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Mary Wilson Keeps Us Hangin’ On

Mary Wilson Keeps Us Hangin’ On
May 21
14:00 2020

By Marc Myers

Mary Wilson, 76, is a singer and a founding member of the Supremes. She is the author of four books, including her coffee-table memoir, “Supreme Glamour” (Thames & Hudson). She spoke with Marc Myers.

I first caught sight of Diana Ross from my apartment window. She was the most energetic and pretty girl I’d ever seen. She was constantly running and playing.

The first time I saw Florence Ballard, we were teens in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Projects. She was proud and streetwise, in a regal way. You didn’t mess with her and you certainly didn’t want to tangle with her 11 siblings.

By 1959, the three of us were friends and became the Primettes vocal group with Betty McGlown. When Betty left, Barbara Martin joined and we signed with Motown as the Supremes in 1961. Then Barbara left and it was just the three of us.

Florence Ballard, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson on tour in Paris in 1965.PHOTO: MARY WILSON COLLECTION

For the first three years of my life, I lived in Greenville, Miss. Then we moved to Chicago so my father could find a better job. My first memory was holding my mother’s hand downtown as a guy was killed in front of us. All I remember is the blood on the sidewalk.

Soon after my younger brother and sister were born, my parents separated. My Aunt Ivory, whom I called “I.V.,” and Uncle John L. offered to take me in.

My mother, Johnnie Mae, agreed, and I went to live with them in southwest Detroit. They had the cutest one-story house. From then on, I came to believe they were my parents, even though my last name was Wilson and theirs was Pippin.

My first exposure to music came from John L. He played records all the time in the basement—so much so that I’d wake up each day singing.

Nobody in my family could sing. I learned by listening to records. My favorites were LaVern Baker’s “Jim Dandy” and Joe Williams’s “Alright, OK, You Win.”

From time to time, I saw my real mother at family gatherings. But I thought she was my aunt. She was tall, beautiful and very lovable. When I was 8, I met my little cousins, who were actually my younger brother and sister.

When I was 10, our neighbor, told me that I.V. and John L. weren’t my real parents. I was so angry at my parents. I was convinced all adults were liars. Soon my real mother moved to Detroit and got a housecleaning job. She was able to take me back.

At first, I was upset. I had been a little princess with beautiful dresses. Plus, I had my own blue bedroom. Now I had to live in the projects with people who were strangers to me. My brother and sister and I slept in one room. My sister was little and cute, but my brother was a real brat.

After Diana, Flo, Betty and I became the Primettes, we sang radio hits. Then we went to Motown for an audition. But the label wouldn’t sign us until after we graduated from high school.

That didn’t stop us. Each day after school, we hung out on the lawn in front of Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters. We hoped to catch a break.

My 12th-grade English teacher, Mr. Boone, said if I wanted to graduate and sing with “that little group,” I’d better pass his class.

For my senior essay, I wrote a heartfelt paper about my life up to that point. Mr. Boone asked to speak with me privately. I was convinced he was going to fail me.

The Supremes at the Copacabana in New York City in July 1965.PHOTO: MARY WILSON COLLECTION

Instead, he said he was moved by my writing and that the paper was fabulous. He gave me an A with plus signs all over the page.

One day in front of Motown, one of the producers came out. He told us he needed hand claps on a record. We jumped and said, “We’ll do it.” In January ’61, Motown founder Berry Gordy said, “Wow, you girls are serious.” He signed us.

Today, I live in a gated community outside of Las Vegas. My house has two floors and is about 7,000 square feet. It’s a dream house I built from the ground up in 2019. I love beauty and have it all around.

Since the Supremes’ gowns stayed with the group and I remained a Supreme the longest, I inherited them. I don’t keep any of them at home. They’re either in touring exhibits or in vaults.

Whenever I see them, I think about the glamour, the TV appearances, the performances and the love. I also think about three girls from the projects who dared to dream.

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