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'Fresh Air' Remembers Mary Wilson, Founding Member Of The Supremes

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOP! IN THE NAME OF LOVE")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Stop in the name of love.

DAVIES: Mary Wilson, a founding member of The Supremes, which had a string of hits in the 1960s and helped to define the Motown sound, died Monday at her home in Henderson, Nev. She was 76. The band that became The Supremes actually began in 1959 when Wilson was a teenager living across the street from Diana Ross. The pair teamed up with Florence Ballard to form the Primettes and eventually began hanging around Motown studio after school, hoping for an audition. They were eventually signed and changed their name to The Supremes in 1962. With Diana Ross as lead singer, the group had a dozen No. 1 singles in the 1960s, including "Stop! In The Name Of Love," "Baby Love," "Back In My Arms Again" and "Where Did Our Love Go."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHERE DID OUR LOVE GO")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Baby, baby, baby, don't leave me. Ooh, please, don't leave me all by myself. I've got this burning, burning, yearning feeling inside me, ooh, deep inside me. And it hurts so bad. You came into my heart - baby, baby, where did our love go? - so tenderly with a burning love - baby, baby - that stings like a bee - baby, baby, ooh, baby, baby. Now that I surrender - baby, baby...

DAVIES: Diana Ross left the group in 1970. The Supremes replaced her as lead singer with Jean Terrell. And they had a few more hits before breaking up in 1977. Mary Wilson then had a solo career, recording two albums and performing into the 2000s. Over the years, she had some conflicts with Motown Records and with Diana Ross, who tweeted Tuesday that she had wonderful memories of her time with Wilson. Terry spoke with Mary Wilson in 1986 when she'd written a memoir called "Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: What kind of material did they initially give you at Motown?

MARY WILSON: They didn't know what to give us. I mean, that was one thing, because, you see, we - as the world soon found out, we were the kind of singers that were not soulful. I mean, we were Black. But we didn't sing R&B, which is our voices - I mean, you can look at Diane's voice today. It's just not an R&B voice. And even though Florence was sort of a soulful singer, we - it was very hard to put us in a category. And our songs were very, I'd say, bubblegum-type songs, you know, not as soulful as Martha and the Vandellas or the Marvelettes.

GROSS: So they didn't know what to give you?

WILSON: No. They had no idea which way to go with us. And, in fact, we had 11 records. Now, that's 11 disks with two sides. So that's 22 records. So you see, we had recorded quite a bit before our first No. 1 record trying to find that sound for us.

GROSS: I want to play one of the early records that I think is before you really found that sound and before Holland, Dozier and Holland were writing and producing for...

WILSON: OK. Now, I want to bring this up, too.

GROSS: Yeah.

WILSON: Now, before we found the sound that the public liked, I think, still, the sound, the recordings that we did earlier, were very, very good and, you know, songs that they still were us. But the public didn't like them (laughter).

GROSS: Well, let's hear "Let Me Go The Right Way."

WILSON: OK.

GROSS: This was recorded in 1962. That was - what? - a year after you signed your contract?

WILSON: I guess. Yeah, we signed in '61.

GROSS: So tell us about this session, yeah.

WILSON: OK. Now, this was a happy session. This was a song that was very - to me was a good record. And I felt it should've been a hit. It had Diane singing the lead. And in those days, she had a very, very high voice and a nasal - (singing) I'm yours - you know, a real nasally sound. Well, you'll hear it when you play it. "Let Me Go The Right Way."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME GO THE RIGHT WAY")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Let me go right - let me - oh, no, no, no. Let me go right. I'm yours. Don't you know that I done fell for you? I fell for you. I want to know, baby, tell me what you're going to do? Oh, what are you going to do? You took my love. You took my love, all my love, baby, all my love. Don't lead me astray. Let me go the right way. My heart, baby, is all weak for you. It's weak for you, so please, be careful and treat me true. Won't you treat me true, because you're my life? You're my life. I want to be a wife. I want to be a wife. Don't lead me astray. Let me go the right way. Let me go the right way. Where you lead me, where you lead me - I'll follow you. What you tell me, what you tell me, that's what I'll do because, baby, I'm yours...

