OK, first up, let me confess: I've seen Mary Wilson a few times over the years doing the Supremes show with which she has long been associated. I enjoyed myself but was never quite blown away. Thus, seeing Mary's name on the list of artists paying tribute to Angela Bofill at the special benefit at San Francisco's Grace Cathedral on Saturday, December 7, I didn't know what to expect. With the kind of glamor for which she is renowned, Mary took to the stage and sang Shirley Horn's "Here's To Life." I was literally stunned! I turned to my longtime friend Chuck and was all but speechless! "This is Mary Wilson?" I said incredulsouly. "I had NO idea which could sing like this!" Mary sang with power, emotion, authenticity and sincerity. She turned the song - never a personal favorite of mine - into a beautiful, heartfelt ode to Angela, who as many of you know has had two strokes in the last few years. It was brilliant.
Going backstage, I was reintroduced to Mary who I'd met on a few occasions in the past and interviewed for "Blues & Soul" back in the '70s when she was with The Supremes. Of course, I've been in her presence on more than a few occasions at functions for the Rhythm & Blues Foundation but we've never chatted.
Duly making her aquaintance once again, I shared with her how amazing I thought her performance had been. She mentioned that she did a set of such songs at The Plush Room, a wonderfully intimate venue in SF and promptly invited me to attend the next night...
Now you gotta understandl, I've seen them all. Almost every diva you can name. Seen them on good nights, bad nights and more than a few in-between-nights. Seen them in stadiums, concert halls, theaters-in-the-round, open air festivals and nigthclubs. Almost all of the divas. I was NOT prepared for Mary Wilson's Plush Room performance. I don't know what I was expecting but...when she came out onstage to a room of some one hundred people. she started out with "Here's To Life." Once again, I was captivated, just as I had been the night before.
Not gonna give you a song-by-song review here but all I can tell you is that Ms. Mary Wilson put on one of the best shows I've seen in years and years. Once again, with power and emotion, she mesmerized me. I kept saying to myself, "Is this REALLY Mary Wilson?" Not that I should have doubted that after four-and-a-half decades of perforning and singing, she should have been anything less than excellent: it's just that I had never heard her sound quite like this.
A Brazilian medley was joyful, "New York State Of Mind" wistful and "I Can't Make You Love Me," truly soulful. The obligatory Supremes' song, "My World Is Empty Without You" was fun; fittingly, "I Am Changing" from "Dreamgirls" was dedicated to original Supreme Florence Ballard and Mary turned the song inside out. Superb.
And then Ms. Mary Wilson did what few other singers have done in recent yaers: she made this seen-em-all man cry. She wasn't the first performer to ever do so...but it's been a while. The song? Joni Mitchell's chestnut "Both Sides Now" (popularized by Judy Collins) and Mary noted, she felt like Joni had read her mind when she first heard the song back in the '60s. She sang it with conviction, with the kind of honesty that comes with living a lyric. I felt what she felt and as tears welled up, I just let them fall. Not the boo-woo type, no sobs...just tears that come when you feel the emotion being expressed so strongly that you find yourself lost in the song. It was magical.
Afterwards, I went back to Mary's dressing room and shared with her how I felt. She explained - as she had to some extent during the show - that the songs she was singing were songs she'd always wanted to do, that she had taken years to vgain strength as a solo singer after years of background singing and was now finally in a place where she could do the music that was in her heart. And that, simply, was the key: I had witnessed a performer in her true element.
As I left, I looked at the mirror in Mary's dressing room and there, on either side, photos of Diana Ross and Florence Ballard taken back in the day, clear reminders of the place from whence she came...
I'm hopeful that Mary will do the show in as many places as she can and that some bright promoter in the UK will have the foresight to present her in a small, intimate venue where folks can see another side of her talent. It's not easy changing anyone's perception but Mary Wilson changed mine that December night. Amen!
About the Writer
David Nathan is the founder and CEO of SoulMusic.com and began his writing career in 1965; beginning in 1967, he was a regular contributor to Blues & Soul magazine in London before relocating to the U.S. in 1975 where he served as U.S. editor for the publication for several decades and began being known as 'The British Ambassador Of Soul.' From 1988 to 2004, he wrote prolifically for Billboard, has penned bios, produced and written liner notes for box sets and reissue CDs for over a thousand projects. He returned to London in 2009 where he has helped create SoulMusic.com Records as a leading reissue label.