Singer, Author, Entertainer, Founding Member, The Supremes
Friday, January 12, 2007 2:00 PM
Mary Wilson, founding member of the Supremes, the Detroit vocal group who grew up in the projects and were known as the Primettes, sang background for Berry Gordy at Motown Records and finally -- after eight record releases -- stepped out in front when they scored their biggest hit yet with "Where Did Our Love Go" in 1964. That was followed by a phenomenal 11 more hit singles that when to Number One on the pop music charts.
Wilson was online Friday, Jan. 12, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss her life and career, her books, including "Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme" and of course, the movie "Dreamgirls," which has many parallels to the real-life story of one of the most successful female pop groups in music history.
A transcript follows.
Washington, D.C.: Hi Mary,
How much of the musical "Dreamgirls" is on target and reflects what happened to you and the Supremes? Are you compensated in any way from the millions that the movie will make?
Mary Wilson: The original play, Dreamgirls, that was on Broadway, was supposedly not about the Supremes, that was the buzz. Now the movie says is is based on the Supremes. Here's where it gets tricky. The director, Bill Condon, said that when he was 13 years old, he begged his father to take him to see the Supremes at the Brooklyn Fox in New York and I'm positive that the writer of the book, Tom Eyen and Henry Kriegsman, grew up in the '60s and more than likely were influenced by the Supremes, on The Ed Sullivan Show and other shows.
So my take on the whole scenario is that these guys were influenced by the Supremes and the story of "Dreamgirls," the movie and the play were obviously based loosely on the Supremes' career.
In all honesty, I know Sheryl Lee Ralph, Jennifer Holliday and Loretta Divine (original actors/actresses in Broadway show) and they've all said that in their workshop they worked out various things but obviously the end product not really the Supremes life story.
Mary Wilson: As far as compensation is concerned, I get a lot of glory from the movie and that's fine with me at this point in my life.
Baltimore, Md.: Do you still keep in touch with any of the former Supremes (Jean, Cindy, Susaye, etc.), the Funk Brothers (Eddie, Uriel, Jack, etc.), or Motown producers (H-D-H, Frank Wilson, etc.)?
Mary Wilson: Yes, I stay in contact with most of them. Many of them I work with like the Funk Brothers, the Temptations, etc., Martha and the Vandellas.
Atlanta, Ga.: As remarkable as the Motown experience has been (i.e., neighborhood kids become superstars of the music world), do you ever get tired of telling and retelling the story?
Mary Wilson: Sometimes it become so redundant retelling the Supremes story but I realize how important the story is and how people really are interested so therefore I have to put my own likes and dislikes on the back burner and just tell the story and try to keep them creative and honest which sometimes can be quite hard.
Now in D.C.: Hi from a fellow Detroiter.
As we know, Detroit has been going through some very tough times in the past 30 years or so. I really think part of the problem came about when Berry Gordy moved Motown from Detroit to Los Angeles. Motown was the most successful black-owned business Detroit had ever seen, and by leaving, helped contribute to some of Detroit's problems. Also, the sound changed, because it was no longer Motown-based, and consequently, no longer an identifiable sound.
Can you comment on this?
Mary Wilson: Wow. I think that the demise of some of the greatness of Detroit, Mich, i.e., the Motown Sound, the automobile industry, drugs, the racial tensions all contributed to what once was a great city. I had a marvelous childhood, great education and I am saddened by what used to be a great city. I really wouldn't put it on one of those situations or the other. I think they each contributed and it's just unfortunate. Hopefully, it's not over til the fat lady sings so we can all try to make it better.
Mary Wilson: Sen. Martha Scott just helped get past a piece of legislation called the 'Truth in Music' bill which I initiated there in Michigan. Sen. Scott and I are now talking on my participation in some of the youth issues there in Detroit. I'm looking forward to working with her on this.
Washington, D.C.: In the "Dreamgirls" movie, Deena Jones' character remakes one of Effie's hit singles, without her permission. Did that happen in your career as well?
Mary Wilson: Come See About Me was originally on our album and another girl group called the Nella Dodds recorded that as a single so we had to immediately put Come See About Me out as a single which wasn't the original plan. Thank God it became Number One.
That was not a situation that happened within the Supremes; it was a record company decision.
Virginia Beach, Va.: Did Flo ever have a personal relationship with Berry?
How is your daughter doing and what are Flo's daughters doing as far as occupations?
Mary Wilson: No. Florence never had a personal relationship with Berry.
My daughter is doing very well; she and her husband have three children and I live with them. Florence's daughters are doing very well considering they had to grow up without their mom or dad and were raised by their family. They all call Diane and I, Auntie Mary and Auntie Diane.
Dallas, Tex.: First off, I was raised on the Supremes and Motown music, so thank you for the years and years of great music.
I remember when Florence Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong. At the time, how did you feel about the change and is it true that Flo passed away in poverty?
A Grateful Fan
Mary Wilson: Obviously when Florence had to leave the group and was replaced by Cindy I was very saddened. This, for me, meant the end of the Supremes -- not that Cindy was joining the group because Cindy is a beautiful human being inside and out; however, for me without the three original girls, the dream was over.
Alexandria, Va.: Do the Supremes still collect residuals each time one of your songs are played, or is there a time limit on how long you can be paid for each playing of a song?
Mary Wilson: I cannot speak for the other ladies who came after the original group but Diane and I do receive residuals. Unfortunately Florence received a one-time settlement.
Washington, D.C.: Looking back over the years, when you recount the memories and the total experience, how does it make you feel knowing you are a huge icon for the music industry?