GROSS: That's The Supremes as they sounded in 1962, "Let Me Go The Right Way." You were still, really, kids when you recorded that. When you...

WILSON: Oh, yeah.

GROSS: When you signed your first contract, it was 1961. You were under 20, right?

WILSON: Well, we were 16.

GROSS: (Laughter) Sixteen? OK.

WILSON: We had not reached 17 yet.

GROSS: When did Berry Gordy, the head of Motown, make The Supremes his focus of attention, you really became his girls?

WILSON: Well, I must say, I'd have to answer this question my way, if you don't mind, for a second, OK...

GROSS: Sure.

WILSON: ...Because the reason that I wrote the book is to dispel the rumor that Berry Gordy made us his girls and that Berry Gordy made us into these chic, you know, nice, plastic dolls. In actuality, the three of us, every single minute, were pestering them for this, for that. We would beg the producers to produce us. I mean, it was our persistence that really, as you say, made Berry make us his girls. But I don't think, had we not been that persistent, he would not have. But he saw in us something that, you know, he felt he could really - ah, here's a group that not - I don't have to tell them everything. I mean, they, themselves, are business-like, you know? They are here on time. They - you know, they would look at the clothes they wear. Part of our image was what, maybe, was responsible for that becoming so very prominent in Motown, because they said, well, now, these girls have class. Now, let's maybe pattern some of the other people. So I think - what I'm trying to say is that we sort of made Berry pay attention to us. But thank God he had a good eye, (laughter) you know?

GROSS: When The Supremes started performing together, you'd alternate leads. You sang the lead on most of the ballads.

WILSON: Yes.

GROSS: But it wasn't too long after you were recording for Motown that Diana Ross started singing all the leads. Whose idea was that?

WILSON: OK. That was Berry's. Berry said to us - and as you heard, "Let Me Go The Right Way," they allowed us to, you know, sing whatever. But after a while, Berry said, you know, I really think that Diane has a more commercial voice. And by this time, we're in. You know, we're in with Motown. And we respect his opinion. And we said, well, if we really want a hit record, you know, what the heck? He could've chosen any one of us. And any one of us could have done the job. We were all for it. However, I don't think Florence nor I knew or could even imagine that he meant we would never be able to sing again. And it really broke down to that. So it wasn't Diane who said, you know, she wanted to do all the leads. And just that he felt her voice was more commercial.

GROSS: Was it frustrating for you to have your singing part confined to oohs and ahs and baby-babies?

WILSON: Well, in the beginning, it wasn't because I always felt that I would be able to sing. I mean, it just didn't dawn on me that early that it meant, never will you sing. And when we were becoming very, very popular, I got to the point where I would just go to a producer and say behind everyone's back, listen; I want to sing one of the songs on the albums. And they'd say, well, you know, Diana is the lead. And I'd say, yeah, but, I mean, this is a ballad. This is the kind of song I can sing, you know? And then I approached Berry one day, you know, when I was really frustrated. And I said, Berry, you know, I want to sing a song. And he says, oh, you can't sing, and he just kind of brushed it off.

And so it did bother me. But I also want, while I'm saying these things - that this was not the major thing that was going on with me at the time or with the group because these were things that we kept under wrapped. And they were personal, like if you were married and you love someone, but things are kind of going day-to-day. You're not happy with it, but you still love the person. So I want people to know that, yes, these things were going on, but I was having a ball. Let's face it. We were like princesses, BLAPS - Black American princesses, you know? And it was a beautiful thing. It was really beautiful. So if we can kind of add that beauty in there along with this, I'd feel very, very good about that.

GROSS: How did you change your image from wearing miniskirts to the sequined gowns and white gloves?

WILSON: Oh, yeah. That was - I think the little gloves and the short skirts and the cute thing came from us still being teenagers and not recognizing that we were growing up. But the minute we started hanging around Motown and around the guys - I mean, when you have people like Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, even the Four Tops walking around there and they're handsome and you're - you know, we were, like, really young and in awe of all these men. So immediately we wanted to be these grown-up girls. That's when our dresses changed. And we started wearing the - you know, the longer gowns. And it was really just to be grown up.

