Phone interview recorded December 20, 2011
In conjunction with the recent release of the ‘The Supremes On Ed Sullivan Show’ DVD, we got the opportunity to speak with a lady who is celebrating fifty years as a recording artist - and yet is only now fully coming into her own as a much-loved global solo artist. In his first full-out interview with her since a 1979 feature for “Blues & Soul,” David Nathan talks to the great Mary Wilson (who first introduced David to sushi in Los Angeles in the ‘70s!) and finds her excited about a forthcoming album featuring “Life’s Been Good To Me” which she considers “the best recording I’ve ever done” and looking forward to a year of change and new beginnings…
David Nathan: It is really an honour and a pleasure to welcome today to SoulMusic.com a lady who is part of a legendary group, but also a legend in her own right in contemporary popular music. When I thought about the lady that I am about to introduce and do an interview with I thought that we’d probably spend hours and hours and hours on the phone, but of course fortunately she’s written two books, so we don’t have to spend hours on the phone because there’s much that you can read about her life and her life story and of course, the evolution from one of the legendary groups in pop music to her current situation as a much-in-demand solo performer across the world. So it’s really an honour and a delight to welcome to SoulMusic.com Miss Mary Wilson.
Mary Wilson: Well, thank you very much, David. Thank you.
DN: Well, let’s start out with what you’ve been up to recently, and then we’ll talk a little bit of course about the recent reissue of the performances that make up the DVD of the fiftieth anniversary of The Supremes and The Temptations. But let’s catch up with what you’ve been up to this year, 2011. What’s this year been like for you?
MW: Right. Gee, it’s gone so quickly. First of all, I just finished the tour in the UK—that was Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings—and we toured over in the UK for… I think they said it was thirty-six days. And that was really wonderful.
Yeah, a thirty-six day tour, and we went all over the UK. And I was on with not only Bill Wyman himself of The Rolling Stones, but there were also wonderful musicians like Albert Lee, the great country guitarist, and we had of course Georgie Fame, whom I worked with over with the Motown Revue back in 1965, I think it was. So there were other people like Geraint… Walker [sic], I think his last name is, and we had a beautiful female soloist on the show who sings on tours with him, Beverley Skeete. So it was filled with just wonderful people. We had two great horn players, just wonderful guys who really brought that Motown sound to the foreground, and they were just wonderful. So it was just a great tour. Terry Lee [sic] was on there—Terry who worked with Bill Wyman for years. So that was the last thing I’ve done. Then when I came back I had another gown opening here in the United States, and that was really great. It’s in Wichita, so they can go online and hear that.
DN: Great. Well, before we continue on talking about this year, because it sounds like it’s been a busy year, just tell us how did that situation come about with you being on the road with Bill Wyman? I guess we wouldn’t have expected it in one sense, but obviously there’s a long connection there. But tell us about how it actually happened.
MW: Yes, well, that was really wonderful, because back in 1964 we all did a television special… actually it was a documentary movie of rock and roll that was produced by Mr. Dick Clark, and it was called T.A.M.I. And on that show was James Brown, Marvin Gaye… it was all kind of people on there… Jan and Dean, Lesley Gore, whom I’ve just spoken to today, actually, and of course The Rolling Stones were on as well. So that’s when we first met back in those days. So Bill and I have remained friends all these years.
And he came out to my tour when I was over there in the UK earlier this year. You said what I’ve been doing, so earlier this year I had my own tour there in the UK with The Chi-Lites. So he came out and stayed with me all day and went to the show and the whole bit, and we just got to talking and he said, “I’m doing a tour later on,” and we started talking and next thing you know, I’m on his tour. You know how friendships have been like… we’re like family, extended family, all the entertainers, because we’ve known each other for all these years. And so things happen like that sometimes, yes. So that’s how that came about. And I gotta say, you can go online and probably see some of the reviews—we got great reviews. It was always a sold-out audience the entire time, so it was really great. I think earlier this year, I believe, I went to Russia… I went to Russia and the Ukraine; I think it was this year for part of this year. And I actually also had my gown exhibit over in the Ukraine while I was there.
And then of course I’ve done Vegas this year—I had a show at the Riviera here in Las Vegas. I did a Lena Horne presentation that was really great, based upon James Gavin’s book that he wrote about Lena Horne called Stormy Weather. It was a spoken word with song, and he would read excerpts from his books, show clips of Lena back in the day—Miss Horne, I should say—and then I would come out and sing some of the songs that she made popular in the thirties, forties and fifties. That was so much fun to do. I’ve done lots of things like that this year, and a lot more. After I came back from the UK there was an AIDS benefit that I usually do in San Francisco; so it was really a wonderful event in San Francisco this year. And I’m just home now. [Editor’s Note: the AIDS benefit to which Mary is referring is 'Help Is On The Way,’ for REAF the Richmond/Ermet Aids Foundation].
MW: I’m just starting to unpack my suitcases from the last few months. It sounds like I’ve just started my vacation right now [laughs].
DN: Right, but it also sounds like you’re busier… would I be correct in saying you’re busier than you’ve ever been?
