The Supremes Songstress Mary Wilson

The song “Stop! In the Name of Love” evokes such great memories. The unparalleled female group The Supremes, worthy of every number one hit, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio in 1988. In the ’60s, there was only one band more popular…the Beatles.

Fast-forward to 2014. Singing to rave reviews, Mary Wilson, one of the original Supremes, appeared at Harris Theater with Motown legends the Four Tops from December 23, 2013 through January 5, 2014. Giving more than 150% on stage, Ms. Wilson wears sequins gowns, some draped with fur, all reminiscent of The Supremes’ gowns worn in the ’60s. “I am a perfectionist, I want everything to be right,” says Ms. Wilson, regarding her performance. And it shows.

Performing magical Motown hits, the Four Tops sang “Baby I Need Your Lovin’” and “Reach Out, I’ll Be There,” among others, shortly before Ms. Wilson took the stage, front and center, singing such Supremes favorites as “Baby Love” and “Come See About Me.” The highlight of the show was the duet between Ms. Wilson and Duke Fakir, an original member of the Four Tops, singing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” in perfect harmony.

During her tour in Chicago, I visited Ms. Wilson in her suite at the Hyatt Regency. Unpretentious and welcoming, Ms. Wilson exhibited no signs of a diva from the renowned Supremes. A relaxed setting, Ms Wilson appeared in a black casual outfit sans makeup (she only wears makeup on stage) looking as beautiful as she was in her heyday in the ’60s.

When asked to talk about her beauty tips, Ms. Wilson says, “Last week, some ladies came backstage after the concert, and all they could talk about was how I should write a book on my beauty tips. I asked them, ‘What about the show?’” Even though she owes her perfect skin partially to genetics, Ms. Wilson says that drinking lots of water, removing her makeup before bed and having facials at the Face Place in Los Angeles for the past 40 years all contribute to her natural beauty.

Ever wonder who made the gowns for the Supremes and where they are stored? Ms. Wilson shares, “We were like Barbie dolls wearing beautiful gowns for every performance. Each gown was more glamorous than the next one. In the ’60s, our gowns were designed and produced by several designers including Mike Travis, who also designed for Liberace and the Carol Burnett Show. Every bead on the gowns was hand-sewn. The designers came from television, they were not European couture designers.”

Ms. Wilson proudly states, “I have consolidated all of the gowns, they were boxed up for years. When The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, we decided to host a curated touring exhibit of the gowns. They went from Detroit to New York and abroad in Great Britain. The biggest tour is going to start in Las Vegas, very soon. It will be a stationary exhibit for a minimum of two years.”

And her fondest memories of being a Supreme? “It was a Cinderella career,” she admits. “My fondest memory includes being on tour with The Dick Clark Show. Before we had a hit record, we were referred to as ‘The No-hit Supremes’ at Motown. Our big break came in 1964, when Mr. Clark asked Motown Records to put Brenda Holloway on the Caravan of Stars tour. However, Ester Gordy-Edwards said that Ms. Holloway was available under one condition: that The Supremes also be included on tour. After negotiating, we went on the tour for three months. Slowly but surely the applause kept getting bigger and bigger as we performed. One of our records “Where Did Our Love Go” became a hit while we were on tour. We waited so long for a hit record.”

Reflecting back, Ms. Wilson shares, “Dreams do come true. At Motown Records, we had a mentor, i.e. artist development teacher, who told us, ‘You are diamonds in the rough, we are here to polish you. One day you will be singing before kings and queens.’” Ms. Wilson continues, “And we ended up doing that, we had people that really inspired us. For young black girls living in the projects and then singing for the Queen Mother at the Palladium in London, our dreams really came true.”

The most inspiring woman to Ms. Wilson was Lena Horne. “I grew up in a household of black women, mostly aunts, who emulated Lena Horne,” she recalls. “While we were on tour in London, Ms. Horne was also there performing at the Talk of the Town Cafe (similar to the Copacabana nightclub in New York City). Luckily, we got invited backstage with Ms. Horne and stayed in her dressing room for three hours drinking champagne. Listening to Ms. Horne tell stories, I was in heaven. She was an inspiration through and through.” In turn, The Supremes inspired some infamous women such as Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg. Ms. Wilson shares, “God put me in the right line at the right time.”

When asked if there was anyone that she would like to perform a duet with, Ms. Wilson says, “At the top of my list is Luther Van Dross (although he has passed), Tony Bennett and maybe Sting.” As a Supreme, Ms. Wilson enjoyed sharing the stage. But having done that her entire life, today she thoroughly enjoys her solo act.

Ms. Wilson’s advice to anyone wishing to enter the music industry is, “Education is key. When going into the music industry, it is not just glamour, it is a business. And you have to have a passion for it. Either it was god-given or you learned it and fell in love with it. Work hard, and enjoy it, there are very long hours to be had.”

What happened after The Supremes broke up? Ms. Wilson wrote several autobiographies, including Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together and Dreamgirl & Supreme Faith: My Life as a Supreme. “My second book is really something that I think every woman should read,” she suggests. “It’s about what happens when the fairy tale is over. After things don’t turn out the way you imagined, continue to dream, no matter what. After the Supremes split up, I didn’t know what I would do, I knew that I loved singing. I learned how to be a lead singer. After my divorce, I also learned how to be a single mom, I raised three children alone. The best advice I can give is continue to dare to dream –  don’t settle.”

Ms. Wilson has a big connection to Chicago…35 of her family members came to the Harris Theater for one of her shows. They also invited her to a cousins’ house to have soul food on New Year’s Day. And one of her favorite places in the city was the old Regal Theater (formerly located at 4719 South King Drive). Factoid: The Supremes performed there before they had hit records.

As Mary Wilson says and has proved, dream big, work hard, and your dreams can come true..


About Cindy Burns

Currently writing for TCW's 'Woman About Town' column, Cindy Burns covers Chicago's social scene, events, fashion, and interviews women and men who are making a difference in the world. With an M.A. in American History from DePaul University, Ms. Burns is an author, freelance writer, avid reader and researcher. Ms. Burns has spent over 20 years serving on charitable boards and organizations, and currently serves as a member of the Women's Board of the Joffrey Ballet and the Women's Auxiliary Board of the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Chicago. She is also an Honorary Member of the Children's Service Board of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital. When Ms. Burns isn't running around Chicago covering current events, you can find her biking, on the tennis courts, or hiking in a mountainous region of her choice.