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Mary Wilson

Motown recording artist Mary Wilson was born in Greenville, Mississippi to Sam Wilson, a butcher, and Johnnie Mae Wilson, a homemaker, on March 6, 1944. At age three, Wilson’s parents sent her to live in Detroit, Michigan with her aunt, I.V. Pippin, and uncle, John L. Pippin. In 1952, Wilson moved to Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects. She was bused from the projects to Algers elementary school in 1956 when integration of public schools began. Wilson went on to graduate from Northeastern high school in 1962.

In 1959, Wilson joined a local singing group, Primettes, which also included Florence Ballard, Diana Ross and Betty McGlown. The Primettes performed at the 1960 Detroit-Windsor Freedom Festival amateur talent contest and won first place. In 1961, the group, which now included Barbara Martin, signed with Motown Records and changed their name to the Supremes. After Martin left the group in 1962 the Supremes permanently became a trio and traveled that year with “The Motortown Revue,” a showcase of Motown artists including the Temptations, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye.

In 1963, the Supremes teamed up with writer-producers Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland (HDH). A few of their records received national airplay. Having recorded the Supremes, who had shared the lead singing for three years without a hit record, Gordy rearranged the group with Wilson and Ballard as background singers. The Supremes scored their first hit in 1963 with the song, “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes.” The group reached #1 on U.S. pop charts for the first time in 1964 with the hit record and single, Where Did Our Love Go.

In 1964, the Supremes became one of the first Motown acts to perform outside of the United States when they played at the Clay House Inn in Bermuda. The Supremes also began European tours starting with Great Britain and later toured elsewhere, including the Far East. Where Did Our Love Go was followed by four consecutive singles that reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts: “Baby Love,” which was also a #1 hit in the UK; “Come See About Me”; “Stop! In the Name of Love”; and “Back in My Arms Again.” “Baby Love” was nominated for the 1965 Grammy Award for Best R&B Song.

The Supremes became the first black pop group of the sixties to play New York City’s Copacabana, and the first pop group to play New York’s Philharmonic Hall in Lincoln Center in 1965. Wilson began a solo career after the group disbanded in 1977. As a solo performer, Wilson toured the world, recorded, acted on stage and television, and participated in celebrity charity events. Wilson wrote about her career with Motown and the Supremes in Dreamgirls: My Life as a Supreme (1986) and Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together (1990).

The Supremes received the NAACP Image Award for Best Female Group in 1972, and they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Wilson was honored in 1973 with a Mary Wilson Day in Detroit.

Mary Wilson Was interviewed by The HistoryMakers on November 19, 2013.

Accession Number

A2013.323

Sex

Female

Interview Date

11/24/2013

Last Name

Wilson

Maker Category
Marital Status

Divorced

Occupation
Organizations
Schools

Northeastern High School

Bishop Elementary School

First Name

Mary

Birth City, State, Country

Greenville

HM ID

WIL69

Favorite Season

Spring, Chirstmas

State

Mississippi

Favorite Vacation Destination

Home

Favorite Quote

Love

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

California

Birth Date

3/6/1944

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

Los Angeles

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Japanese

Short Description

Singer Mary Wilson (1944 - ) , an original member of The Supremes, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

Employment

Motown Records

Favorite Color

Blues, Pastel, Red

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Mary Wilson's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Mary Wilson lists her favorites

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Mary Wilson describes her father's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Mary Wilson describes her mother's family background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Mary Wilson remembers learning that she was adopted

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Mary Wilson describes the sights, sounds and smells of her childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Mary Wilson talk about her adoptive parents

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Mary Wilson remembers moving into her birth mother's household

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Mary Wilson lists her siblings

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Mary Wilson describes her household

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Mary Wilson recalls her start as a choir singer

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Mary Wilson remembers Carolyn Franklin and the Franklin family

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Mary Wilson talks about the music scene in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Mary Wilson remembers the popularity of teenage doo wop groups

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Mary Wilson describes the formation of The Primettes

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Mary Wilson remembers The Primettes' early performances

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Mary Wilson talks about her role in The Primettes

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Mary Wilson remembers Milton Jenkins

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - Mary Wilson talks about Northeastern High School in Detroit, Michigan

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - Mary Wilson remembers auditioning for Motown Records

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Mary Wilson talks about signing with Lu Pine Records and Motown Records

