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A Supreme Conversation with the Legendary Mary Wilson

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From the early ‘60s onward, The Supremes owned the pop charts, scoring hit after hit with an extraordinary run of consummately crafted songs courtesy of Motown tunesmiths Holland-Dozier-Holland. Their songs embraced universal themes of love, heartbreak and togetherness.

The group’s 1966 number one chart topper, The Supremes A’ Go-Go, is now out as an expanded 2-CD edition loaded with unreleased material–alternate takes, mixes and vocal performances. In connection with this new release, Rock Cellar sat down with founding member Mary Wilson for a wide ranging chat about all things Supreme.

Rock Cellar: Universal just issued a new, expanded 2-CD edition of The Supremes’ 1966 albumThe Supremes A’ Go-Go.

What was the thinking behind that album, which included original songs “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart,”  and covers like “These Boots Were Made For Walking,” “Money (That’s What I Want)” and Hang On Sloopy”?

Mary Wilson:  Well, first of all, I should say I’m very happy that is has been re-released as an expanded edition; that’s really wonderful. I wasn’t privy when all of this was decided but I think that The Primettes/The Supremes had always done music by other artists. In fact, we started out singing covers by other people. So that was kind of one of the things we did as a group. Then when we finally started recording, we‘d sings songs produced and written by Motown artists and songwriters.

Then as we started having hit records, that wasn’t forgotten but it was sort of put on the back burner. However, in our live shows we would always sing cover songs too. So somehow or another that was finally brought into the equation of recording on an album like The Supremes ‘A Go-Go.

The incredible songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland were the prime songwriting architects behind the Supremes hits, what was it about their magical songs that so perfectly tapped into the ethos and essence of the group?

Mary Wilson: Well, first of all I have to give Mr. Berry Gordy the credit for getting them to work with us. We had recorded lots of music but Motown had released on us seven or eight singles and those did not become hits. Some of those songs were written by Berry and some by Smokey (Robinson) and whoever they would put us with. We were new at the company and didn’t have any hit records. One day Berry said to us, “I see you girls are serious, I’m going to put you with my best writing team.” We were like, “I wonder who this is?”(laughs)

Then we found out it was Holland-Dozier-Holland and we were ecstatic because we knew them from the company and whatever artists recorded songs by them were really at the top of the totem pole. We were like, “Wow! We’re on our way now!”

See, the one thing we wanted was a hit record. Holland-Dozier-Holland were extremely talented individually. Eddie had been a singer himself, and Brian and Lamont were just extremely knowledgeable about music. Together when they collaborated, they had the ability to adapt to the group ‘cause obviously they made hits for The Four Tops and Martha & The Vandellas and others. It wasn’t so much that they were great at writing for us, they were really good at producing music. They just came up with these songs that really fit our group.

Before the Supremes hit it big, you remarked that you were known around Motown as the “No Hit Supremes.” Did you worry hits would never come, or did you and Diana and Florence believe you’d eventually have that crucial commercial breakthrough?

Mary Wilson: Well, we knew we were great and I say that not even humbly. (laughs) That’s why I created that phrase the “No Hit Supremes.” I knew that behind our backs people were saying things like that because we had recorded all of these songs and not landed a hit record and many others at Motown were already having hits. We were such a cute little group and we just knew we were good.

I always like to let people know I created that phrase. You’d have to have known the Supremes or The Primettes as we were known earlier in those days to understand why I felt that was happening to us. We were very arrogant about how good we were and knew we would eventually have some hits. But we had not achieved like a lot of the other had early in our career.

But we were the first girl group there.

When the original band toured in the ’60s, who was responsible for coming up with the set lists for your shows?

Mary Wilson: Well, it depended on who we were with at the time. Once we got the hit records, the Motown machinery went into action. They had an artist development department. We had several people working with us with then; Maurice King was one of them. He’d been a big band leader at a very famous nightclub in Detroit. So Maurice was in charge of organizing the artists’ shows when they went to different places. So he was one of our musical directors and then later on, Gil Askey. There was a whole unit of people in artist development that would help create the shows with the artist.

Then of course we had Cholly Atkins, who would come in and teach us the choreography.

Speaking of Cholly, The Supremes were charismatic and captivating stage performers. What were the greatest lessons you learned from your mentor at Motown?

Mary Wilson: All of these people were a part of the artist development department so whatever the group needed was provided to them. If we put out a new record and needed new choreography, we’d go in for a couple hours after recording and rehearse with Cholly Atkins for a particular song and then we’d go out and perform it. Then we also had Miss Maxine Powell, and we’d see her and hour or so a day and go through elocution and all those kinds of things. So we had all these different people helping us and training us.

A lot of this was done before we had a hit record, so we were in that department for a long time because we still hasn’t had a hit record. So by the time we did get a hit record, we were already kind of prepared.

In terms of selecting material for the group to record in the studio, who oversaw that?

Mary Wilson: Pretty much the songs were chosen by the producers and we were assigned to Holland-Dozier-Holland, so that was all pretty much decided by them. For The Supremes ‘A Go-Go album, the producers would suggest outside songs for us to record but we also suggested some songs too although I can’t remember which ones. But that record allowed us more input rather than the more regimented stuff that Holland-Dozier-Holland would normally handle for our music.