GROSS: When you were touring on the - like, the first Motown tour, there was a chaperone for the girls, right? Did they lecture you before the tour?

WILSON: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. I mean, it was amazing because - now, you're talking about the Marvelettes, who were four country girls. I mean, they really were country girls - very sweet, very sweet but just, you know, kind of a little slow (laughter). Then you have Martha and the Vandellas, Mary Wells and Claudette of the Miracles, who was older and she didn't necessarily need a chaperone, and then The Supremes - so all of these young kids on the same tour, young females on the same tour with all these men.

Motown was really, you know, sort of frightened that something might happen, and they had every right to be. So they (laughter) - especially with me liking Eddie Kendricks, I mean, because I loved that man - I just - I still do. I really - I think he is the sweetest. He has this boyish look about him that just makes my heart just - ugh (ph). Anyway, so they would hire friends of theirs. Berry's mom was called Moms Gordy, and everyone loved her. So she had many, many friends. And she'd always bring in her friends to give them jobs, and they would become chaperones.

And the chaperones would always say to us, now, girls, we're going out on this tour, and I don't want to catch anybody out of their room after 8 o'clock. And we'd say, yes, ma'am, you know? And it's - they were very nice but, I think, a little overly protective. But they had to be because if anybody did get in trouble, they would - you know, it would be like they had lost their little self-image there. So they were really nice to us. But we had chaperones up until we were almost 25 years old.

DAVIES: Mary Wilson of The Supremes speaking with Terry Gross in 1986. Wilson died Monday. We'll hear more of their conversation after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SUPREMES SONG, "BACK IN MY ARMS AGAIN")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview Terry Gross recorded with Mary Wilson of The Supremes. Wilson died Monday at the age of 76. Terry spoke to her in 1986, when Wilson had published her memoir, "Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Cholly Atkins did the choreography for most of the Motown groups. How did you work with him to get the movements for your songs? What were those sessions like?

WILSON: Hard (laughter) - I mean, I'm saying real hard. To learn how to do choreography is - it looks easy when you see it on stage. But to go through every movement - Cholly had us working where if - we had one song, "Where Did Our Love Go." We said, (singing) where did our love go, and brought our hands all the way around the head, all the way down, made a complete circle. So Cholly would spend a whole day on that movement to get us to move at exactly the same speed, the same - you know, the same angle.

It was, for me, always very easy, choreography. I dance very easily. Florence was a bit awkward and would - she would become very upset with herself because she was awkward. And Cholly was the kind of guy who is very hard, but he's a sweetheart. And so his whole approach would be, Florence, now I want you to get this step. You know, you have messed it up three times. And sometimes she'd go in tears. Now, Diana's the kind of person that will work very hard on something. If she realizes she can't get it, she will study it every second, just sit there and really just concentrate. And I've learned mine. I'm over in the corner, just sitting down, you know, cooling it. So the whole key now is that people remember the choreography just as much as they remember the song. So that makes me know that it was all worth it.

GROSS: Was it his idea for you to hold up your hands when you were doing "Stop! In The Name Of Love"?

WILSON: The stop? Yes. The stop - yeah, that's the famous one.

GROSS: Let's talk about the records some more. You had mentioned earlier that when you joined Motown that they really didn't know what kind of material to give you. And after a few years of recording different people's songs, you were basically given to Holland, Dozier and Holland...

WILSON: Right. Right.

GROSS: ...Who wrote and produced your material. What was the difference between what they were doing with you and what had been done before?

WILSON: Terry, I don't know. That has been something that I've wondered about. It was like we were meant to be with them. It was like finding the perfect tailor. The minute we worked with them, it was just like magic. In fact, they saved us. The entire company was calling us the no-hit Supremes. And HDH brought us out of that. And we were able to laugh at all the other groups at Motown, you know, for calling us the no-hit Supremes.

GROSS: They wrote almost all of your hits, right? Did they change the kind of backup singing that you were doing?