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Mary Wilson remembers hanging out at Motown Records

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - Mary Wilson talks about the distribution of The Primettes' first record

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Mary Wilson remembers Mary Wells

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Mary Wilson describes the structure of Motown Records

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Mary Wilson remembers the creativity and talent at Motown Records

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Mary Wilson explains the importance of recording contract negotiations

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Mary Wilson talks about her decision to speak out about Motown Records' unfair contracts

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Mary Wilson remembers her parents' emphasis on college education

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Mary Wilson remembers touring with the 'Motortown Revue'

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Mary Wilson remembers the chaperones for the 'Motortown Revue'

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Mary Wilson remembers touring with Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars, pt. 1

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Mary Wilson remembers touring with Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars, pt. 2

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Mary Wilson talks about her experiences of integration in Dick Clark's Caravan of Stars

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Mary Wilson remembers working with Holland-Dozier-Holland

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Mary Wilson talks about the songwriting process at Motown Records

Tape: 5 Story: 2 - Mary Wilson describes the voices and personalities of The Supremes

Tape: 5 Story: 3 - Mary Wilson describes the relationships with other Motown artists

Tape: 5 Story: 4 - Mary Wilson remembers The Supremes' first tour of the United Kingdom

Tape: 5 Story: 5 - Mary Wilson remembers Maxine Powell

Tape: 5 Story: 6 - Mary Wilson talks about the early success of The Supremes

Tape: 5 Story: 7 - Mary Wilson remembers Cholly Atkins

Tape: 5 Story: 8 - Mary Wilson talks about The Supremes' responses to their success

Tape: 6 Story: 1 - Mary Wilson remembers Florence Ballard

Tape: 6 Story: 2 - Mary Wilson talks about the group dynamic of The Supremes

Tape: 6 Story: 3 - Mary Wilson talks about the struggles of The Supremes

Tape: 6 Story: 4 - Mary Wilson talks about Florence Ballard' departure from The Supremes

Tape: 6 Story: 5 - Mary Wilson talks about her favorite songs in The Supremes' repertoire

Tape: 6 Story: 6 - Mary Wilson remembers The Supremes' opening night at the Copacabana in New York City

Tape: 6 Story: 7 - Mary Wilson remembers the addition of Cindy Birdsong to The Supremes

Tape: 7 Story: 1 - Mary Wilson remembers the addition of Cindy Birdsong and Jean Terrell to The Supremes

Tape: 7 Story: 2 - Mary Wilson talk about her work life balance during a transitional period with The Supremes

Tape: 7 Story: 3 - Mary Wilson talks about losing friendships and support systems

Tape: 7 Story: 4 - Mary Wilson recalls The Supremes' final performance

Tape: 7 Story: 5 - Mary Wilson remembers the breakup of The Supremes, pt. 1

Tape: 7 Story: 6 - Mary Wilson talks about her marriage

Tape: 7 Story: 7 - Mary Wilson remembers the breakup of The Supremes, pt. 2

Tape: 7 Story: 8 - Mary Wilson remembers Florence Ballard's funeral

Tape: 8 Story: 1 - Mary Wilson talks about the aftermath of Florence Ballard's death

Tape: 8 Story: 2 - Mary Wilson talks about the legal battle with Motown Records over ownership of The Supremes name

Tape: 8 Story: 3 - Mary Wilson talks about focusing on her career after The Supremes disbanded

Tape: 8 Story: 4 - Mary Wilson remembers her divorce

Tape: 8 Story: 5 - Mary Wilson talks about 'Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever'

Tape: 8 Story: 6 - Mary Wilson talks about the release of her autobiographies

Tape: 8 Story: 7 - Mary Wilson recalls the attempts to organize a reunion tour for The Supremes

Tape: 8 Story: 8 - Mary Wilson remembers her son's death

Tape: 8 Story: 9 - Mary Wilson reflects upon her life

Tape: 9 Story: 1 - Mary Wilson talks about her plans for the future

Tape: 9 Story: 2 - Mary Wilson reflects upon her life

Tape: 9 Story: 3 - Mary Wilson reflects upon the legacy of The Supremes

Tape: 9 Story: 4 - Mary Wilson describes her hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 9 Story: 5 - Mary Wilson remembers the Christmas parties at Motown Records