What were typical recording sessions like? For instance, how many songs would The Supremes cut in a session?

Mary Wilson: In the very early days we recorded with the band; that was still the norm and it was very exciting because it was like being at a party. The band’s there and you’re in the booth singing, so that was really so much fun. When we became successful and started having hit records, we’d have to fly into town just to record and unpack and repack and get back out of town for the gigs so that really did change in the way we worked at sessions; by that time, we’d sing to finished instrumental tracks.

It depended on how many songs we’d cut at a session. We could do ten if we had to do an album (laughs). We’d stay there through the night to get a whole album done at a session. Then there were times we’d come in and sing two or three songs; it just depended on how many songs we needed to do.

Who would handle the vocal arrangements?

Mary Wilson: Holland-Dozier-Holland were pretty thorough in knowing exactly what they wanted. We were always pretty free to add things too  and if it worked it worked, and if not, it didn’t. Bu they were always very very thorough in that manner. Florence and I pretty much worked with Lamont. He was really into arranging the background with us.

Eddie worked the most with Diana for the lead vocals and Brian was dealing with music and orchestration and then of course they all worked together on things as well. Often times you could work through and hear them disagreeing, “I think we should do it like this,” “No, what about doing it this way?” All of that was always going on and it was very exciting to watch. It was watching geniuses create.

If you could have sung lead on one Supremes hit, which would you choose and why?

Mary Wilson: I don’t really know. I sing a lot of them now and they’re really more of Diana’s style. The lead vocals on all those songs are a bit high for me. There was not any one of our hits that I would have wanted to have sang lead on. But I’d always want to sing any of the ballads that we did. For example, a song of ours like “I Hear A Symphony” is more Diana’s style than mine.

Over the ensuing decades, the legacy of original Supremes member, the late Florence Ballard, has become muddled. What would you like to share with people about her and her gifts?

Mary Wilson: A lot of things that have been written about Florence in books came from people that didn’t really know Flo and if they did interview her it was much later in her life, when she was a totally different person. So I wouldn’t believe half of what was said by those writers.

See, the thing about Florence, even now, she’s as big as I am. (laughs) She’s been dead since 1976, which says something about her persona. She was a very strong and natural kind of person. If Florence laughed, everybody in the room laughed. (laughs) She was that kind of person. She was extremely funny. She came up with many of the jokes we’d say, like “Thin might be in but fat’s where it’s at.” (laughs)

Flo was like a Pearl Bailey and a Lucille Ball wrapped up into one. And she was like that when she was young so you can imagine what she’d be like if she were still alive. She’d be phenomenal. She had a voice like Etta James. She was really a blues singer. When we started with her and she’d sing Ray Charles songs. But Motown didn’t want an Etta James /Aretha Franklin-styled singer; they wanted a pop singer.

A lot of people at Motown didn’t even know the depth of her talent. We were doing this long before we went to Motown; we were singing since 1959. A lot of people just had no clue that she had this kind of a voice but by the time we got there, styles had changed and people just weren’t interested. She was a very unsung hero who never got a chance to really grow. Had she been able to grow she would have been fabulous. But life was not kind to her as it is for a lot of people.

Thankfully, I’m one of the lucky ones.

The Supremes Hits A’ Go-Go knocked The Beatles’ Revolver from the number one perch on the Billboard Top 200 album charts. Over 50 years ago, The Supremes met the Beatles in New York City, what do you recall about that meeting? 

Mary Wilson: This was in ’64. I’m not sure if we were doing The Ed Sullivan Show at that time or if we working at the Copa in New York City, I can’t remember. The Beatles were meeting lots of American artists so somehow or another our person got with their PR people and said we should get these two mega groups to meet.

Their PR person said The Beatles couldn’t leave their hotel so The Supremes went over to their hotel in our limo. We pulled up and all these girls came screaming up to the car; I guess they thought it was one of the Beatles and once they saw it was three girls they ran the other way. (laughs) They didn’t want to know. We went up to The Beatles’ suite and met them there. It was dark in the room and we weren’t quite accustomed to that type of meet and greet. (laughs)  So we didn’t stay long and then we left. (laughs)

George Harrison and I became very dear friends later on and he and I talked about it. He said, “We couldn’t wait for you girls to get out of there because you were all kind of square and had gloves on.”

I think they were waiting for the Ronettes or something. That meeting with The Beatles was kind of odd. But as I said, later on George and I became very dear friends; in fact, I bought a limo from him.

Tell us about taking part in Rock Cellar’s NAMM Show events and charity show as part of “The Tribe.”

Mary Wilson: Well, I do a lot of different types of things, and people are now coming to me asking me to be a part of events. The Supremes were never a part of things because we were so high on the totem pole. But since I’ve been on my own I’ve been approached by people in the business and they have asked me to be a part of things like “The Tribe,” which was really wonderful.

I do lots of charitable work. I’m glad I’m able to do things like that. Now I’m one of the people out there where some in the business say, “Is she still here? Well, we might as well use her.” (laughs)

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