WILSON: Yeah. You know, I'm glad you brought that up. No one has ever really put it like that. And that is a point, because even though we gained our great records and our great sound with HGH, we also lost sort of the group thing, you know. I mean, what was ours before we came to Motown and that they gave - I always said that's the sound they gave us was really more Diane's sound, and we were her backup. And that was kind of sad in a way, you know, that in gaining our sound, we also lost a part of our uniqueness. So I'm glad you brought that up.

GROSS: When they gave the group a sound that you associated more with Diana Ross than with what you'd been doing, did she heartily approve of that? Did she like fronting the group in the way that she was?

WILSON: Yeah, you know, she really did. And I cannot say I blame her. I finally realized today that what Diane was doing was not so much being self-centered, it's that she felt that it couldn't be done right unless she did it rather than, I mean, I think that's a better way of saying - rather than saying she was self-centered and very aggressive. That's really what I want to bring out.

GROSS: How did the group become Diana Ross and The Supremes instead of just The Supremes?

WILSON: Right (laughter) through just with Diane becoming more and more popular. And of course, at the time, people started saying that she was a spokesman. And all of the attention was on her, so it just eventually led to that.

GROSS: Well, when you look back on it, The Supremes had such a strange history. Diana Ross became one of the biggest superstars in America.

WILSON: Yes, definitely.

GROSS: Flo Ballard died at a very young age not too long after she left The Supremes. And most of your performances are in Europe.

WILSON: Right? So it's like, oh, poof (laughter). This is true. I made that decision to go to Europe and to travel around the world because I knew that if I stay here with The Supremes as such, we'd become an oldie-but-goodie. Now, around the world, they'd never really seen us as much, so I could travel and receive nice amounts of money and things like that. Plus, I could regain my confidence as a singer, which I did. Now...

GROSS: How had you lost it?

WILSON: By singing only oohs (ph), by not growing. It's as if I stopped growing at the age of 16 because I never sang anymore. So my confidence now is really good. I know I can sing because I do it every day. But on the same hand, because I did that, I lost my American public. So now, I must come back and record and let them know that, hey, I'm back to let you know I can really shake them down. (Singing) Do you love me? Do you love me?

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: Terry, I got you a smile. I'm so happy (laughter).

GROSS: What do you think about when you hear the old Supremes records?

WILSON: I just start listening to them, really listening to them.

GROSS: Well, you couldn't listen to them before?

WILSON: It was like I was too much a part of it. I was too a much part of it. And maybe - I don't - I can't say I didn't appreciate it, but we did them every day. I mean, I've been singing "Baby Love" and "Stop!" for about 20-some years, you know, so it's something you just don't do. But now that I had to write the book, in doing that, I also had to listen to the records. And in listening to them, I found that the sound is really beautiful. I have no regrets singing only the background, because I feel that, you know, the public loved all of us. No matter what the publicity said, the public still loved all of us.

The book signing today in Philadelphia was beautiful. I mean, I felt like - I can't tell you how much happiness I received. People would come in and said, well, Mary, we love you, you know, and keep up the good work. And thank you for showing us Flo, you know, that sort of Flo. We really appreciate that. So I'm just feeling really, really great about the whole thing.

GROSS: Well, good. I'm glad.

WILSON: Me, too (laughter).

DAVIES: Mary Wilson of The Supremes, speaking with Terry Gross in 1986. Wilson died Monday. She was 76. After a break, we'll remember actor Christopher Plummer, who died last Friday. Also, Justin Chang reviews the new movie "Judas And The Black Messiah" which revisits the events leading up to the 1969 death of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACK IN MY ARMS AGAIN")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) All day long, I hear my telephone ring - friends calling, giving their advice. From the boy I love I should break away 'cause heartaches he'll bring one day. I lost him once through friends' advice, but it's not going to happen twice 'cause all advice ever got me was really long and sleepless nights. Ooh. But now he's back in my arms again, right by my side. I got him back in my arms again, so satisfied. Ooh. It's easy for friends to say let him go when I'm the one who needs him so. It's his love that makes me strong. Without him, I can't go on. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.