or 17, however, and success didn’t come immediately: so many of their early singles flopped, they were dubbed the “No-Hit Supremes” by fellow Motown artists. Then Gordy teamed them up with the songwriting/ production team Holland-Dozier- Holland, and the hits just poured out, from Where Did Our Love Go and Baby Love to Stop! In the Name of Love to You Can’t Hurry Love and You Keep Me Hangin’ On. In 1964-5, The Supremes had a record five consecutive No. 1s.

The Supremes were inner-city girls, brought up in poverty, said Neil McCormick in The Daily Telegraph. But Gordy wanted them to appeal to white audiences, so he styled them like Vogue models, in immaculate make-up and long shimmering gowns. They were beautiful; they had class, and they had poise. Wilson’s brother, a Vietnam veteran, told her they should be wearing Afros, and supporting the black struggle, said The Times. “I told him we were making a statement in our own way just by being who we were.” In total, The Supremes had 12 Billboard No. 1 hits in the US – a record unsurpassed for a female vocal group; and they rivalled The Beatles for commercial success. Thanks to TV, Wilson said, “people were able to see us all over America and see black people in a different light”. Yet she thought that The Supremes were never entirely accepted in the US. It was only when they started touring in Europe that they “were not just black people. We were human beings. We were respected. We were loved.”

Ballard was fired in 1967, and replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Ross left the group in 1970, and was replaced by Jean Terrell. Wilson held on, keeping The Supremes together, and helping the group to evolve as musical fashions changed. They had several more hits, including Up the Ladder to the Roof, and Stoned Love, before finally splitting up in 1977. Wilson’s first solo album didn’t sell well, and she was dropped by Motown in 1980. But she continued to perform; she wrote four memoirs, one of which was a runaway bestseller; and also worked as an activist, campaigning successfully for better trademark protection for musicians.

Wilson had a number of high-profile affairs, the longest of which was with the Welsh star Tom Jones. “He had other girls – I was just one of them – but I loved him,” she said years later. “As an adult, I can look back and see that he was married and say, ‘That wasn’t the nicest thing you could do,’ but when you fall in love, you don’t always see those things.” In 1974, she married Pedro Ferrer, The Supremes’ road manager. She alleged that he had a violent temper, and they divorced in 1981. She had had three children with him, one of whom, Rafael, was killed in a car crash aged 16. “It was really devastating,” Wilson said. “I think the only thing that got me through was probably just being who I am. I am very resilient.”