Founding member of the Supremes Mary Wilson has sadly died at the age of 76, leaving behind a lasting legacy in Motown and music history. While the famous story of the band’s unravelling pits Diana Ross against Florence Ballard, the narrative that is often overlooked is how Mary survived as a Supreme through the whole ordeal, continuing the band after Ballard was dismissed and Ross went stratospherically solo. Mary’s story is one of quiet endurance and commitment to performance and style – beautifully told in her recent book ‘Supreme Glamour’.
Mary herself admitted that her voice was never the core strength or selling point of her career, ‘I never thought of myself as a singer per se. It has always been being up on stage that has excited me the most. As much as I cared about singing, I also loved the dancing, the comedy bits, the choreography, and engaging a live audience. Performing is still my real gift and my real love. I am an entertainer, Diane and Flo were “the singers”. Her modesty in this area would be a double edged sword – she avoided the jealousy and bitterness that plagued Ballard when Ross became lead singer but in turn this meant her vocals were underused and underdeveloped for much of her time in the group.
Mary met Florence Ballard at a high school talent show and they joined forces in a vocal group soon afterwards, meeting Diana for the first time. The band were first called The Primettes, being created as the sister group to local band The Primes. They began making a name for themselves on the local scene but were turned down by Berry Gordy after their first Motown audition for being too young. After graduating school the girls camped outside Hitsville every day, hoping for another opportunity to impress. Eventually their persistence paid off and the band were signed, and given a new name: The Supremes.
A central part of the group’s appeal was their classy, chic style. Mary herself was key to this aesthetic, being the classic beauty of the group. Motown wanted the band to appeal to teenagers but they had their eye on a wide audience, a white audience, and that meant The Supremes were always groomed and glamorous. Supreme Glamour catalogues the stylish and stunning gowns which helped make their name and shows how this heightened femininity and elaborate elegance is as influential as their music.
Whoopi Goldberg writes the introduction to the book about how important their image was saying ‘these were brown women as they had never, ever been seen before…they were unapologetic and brave.’ Dr Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African American Studies at Duke University writes that ‘The grace and confidence that the Supremes personified would inspire a nation and continue to serve as a shining example of modern black womanhood.’ What was alluring to many was that their costumes signalled wealth and affluence, the American dream itself which had so long been out of reach for most black people.
Of course it helped that their image of poise and perfection was palatable to white audiences. The band’s safe and unthreatening style was in contrast to the more rock and roll Ronettes or the gritty blues singers who came before them. In fact after the Supremes met the Beatles, George Harrison would recall ‘We couldn’t believe that three black girls from Detroit could be so square!’ Such a comment shows that ideas of what black women could be, or should be, were deeply entrenched then (as now). Being prim and proper is what made them so powerful and popular.
By the end of the sixties the demise of the group seemed inevitable with Florence’s descent into darkness and Diana’s star power rising. However Mary still saw a future in the group, even after Florence was replaced and Diana’s solo career began. She stayed loyal to the band and to Motown despite the difficulties, agreeing to continue with a new lead singer. By remaining in the background vocally, Mary kept the band and her career going through the seventies, scoring further hits (albeit modest in comparisons to their heyday) and allowing her to eventually take on more singing duties. Albums like Right On and New Ways But Love Stays contain some great songs, even if they were underrated and underpromoted by Motown.
Mary would end the group in 1977, moving on to other opportunities including writing her autobiography. Since then she has remained a forceful voice for The Supremes and Florence Ballard’s legacy. Wilson has drawn attention to how the band’s story was used without credit for the fictionalised musical Dreamgirls. In an interview a few years back with the Charleston City paper she said of the musical and subsequent movie, ‘it was like plagiarism in a way, but it’s really caused a lot of problems, because I would have wanted – and I still want – to do a movie based on the Supremes. And no one wants to do it because they say it’s already been done.’
In that same interview she emphasised that, for her, the story of the Supremes is a story of ‘friendship’ and indeed that is the triumph and the tragedy of the band. Let’s hope Mary Wilson’s last dream can be realised and her real life story can finally be seen on the screen.
Mary’s book is available here: https://www.waterstones.com/book/supreme-glamour/mary-wilson/mark-bego/9780500022009
The New York Times interview about the book: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/18/style/mary-wilson-supreme-glamour.html
A conversation with Mary at the V & A museum about the costumes: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/videos/a/video-supremes-an-interview-with-mary-wilson/