This week 50 years ago — Oct. 22, 1966 to be exact — The Supremes A’ Go-Go knocked the Beatles’ Revolver out of the No. 1 spot on the Billboard 200, cementing the group’s international stardom that surpassed their legendary predecessors at Motown, a.k.a. Hitsville, U.S.A., including Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Last year, Billboard named the Supremes the No. 1 girl group of all time, an honor that original Supreme Mary Wilson told us about over the phone last week, saying it was “quite a great feeling to have, after all these years.” After all these years — Wilson seems just as humbled and surprised by the mounting accolades as she, Diana Ross, and Florence Ballard were back in the early sixties.
It took a number of releases for the Supremes to get radio play outside of their stomping grounds of Detroit. But in 1964, after six releases, America was beginning to fall for the Supremes when “Where Did Our Love Go” hit No. 1 in the U.S. (and No. 3 in the U.K.) pop charts. “As a Motown artist, it was quite an achievement, because rock ‘n’ roll music was still new; it wasn’t as big as it became later on,” Wilson says. “We felt very honored, because most of the Motown artists at that time had gotten hit records so the Supremes were one of the last artists at the company to really make that achievement. We really were behind the other artists, but what made us so different is that we went big internationally — the Beatles were No. 1 and we were No. 2, and then we were No. 1 and they were No. 2. We went all the way to the top, which was very exciting because we thought it would never, ever happen.”
Dethroning the Beatles came at a time when black musicians struggled to top white musicians (playing black R&B music) in the mainstream, though the Supremes managed to do so in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement. But Wilson sees the struggle continue, perhaps even more so, half a century later as the music industry continues to evolve into an entirely different animal. “You hardly get a record played on the radio anymore, because it’s all geared toward rap music, which that’s another form, which is fine, but it’s cut off a lot of artists who are regular artists who are not rap artists,” she says, “and it’s very difficult to get a record deal these days. We don’t have Motown or a Stax or any of those companies like we used to have, so it is difficult.”
While Mary Wilson’s legacy as one-third of the Supremes is still a big part of her life, the singer has gone on to not only continuously record her own solo music, but she’s also been prolific as a humanitarian, actress, and author. Over a decade ago, Colin Powell appointed Wilson as one of several CultureConnect Ambassadors for the United States, and she’s been regularly involved with the Figure Skating in Harlem organization. This year, Wilson starred in her first professional acting role in a short film called Speak — quite cool considering we recently listened to an interview with a twentysomething Wilson who, along with the rest of the Supremes, expressed a desire to be an actress.
“Right now I’m gonna be a little selfish and try to accomplish things that I have always wanted to do,” Wilson says. “I am 72 years old now, so I’m not a young chicken, but there are still so many things that I just want to do. There’s a couple I had to write off, because I know I just can’t do that now— like I’ve always wanted to play piano. I started some lessons and was never able to complete that, so now I’m trying to find things I actually can do at this stage in my life and really concentrate on those, like acting classes. I’m going to improvisational classes, because that’s the kind of thing I can do in the scope of who I am at this point in my life.”
Wilson is also an author, having published two books, including Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme — the title of which she unapologetically borrowed from the name of the Broadway play. The play, Dreamgirls, and later the film, gives the impression that it’s based entirely on the Supremes. “The book was already written and came out at the same time as the Broadway play — a few years before the movie — however, someone [from the play] did call when they heard I had just published my book Dreamgirl, and of course they did say something about it,” says Wilson, who’s also currently composing a coffee table book about the gowns of the Supremes. “But I told them, ‘Well, everyone assumes this play is about the Supremes, and no one has contacted me nor Diane nor anyone that I know of at Motown, so how can you do that?’ And they said, ‘Oh, we’ll get back to you.’ And they never got back to me.”
Wilson suspects the creators must have somehow gotten information from a former Motown insider, though not officially from Motown. “They never had permission to do so, so it was like plagiarism in a way,” she says. “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 in the industry wants to do it, because they say it’s already been done, even though it really is not the story of the Supremes — they obviously went in there and changed this and changed that.”
And there’s a lot more to the narrative of Wilson, Ross, and Ballard than Dreamgirls suggests. “The Supremes’ story was more about friendship,” Wilson says. “It wasn’t about someone putting us together — it was three little black girls daring to dream, so it’s kind of sad in a way that that could happen — but that’s what happens. But I’m still hoping that one day I can do a good movie based on our real story.”