Mary Wilson hit the pinnacle of her life — besides giving birth to her children, she says — before she was 20 years old. But, as a founding member of the Supremes and a best-selling author and philanthropist by nature, she has not let society and pop culture define her glory days.
In fact, now at 73, she’s finally in her stride, making choices to do the things she enjoys doing because she wants to, not because she has to anymore.
Wilson and her two younger siblings were born in Greenville, and while her family moved to Detroit when Wilson was preschool-aged, Mississippi remained close to her heart.
“I was always back in Mississippi during the summer months,” she said. “We had loads of relatives — my grandparents and all — still down there, so we were always back to visit.”
In Detroit, the Wilson family lived in the Brewster-Douglass Project houses, where the life Mary could truly only dream about ironically began.
“Years later, I kept hearing, ‘You came from the ghetto; you were poor; you were this; you were that.’ People assume you were miserable, but we weren’t. We were happy,” Wilson said. “There were titles put on me because I’m black, because my parents were not professionals. My mother was a domestic worker. My father was a butcher. What these people don’t realize is that, just because you’re poor, that doesn’t mean you’re not happy. Just like just because you’re rich, it doesn’t mean you are happy. My family background and my upbringing was very strong. It was good.”
Inside the same project houses lived a young lady named Florence Ballard, a classmate Wilson had known since elementary school when the two performed in a school talent show.
When Ballard joined a newly formed female singing group called The Primettes, the sister group of Detroit’s male group The Primes, she knew she wanted Wilson to come on board with her. Wilson, in turn, helped recruited a neighbor, another young, unassuming teenager living in the project houses named Diana Ross.
The three, along with co-founder Betty McGlown, the first songstress asked to join The Primettes, started performing locally and gained a following. After much persistence, the group convinced Barry Gordy Jr., president of Motown Records, to sign them with the prerequisite that the group’s name must be changed.
On Jan. 15, 1961, a full year before Wilson would graduate high school, The Supremes were born. From 1964 to 1969, The Supremes recorded 12 No.1 hits and became international superstars.
“I was telling my son the other day about having passions and being able to live your life truly following your passion. He said, ‘But mama, you got yours so early.’ And I realize that. I feel very fortunate to have had that experience. Being a Supreme was definitely the very best as far as career goals go,” Wilson said.
If it seems like the plot to a movie, that’s because it is. The 1980s Broadway hit “Dreamgirls” and the 2006 movie of the same name are loosely based on the achievements made by The Supremes. But, to Wilson, that was just the life that she was fortunate enough to live. And the blessings certainly didn’t end there.
“I believe in miracles, and my whole life has to do with that. I’ve had ups, and I’ve had some downs, but
having my children — that’s when I really recognized what life is all about. That was the high point of my life. But, obviously, having been in The Supremes was one of those things where dreams really do come true,” she said.
Wilson has performed for U.S. presidents, royal families, politicians and worldwide dignitaries. She has written best-selling autobiographies about her life and has accepted numerous awards on behalf of The Supremes, including the Lifetime Achievement Award when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994.
It has been a glorious whirlwind for her and one in which she is now basking in the beauty of its afterglow. Wilson has spent much of her post-Supreme days traveling the world performing at charity functions.
“I just got back from the Ukraine. I was there for a charity ball for a rehabilitation center for disabled children. They flew a lot of dignitaries in from around the world. It was really like an 18th century ball that you read about, very exquisite. They all took part in a waltz with the symphony — some in wheelchairs. It was amazing,” she said.
“There’s another charity in New York I work with called Figure Skating in Harlem. These girls are taught about the power of education and leadership through ice skating by Olympic skaters. Usually I go once a year and head up their fundraiser,” Wilson said. “Aside from doing concerts, that’s sort of the benefit I get for being who I am now. You’re happy to give back. And now I get to choose the events and gigs that I want to do, not that I have to do. It’s part of your gift from God.”
Through all her adventures, Wilson, who now resides in Las Vegas, hasn’t forgotten where home is. She’s looking forward to traveling back to Mississippi when the Legends of Motown: Celebrating The Supremes exhibit opens at GRAMMY Museum Mississippi in Cleveland. The exhibit, on display March 3 through Sept. 3, begins at the start of The Supremes’ career, when they were still known as the Primettes, to their signing with Motown. It takes visitors on a timeline tour of the height of their success — from setting a record for the most consecutive No. 1 hits by an American group in June 1965 to creating a legacy that still exists today through their music and “Supreme” style.
“I am coming to Cleveland, and I’m very happy about that on many levels. The gowns that will be there were Supreme gowns, and I have this exhibit that tours the world. It brings back memories for me,” she said. “We were on the Ed Sullivan show and wore these absolutely gorgeous gowns. I think there will be an evening of celebration for the exhibit and the sharing of a lot of fond memories.”
But Wilson also has another reason for coming to Cleveland besides the exhibit. She’s hoping to make it a reunion of sorts with her long lost half-sister.
“Her name is Carrie Ann. We lost contact with her. We’re told she lives there in Cleveland, and we don’t know if she goes by Johnson (mother’s name) or Wilson (our father’s name) or if she got married,” she said.
“My sister and I were thinking how wonderful it would be to see Carrie Ann while we were home in Mississippi. I just thought if we put the word out that somebody would know somebody — you know how it is in the South! It would be absolutely beautiful if we could make it a true reunion and family affair. It’s sad that in this day and age with all this technology we haven’t been able to find her. I think the last contact we had with her was a letter my sister received back in the 1980s,” Wilson said.
That’s the thing about Mississippi. No matter how far you go, you’re never too far away from your roots.
“So many artists have come from Mississippi. The new thing in this generation is museums and really looking at how much different people have contributed to society and the arts. It’s not surprising for this museum to be in Mississippi,” Wilson said. “I’m very happy that people are giving accolades to the place that contributed to their success. I’m very pleased, but not so much surprised. I’m very proud that Mississippi has asked me to bring these gowns here. It’s my home state — it’s a full circle.”
The evening will include cocktails and dinner before the program. Schedule as follows:
5:30 p.m. – Cocktails
6 p.m. – Dinner
7:30 p.m. – An Evening with Mary Wilson in the Sanders Soundstage
: March 9 , 2018
For information and to purchase tickets, visit the GRAMMY Museum Mississippi website here.