Tape: 9 Story: 6 - Mary Wilson describes how she would like to be remembered

DASession

1$1

DATape

2$6

DAStory

7$6

DATitle
Mary Wilson describes the formation of The Primettes
Mary Wilson remembers The Supremes' opening night at the Copacabana in New York City
Transcript
But wait, but let, let's go--so it's you and Carol- Carolyn and you, right? Carolyn suggests the group; let's, let--okay, before and then?$$Okay, well after we were no longer bused to the other school [Alger Elementary School, Detroit, Michigan], we went to the school, Bishop [Bishop Elementary School, Detroit, Michigan], and it was at that time when we had the--our school had a talent show and our school said, "If you wanna be a part of this talent show, sign up in the gymnasium wall and you know you'd be on the show." So, here I am loving Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers, I saw them on some show. Now this was the beginning of, of rock and roll and, and I fell in love with Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers. So, when I saw the sign on, on the gymnasium wall about being a part of a show, I said, "Oh, okay." And I dressed up in my brother's [Roosevelt Wilson] blue jeans and black leather jacket, and back then the colored boys, the black boys, Afro Americans we say now, wore processed hair. So, I had a du wet rag tied around my head, had a big a comb in my pocket, and I went up there and I pantomimed to Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers' song. This was very odd--I just wanna regress a minute here. Why I would do that? Because my only experience, and this was having sung with Carolyn Franklin for a little bit, and then we were bused back to Bishop and now I see on TV, these guys singing. Fell in love with Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers and now I'm signing up for this show. I'm like--I didn't think about this then, but as I think about it now, where did that come from? It wasn't like I said I wanna be a singer or whatever. I mean these things are just kind of coming into my lap and I'm just following 'em. So, I went up there, I never even thought I could sing, I never thought about it, and I pantomimed to that record. Well, the crowd in the gymnasium went wild, they were like, "Go Mary [HistoryMaker Mary Wilson], go Mary," da, da. And, and I mean I had the crowd just like going and I'm only twelve or twelve and a half, something like that. So, then Florence [Florence Ballard] was on the same--she had, I guess she had signed up. I didn't know her, but she lived in the projects [Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects; Frederick Douglass Homes, Detroit, Michigan] and in the projects, there were thousands of people. You may see them but you don't really know them all the time. So, she sang and she actually was singing, she said, (singing) "Ave Maria," ['Ave Maria,' Franz Schubert] and everybody was like, "Whoa!" So, as wild as they were about me, we all were like, "She's only twelve and a half too." And she's this--voice was huge. It was big and she sounded so great. Somehow or another I don't remember anybody else on the show at all, never have actually, and she and I kind of migrated that day after the show and we started just talking and, and I said why--I said, "Ooh, your voice, it's so big and it's so beautiful," da, da. And she said, "Girl, you had the crowd going." They were. Now, I'm a quiet, bashful type. For me to get up there and do that was so out of character, but yet, and still when I did that, you know it dawned on me that I totally enjoyed doing that and did it so naturally, so it was if I had been trained and I had not been. So, Florence and I became friends that day and she, we talked about you know everyone's got these little groups and this and that, I didn't think--I use to be with Carolyn and then, da, da, da, you know and then we started talking and said, "Well maybe we should start one or anyone talks--wants it, let's remember each other." So, we walked home that day and became friends, and sure enough a couple of months later Florence came up to me on the playground and she said, "Mary," she said, "this, this group called The Primes wanna put a girl group together, and my sister [Maxine Ballard Jenkins] is dating one of the guys, and their manager, Milton Jenkins, wanted to know if, you know, if I wanna be in it." She said, "I told them about you." And she said, "I heard they were gonna go across the street. You know this girl Diana [Diana Ross] that lives right across the street from you?" "Yeah, I've seen her out there. She's always playing with the boys," and da, da. "They've asked her so and they want to see us." And then we all, me, Diana and Flo walked down to the guy's apartment. Our parents would've killed us had they known we did that, but we went over to their house and that's when we met The Primes, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams and Kell Osborne and the manager, Milton Jenkins. And, so they asked us, "Well can you girls sing?" You know, and so we're like um, you know, and so Florence says, "I know this song." And she started singing 'You Know the Night Time is the Right Time,' the Ray Charles song, and so Diane and I--and then there was another girl there, Betty [Betty McGlown]. I guess she had been dating one of the guys and we all chimed in and sang the song. Not taught anything and it sounded beautiful, so Milton said, "All right, we've got the group. We're The Primes and you're The Primettes." And that's how we started singing.