Mary Wilson: (LAUGHS) You know, you have a job, you have a life and you approach it like that. However, now that 40 some years have passed I do recognize that we, the Supremes, have made huge contribution to the music industry but honestly speaking, I never really thought about that early on in my life. It was a great job, it was a great career and I lived it as that.
El Paso, Tex.: Who or what determined the choice of the lead singer?
Mary Wilson: It's a well known fact that it was Berry Gordy who wanted Diane to become the sole lead singer.
Washington, D.C.: You'll probably get this question from many people, but I've got to know about the change in the Supremes. Who replaced whom in the group, when, and why?
Mary Wilson: Cindy Birdsong replaced Florence Ballard in 1967. Jean Terrell replaced Diana Ross in 1970 and then Lynda Laurence replaced Cindy and then Sherrie Payne became a member when Jean Terrell left and then Cindy came back and then Susaye Green came into the group. There were lots of reasons but you can find out more about this in my book, "Dreamgirl" and "Supreme Faith." You can also get this information on my Web site, www.marywilson.com.
Virginia Beach, Va.: Mary, I'm happy that you recovered from your medical problem. I've read your books and they were very good. I grew up in the sixties in a small town and we were so proud to hear The Supremes on the radio because in our town there were no stations that played music by black artists. We had to reach stations from further down south that played Motown, Stax in the late hours. I am so proud of you. You go girl!
Mary Wilson: Thank you so very much. I never knew so many people were listening or watching us. I truly feel honored to be a part of so many lives.
Springfield, Va.: Ms. Wilson,
How did the breakup of the Supremes effect you as an individual? And how did you find the inspiration to move on?
Mary Wilson: As I mentioned a few moments ago, when Florence left the group I felt my life had almost ended. Then when Diane left I knew that an era had ended. It was almost as if I had to start all over from scratch and I was scared to death but I loved doing what I was doing. I love being an entertainer. So I had to continue, I had to just continue. Here's my slogan: I dare to dream again.
Mary Wilson: I lost my two best friends -- not only in song but in heart.
Philadelphia, Pa.: What parts of "Dreamgirls" is on target as being what really happened to the Supremes?
Mary Wilson: There's so many likenesses and there are so many differences that it would be very difficult here and now to explain them. However, the more they tried to change the story, the more it was closer to our story.
That the movie had Effie as the pivotal role in the, Florence Ballard too was the soul of the Supremes and the conflict. The public saw more of Diane out front but within the group we dealt more with Florence.
New Orleans, La.: I saw that your autobiography is considered the best selling rock and roll biography to date. What do you think contributed to your writing success?
Mary Wilson: I was told by a very good writer that my book wasn't that well written but I think what people got from my book was that is was very open. I did keep diaries so I was able to write it as if it was going on at the time.
Mary Wilson: Most books are written by writers about artists but my book was actually written by me about our own story so it wasn't my telling the story to someone and then someone writing the story. So you got more of a first hand look, which also had its problems. It was almost like I was tattling and I've had many people who actually hate me for writing about inside stories.
Leesburg, Va.: First, your show at Blues Alley was fabulous. I was surprised to see actual Supremes' album covers used in the film Dreamgirls. Who owns the rights to them? How do you feel about the portrayal of the would be Florence Ballard character? How do you feel about the happy ending of the film that differs from what actually happened to Flo? The Deena character seemed to have a conscience...this differs from reality.
Mary Wilson: Album covers that were used in the movie are probably public domain and they actually did not use our pictures. They copied the likeness and used their own pictures. Now I spoke earlier about the Truth in Music bill which has to do with phony groups using the names of famous groups and their likenesses and their images. This, I would imagine, is a different case because they use their own pictures but because the movie now purports that it is based on the Supremes so I guess it's okay to use our likeness and image to show that.
Obviously I would love for Florence to be alive but it is a movie and it's not real life.
Bowie, Md.: Will there ever be another TV reunion with the Supremes ?
Mary Wilson: I really have no idea if there will be another reunion of the Supremes, that's really up to Diane if she would want that to happen.
Northeast Washington, D.C.: Did Gordy purposely hamper Florence Ballard's attempts at a solo career? And if so, why? He had Diana, did he think Flo would outshine Diana or was he being spiteful?
Mary Wilson: I 100 percent think he did not hamper Flo's career.
Washington, D.C.: Good Afternoon Ms. Mary,
I was just wondering, how much of an influence on the costume, hair and makeup decision-making did you have during the making of Dreamgirls? Were you consulted?
Mary Wilson: I was not consulted on any parts of the making of "Dreamgirls"
Washington, D.C.: What was your reaction while watching the movie.
Mary Wilson: Paramount gave me a free screening of the movie prior to its release and I sat in the empty theater crying my heart out because it was so emotional for me, to watch our lives unfold on the big screen, even though I know it wasn't 100 percent out us but there were so many piece pertaining to Effie (Florence) that I boo hooed when Effie was going through the part where she was told she had to leave. That was probably the lowest point in my life when it happened in real life. Thank God I was alone in the theater and I didn't wear any makeup.
Herndon, Va.: Who came up with the idea to change the group's name from the Primettes to the Supreme's? If not you, did you like the idea?
Mary Wilson: Berry Gordy wanted us to change our name before signing the Motown recording contract and Florence was the only one in the group who had collected from friends and neighbors a list of names and she chose the Supremes.
Mary Wilson: Listen, I'm going to be appearing again at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C., Feb. 22 -24 (I think). I'll be there doing my jazz show. I thank all of the Supremes fans for their support and for continuing to love Flo.
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