Ten women in the known universe have been official members of the legendary vocal group known as the Supremes — but only one woman was present in the lineup from the first day to the last. Mary Wilson, who died at age 76 on Monday, spoke at length in an interview conducted in 2009 about what it meant to her to be a Supreme, how she kept the group going after Diana Ross’ departure and when it was time for the trio to call it a day.
It was just last month that Wilson celebrated the 60 th anniversary of the Supremes signing to Motown in January 1961. “When I became a Supreme, that was my fate,” she said in 2009. “Everything that has happened to me is part of a sort of a divine plan, so I’ve been extremely blessed. My dreams came true being a Supreme. We made such a difference in the world.”
Wilson started calling the singing group she formed with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard the “no-hit Supremes” after their first dozen singles failed to make a significant impact. That all changed in 1964 when they began an unprecedented run of five consecutive No. 1 hits, beginning with “Where Did Our Love Go.” By the time Ross made her final appearance with the group on Jan. 14, 1970, they had amassed 12 chart-topping singles.
“When Diane left,” she said, referring to her erstwhile bandmate by her born name, “I wondered what the heck I was going to do. I was the only Supreme at that point, because Cindy [Birdsong, who replaced Ballard] was still very new and was basically a stand-in, and I said to myself, ‘I don’t want to quit. I love singing.’ [Motown founder] Berry Gordy brought in Jean Terrell and we had those great recordings like ‘Up the Ladder to the Roof’ and ‘Stoned Love.’ I felt we had a chance of maintaining our status of being the Supremes.
“But then Cindy left the group and so we had to get another lady in there, Lynda Lawrence. We continued to do well but then Jean and Lynda decided to leave and I realized I needed to jump ship, although I didn’t want to: I understood that the dream Florence, Diane and I had could not be recaptured, but our legacy was unfinished and so I decided to stay a little longer, to see if we could go out on top.”
Wilson asked around Motown for possible candidates — singer Syreeta Wright, who became Stevie Wonder’s wife, was one suggestion — and Lamont Dozier, part of the Holland-Dozier-Holland hitmaking team that wrote so many Motown hits, recommended Scherrie Payne, singer Freda Payne’s sister.
“I had known Freda for years and we were best friends,” Wilson continues. “I flew Scherrie out to L.A. from Detroit and the minute I saw her, I loved her because she was very sweet and nice and then she had this big voice. I knew this could work.”
To replace Lawrence, Wilson called Birdsong to see if she would consider returning to the group, and the new Supremes were born. The new line-up of Wilson, Payne and Birdsong recorded an album simply called “The Supremes.”
Each incarnation of the Supremes had its own distinct personality, according to Wilson. “Diane and I were best friends and that was one dynamic,” she recalls. “When it became Diana Ross & the Supremes, that was another dynamic. Jean was very much perfect for the time because she did not have the glamour image that we had; she was more of the ‘Black is beautiful’ image, which really fit the times [of the early ‘70s]. Jean, Cindy and I made for a good combination of personalities.”
And while she refers to that lineup as “perhaps the nicest group,” the three clashed over a trip to apartheid-era South Africa to perform in 1975. “People did not want us to go, and that caused a lot of tension within the group because both Scherrie and Cindy didn’t want to go and I wanted to,” Wilson recalls. “Other than that, we were very good in terms of personalities not clashing.”
That same year, brothers Brian and Eddie Holland (of Holland-Dozier-Holland fame) returned to Motown after an absence of several years and reunited with the Supremes for the album “High Energy.”
“I was very happy that they were there,” Wilson said, “and the music they brought in was beautiful. But at the same time, Cindy told me, ‘Mary, I’m leaving.’ I was really tired of finding new people but we had this opportunity to work with the Hollands, so we found Susaye Greene, who had worked with Stevie Wonder and was a songwriter. Vocally she was excellent, so I said okay.”
While Wilson had very few lead vocals during the Diana Ross era (including covers of “Our Day Will Come,” “Come and Get These Memories” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”), she purposely took many more during the 1970s.
“I knew I needed to develop my talent, so I was getting myself ready to go on my own,” she said. “When Jean was there, I did a duet with her on ‘Touch.’ We did an album with Smokey Robinson, ‘Floy Joy,’ and I did quite a few lead vocals on that. Then with the Hollands, I did more. I didn’t do as many recordings as I wanted to because I was still labeled as a background singer by the producers, so they wanted to use the people who were lead singers.”
Wilson explained that she never had an issue with not being the lead singer of the Supremes. “My voice is not as versatile as Diane’s or Scherrie’s,” she said. “I have a niche: I can do ballads and I’m also a rock singer. In the ’70s I had to sing the type of songs I did well, so they were not the A-songs.”
As the leader, Wilson had more responsibilities than most people realized. “I always felt bad that I was doing so much and not getting any credit. I hired and trained all the girls. I paid for the instruments and took care of the transportation. I kept after the producers and kept after Motown to keep everything going.”
Near the end of a five-hour interview, Wilson said she should have ended the Supremes before they recorded the “High Energy” album. “We should have stopped before we even got that far. The only thing that kept me going was that we were going to record with the Hollands. I was continuing on with the group just to find the right escape route, because I loved being onstage but also I didn’t feel like I was ready to step out on my own. But then as each girl left, I wondered if I was ever going to be good enough to go on my own. Finally, my husband told me, ‘You need to leave. You need to disband the group.’”
There was one final Supremes album, “Mary, Scherrie & Susaye” in 1976, and the group’s long run finally came to an end the following year. Wilson gave her final performance with Payne and Greene at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane in London on June 12, 1977. Two years later she released her first solo album, “Red Hot,” on Motown.
Less than three weeks before her death, Wilson was asked by The Hollywood Reporter about reuniting with Diana Ross.
“It’s really up to Diana,” she said. “I don’t think she wants to do that. It doesn’t make sense unless you come together lovingly. Or at least have an understanding…. But I don’t think she does want to. So therefore, I’m going on with my life. I look at it like this, especially with this pandemic: Who knows when the end may come. And at 76 and a half years old I’m not going to sit around waiting for something. As my mother used to say, don’t cry over spilled milk. I have too much to live for now and be happy about.”