$What about--can you talk about the night of the Copacabana [New York, New York]? Can you talk?$$Which night? We were there for two weeks.$$Oh, the first night, the opening, I mean the--well, you don't wanna talk about that?$$Um.$$Okay.$$No, I mean I don't know what you mean?$$Well, I'm just saying can you talk about the whole--let's say--$$The experience?$$Let's talk about the experience, yes.$$Okay, sure. Gee, the experience. First of all, it was extremely exciting to, to know, to be rehearsing for a show that you know could go this way or go that way (gestures), and we had enough experience to know that we were, should be going there, and we rehearsed on all the songs. We knew the songs very well and I think there was one, only area where it could've been negative and that was I think Florence [Florence Ballard] was supposed to sing "People" and that song was--chose not to. She couldn't sing it. I think that was the only downer that I can remember of opening at the Copa. It was extremely exciting. It was a place where Mr. Jules Podell, supposedly this was all mafia and all kind of stuff, and you know you'd hear all the stories throughout the years, so it was very exciting to, to know that we were going to be in that environment 'cause in a way it kind of put back into the old mature, you know the, in the days when things were--it was a different generation so we're kind of catching the last part of a generation that's dying out and we're there. I remember seeing a contract or something of Sammy Davis [Sammy Davis, Jr.], who he was making five thousand dollars and I think we were making five thousand dollars too. So, it--things like that were, were happening and you're like just so excited that you're actually right now living your dream. So, all remember is that we were actually living our dream. We were there at the Copacabana. The place was packed. We heard that all kinds of people were there. I don't know if it was the first night we were there it was Flip Wilson, or I mean all kinds of who, who was, or who is, was there. So, yeah, it was, it was and then after the--during the show it was a very exciting. Everyone was sitting there and they were very excited. You could tell that they were totally into it. So, it was a success. It was--to talk about the experience we lived our dream at the Copacabana. They actually recorded it as well and, oh, I'll tell you the other downer was we had on these horrible outfits that we did not like and they had, someone had brought all these flowers and put 'em around here, fake flowers, right? We hated those gowns, I know I did and I remember we tore 'em off later, but, and, and then we had a hat--got straw hats with a cane and that was the album cover of the, of the album that they recorded there ['The Supremes at the Copa']. So, that was--it was very, very exciting. It was everything you would want a successful night opening to be.$$Who, who was responsible for that? Was that a whole group or team of people at, at Motown [Motown Records] and did [HistoryMakers] Berry Gordy sit down and talk to you about the significance of that as a--?$$I don't know if Berry had to sit and talk to us.$$Okay.$$Yeah, I don't think that, that was something that we--I say that to say we all knew that this was.$$A big deal.$$The big, the biggie. Well, that's that I think I'm saying it wasn't something that he would say, "Girl we gonna go to the Copa." I don't think that had to happen because we had been preparing for that, but there was a team of people, yes, working around us. As I mentioned earlier, the artist development people. But they also had the P, the PR [public relations] and I'm quite sure who they used for that and then you had the marketing, Barney Ales and the sales department. But I think they also had a, you know the new public relations team that was helping, 'cause this is New York [New York]. So, I think we had all kind of New York affiliations there that would help them in that. So, it was a, a full fledged, everybody was involved in it.$$Now, the line up, 'cause there were, you did a whole range of songs, you weren't just doing your, your, popu- you know your hits?$$Um-hm.$$So how were those decisions made?$$Well, as I mentioned earlier we, we actually had been doing loads of, of standard material. The kind of in our earlier days we, that's what we , we actually--that was our expertise and I think Berry in his you know knowing that we could go to this next level understood that they're already doing this kind of standard material. They call it today, 'American Songbook,' ['Great American Songbook'] they didn't say that back then, but that's what it was, and we were already doing that, so this kind of fit into a scheme of where they wanted to be as a company too because we were already, we were already singing some of those kind of songs, so it just made sense to continue on, and I, I that's one thing that Mrs. Powell [HistoryMaker Maxine Powell] always said, "You're diamonds in the rough and we're just here to polish you." So, I think that Berry and Motown, everyone kind of you know had said you know, "Supremes, they can do this. We, our dream is to go there, The Supremes can take us there." So, they gave us all the ammunition they had and we were able to do it.