Mary Wilson

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Mary Wilson Pencil Portrait
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Last update: 26/6/16

I saw Mary Wilson in concert with The Supremes in 1979 at the Commodore in Nottingham. It must have felt like a comedown – all the way from Madison Square Gardens to the Batley Variety Club perhaps? – but there was no hint of anything in the performance other than sheer professionalism. No Diana Ross either, but I barely noticed. The harmonies were peerless, and if the truth be told, Mary was always the looker in the group. Sir Tom Jones would agree with me on that one.

Still working at 72, she’s overcome personal tragedy – the loss of her son in a car accident in which she was driving – and is involved in combating obstacles that both male and female musicians encounter in the music industry.

“Music legends from the ‘50s and ‘60s are dying unhappily and poor because their legacies are being stolen from them. Artists and creators make this art, this music, and people just come and steal it. This should not happen, and we need to stop that from happening.”

She’s not talking about illegal download or low-paying streaming services. She’s talking about something called the Truth In Music Act: legislation that Wilson and other members of famous groups from the ‘50s and ‘60s have been lobbying state lawmakers to pass for more than a decade.

Truth in Music legislation – which Wilson says is now on the books in 38 states – makes it illegal for groups to perform under the names of famous bands if no one in the group is a legitimate member of the group. In the decade since Wilson and other legacy artists began their crusade with the passage of a law in Pennsylvania in October 2005, Truth in Music Committee Chairman Jon Bauman estimates that the “business of impostor groups has been curtailed by about 90%.”

Amen to that…………………………….

Recommended reading

Dreamgirl and Supreme Faith: My life as a Supreme ( 1999)

A compendium of Wilson’s two autobiographies, and at well over 700 pages, a considerably lengthy read.

Originally perceived as a probable “Diana Dearest” hatchet job, Wilson instead reserves most of her vitriol for Berry Gordy, the founder and owner of Motown records. It’s hardly surprising.

The Supremes’ original contract earned them about $5,000 apiece per million records sold, she notes, and throughout much of their career they were kept on a skimpy weekly allowance. She writes that, during her years at Motown, she never saw her tax return – “hard to believe, but…true.” When she tried to carry on the Supremes with fill-in singers after Ross’s departure, Motown tried to keep her from using the name. Interviewed at the time of the book’s 1986 publication, she was less than sanguine about legal issues involving her former record label. “Motown can do nothing with the name, but I can feed my children, take care of my mother,” she opined, whist still embroiled in litigation with the company over that issue as well as a question of unpaid royalties.

If Wilson was the glue that held the group together, Miss Ross herself was not averse to some horizontal sport in order to attain a closeness to certain top managment personnel. Once emotionally involved with Gordy, Ross – in Wilson’s own words – ‘had Berry, and never hesitated to hold that over the head of anyone who crossed her.’

Further into her memoirs, she writes that Miss Ross’s connections with the boss kept her no farther than a telephone call from domination of the group. Hers was more than a mere power grab, however. It was the meeting of two upwardly mobile minds. Mr. Gordy saw clearly how elegant but relentless music (as embodied in Miss Ross) offered his company a ticket out of second-rank society. Miss Ross made an ideal protegee for him; being essentially a driven perfectionist who threw star fits even on the rickety bus Motown used for its first national package tour in 1962.

The Supremes became Gordy’s obsession – much to the chagrin of more seasoned acts like Gladys Knight and the Pips and Martha and the Vandellas – and he immersed them in a torrent of recording sessions and network television appearances on the Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson shows, essentially prime-time entertainment for a predominantly WASP audience. Flaunting group unity, he would designate Miss Ross as the sole lead singer in 1967, officially changing the group’s name to Diana Ross and the Supremes. By then, tight riffs had given way to raging tiffs with third member Florence ‘Flo’ Ballard. She drank and missed performances until she was replaced by Cindy Birdsong that same year. Ballard would eventually die in an alcoholic haze in 1976, after years of abortive comeback attempts.

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Mary Wilson of the Supremes - "Deams do come true."