Mary Wilson on The Supremes, Motown legacy, the loss of her son, and reuniting with Diana Ross
They sure don't make girl groups like they used to. Back in the day, The Supremes exuded style and grace that inspired every young girl to be on their A-game, from head to toe. Whether it was their legendary bobs or their figure-flattering gowns, we wanted to emulate Motown's supreme songbirds. The rich legacy of Motor City's classy songbirds delivered the blueprint of fine artist development which has since been imitated but never duplicated. Mary Wilson, the quiet storm of the legendary trio, has continued to keep the group's legacy alive with a European exhibit of their glam gowns. As Motown continues a yearlong celebration to commemorate its fiftieth anniversary with a 200-song boxset, "Motown: The Complete No. 1's," ESSENCE.com caught up with Wilson to talk about reuniting with Diana Ross, the tragic loss of her son, and why she wasn't The Supremes weakest link.
ESSENCE.COM: Ms. Wilson, you are legend! When you reflect on your Motown days what resonates with you?
MARY WILSON: Motown was the greatest thing that happened to us. We received some information that helped us for the rest of our lives. If you weren't able to take advantage of that training, you lost out, but we were given the advantage because they had an artist management program. It was like a finishing school. I'll never forget Mrs. Powell said to us, "You girls are like diamonds in the rough and we're just here to polish you." I always loved and respected that she didn't try to take the credit from who we were. Throughout the years I've heard people write things like The Supremes were manufactured, but she gave us the real credit that was due to us and I always kept that with me.
ESSENCE.COM: Wow, that's extremely young. How did you manage school and being in the group?
MARY WILSON: It was tough. I was quite good in English and I can still remember my English teacher saying, "I know you are singing with this little group, but if you want to keep on singing right now I don't think you're going to pass this class." So I wrote up this essay and it was about where I thought my life was and he told me the paper is brilliant and passed me. It's exciting because it ended up being the first chapter of my book, "Dream Girl." From then on I kept diaries of all of our travels until I was 45, and those journals helped me to write my book. Journaling is a good thing, because when so much time passes you really do forget the [minute] details and they go into a black hole. Although I don't really read them now, It really kept me grounded and kept me in synch with my life's journey.
ESSENCE.COM: Speaking of documenting your personal history, how much of an accurate portrayal of The Supremes was captured in the film and play, "Dreamgirls?"
WILSON: Well, "Dreamgirls," is not the story of The Supremes. I believe the guys were inspired by our public image and put it into a story. Again, [those characters] were nothing like us, but they did use pictures and historical movements to help shape their story which I think is great. Also, because we were so well-known, people often attribute that story to us. However, one thing I will say is that money and fame really wrecks relationships. It wasn't us, because we loved each other and we truly were like sisters. When you're young you are easily influenced and sometimes people can lead you one way and your friendship is gone and you don't even remember why. What I remember about The Supremes is that what we went through wasn't us but many outside influences because again, we were sisters and truly loved each other.
ESSENCE.COM: That's great to hear. So do you think The Supremes will ever be reunited?
WILSON: Well, that's always been one of my biggest dreams. I kept The Supremes image alive for many, many years in the hopes that something like that might happen. It all depends if Diane [Ross] wants to do it. I personally would and again, I've kept The Supremes image alive through the European exhibit of the group's wardrobe with all of our gowns, which first debuted at the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame Museum. Diane and I don't talk often, but we do special things together, like when I lost my son in 1994 she reached out to me, and on certain occasions we keep in touch.
ESSENCE.COM: Our hearts go out to you and your family for the loss of your your 14-year-old son in car accident while you were driving. How have you been coping all these years?
WILSON: You always feel some kind of guilt whether or not you could have protected your child or prevented it altogether. But as people we have to understand that sometimes things happen and there's nothing you can do about it. I was not drinking or sleeping behind the wheel of the car when it happened as some people reported. As a parent even when your child is away from home you worry and if you didn't' feel something what kind of parent would you be? Of course, you want to sacrifice that for your child and ask, Why couldn't it have been me? I know some people who have lost children and they just deteriorated and have never been the same. I've found a way of coping with it and that is the realization that death is a part of life. There is a certain coding on each of our lives and we don't always necessarily understand why. The loss of my son has helped me become stronger and make me promise myself that I will do the best I can in life. So you never really get over it. My other son told me, Mom, it's like a hole in my heart and I said, "I know; mine, too, but the blessing is you still have your heart and his memory to fill it with." So that's how me and my family cope, but I am in such a good place and the happiest I've ever been because I am living my life.
ESSENCE.COM: When you think about your legacy is there anything you'd like to set the record straight on about Mary Wilson?
WILSON: I think early on because of Florence's situation, people thought I wasn't strong and that I should have done more, but that's not the way I am. I have always been very strong but soft. If I see there is smoothing I can not fix then I don't try to fix it. One journalist wrote that I was fluff and that's not true. I prepared myself to do what I needed to do. I was never about fighting for anything that I know I'm not going to win. I prefer to put my energy some place else. Everyone fights differently. Do I have some regrets? Of course, I wish I knew more about certain things and perhaps, my decisions would have been different. For years, I've been fighting over what I'm going to put on my tombstone and I know the essence of what it will say is that she was a person who lived her life always with the thought of kindness, honestly and peacefulness. With me, I don't play games. What you see is what you get.