MW: No, no, no—I’m just busy; I’m busy as I’ve always been. But I can still use more work, so my plans now are to perhaps come to the UK and Europe and do some shows. I’m looking out for an agent in that area so that I can spend more time there.
DN: Why would you like to spend more time here? Not that we mind, of course, but what is prompting you to do that?
MW: Mainly because I used to work—The Supremes used to work—in the UK all the time, and then I started working here in the United States more so than there, and I’ve found that I’ve kind of lost some of my audiences. I know there are lots of other groups out calling themselves The Supremes, and so they cut me out of the market somewhat and I thought it might be a good time now to come back. People have really accepted me the last year or so, so I said, “Maybe this is a good time to come back over and reclaim my territory.”
DN: All right, that sounds good. You mentioned of course touring earlier in the year with The Chi-Lites. How was that?
MW: Oh, that was great. Touring with The Chi-Lites was just fantastic. It was just a beautiful combination of the two acts: I did all the Supremes’ hits and they did all their hits, so it was really one of those reminiscent kind of shows where people got a chance to hear songs that they grew up listening to. So I enjoyed it very, very much, performing with them.
DN: I’ve got to ask you, because I was fortunate a few years ago to see you in San Francisco at the Plush Room, I think it was called then, doing your intimate jazz show which I absolutely loved, loved, loved: has that been seen at all in the UK or outside of the United States?
MW: I have done it in several other countries but never in the UK, so that is something that I’m looking forward to bringing there. I would like to find venues that cater to more of a jazz-type show, so that’s actually one of the first things I’d like to bring back there. So again, of course, that all has to do with finding the right agent and this and that, because European agents are different from the U.S., so I have to have someone who’s from that area. But yes, I’d like to bring it there, and people have suggested different places: Ronnie Scott’s, and I think the Jazz Room or the Jazz…
DN: The Jazz Café.
MW: Jazz Café, yeah. So people have suggested things to me, but I’ve not as yet reached out. But that is my goal for actually the latter part of this coming year; I’d like to be over there to do that.
DN: Fantastic, fantastic. Well, I can say, as I say having seen the show, it is something that I think British audiences would absolutely love, and probably be surprised to hear you do some of the kind of material that you do in the show—and surprised in a very positive way. So I’m sure that that will come to pass, and it will be great to have you be here to do that show throughout the country, because there’s many venues probably throughout the United Kingdom that would really enjoy seeing that show. Let’s talk for a moment about, as we mentioned in the early part of the call, the DVD that was released a few months ago that celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of The Supremes and The Temptations through DVD. Obviously we could spend, as I said in the introduction, hours talking about that, but just give us some idea of how it feels knowing that you have fifty years of career?
MW: Well, it’s one of those things that’s neverending. I think that when artists see you, they feel that you’ve made it and that’s it, but most of the time artists are still finding themselves. The fifty years that I’ve been in show business has been absolutely great. Of course the first majority of the years were with The Supremes, and that was absolutely wonderful; being an artist at Motown Records was just great as well, singing alongside great people like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Miracles, The Four Tops, The Temptations, just to name a few. And I can’t forget my girls, Martha and the Vandellas. So it was one of those things where we were at the right record company, had all those hit records, we toured with all those wonderful people and toured all around the world as The Supremes… all that was fantastic, it was being in the right place at the right time. I would not have wanted to be anywhere else but at Motown, so all those years were great. And then of course The Supremes disbanded… well, first I should say Florence and Diane were no longer in the group, and that was devastating for me. But then we went on and we had Jean Terrell and Cindy Birdsong… by the way, Cindy Birdsong just had a birthday this past couple of weeks.
I had a chance to spend some time with her during that time, so that was fun. But I met a lot of people along the way, had a lot of hit records, and then of course I went out on my own. And that’s really what I was referring to in terms of trying to find yourself, because obviously after being a major star with The Supremes then going out on my own, that was kind of a real search, and I’m still finding myself as a singer. And as you mentioned, my Up Close jazz album is one of the areas that I explored and it ended up being very good for me. So I do want other people to hear me do my jazz set because most people know me as doing the oo’s and ah’s and the baby, baby, baby’s. So this way, if they come to see my jazz show they can see what else I do. And I love singing ballads.
DN: I remember when I saw the show—and I think I did tell you this afterwards—it really made me cry, like really cry: when you sang “Both Sides Now”, the Joni Mitchell song, it was just so beautiful.
MW: Oh, well, good. Thank you. Now also, I have a CD and a DVD of myself singing the jazz show—I filmed it and recorded it at the Plush Room in San Francisco. That is available on my website; people can go on the website, marywilson.com and buy that, or whatever.
DN: And check it out, yes.
MW: I also have a new single out.
DN: Tell us about that.
MW: Yeah, in the UK. It’s a new single and it’s called “Life’s Been Good to Me”. It’s actually only out in the UK, so it can be found, I think, on iTunes UK. It’s really a wonderful project. So hopefully I’ll have the CD out soon and they can hear the whole CD, but right now it’s just a single from the CD.
DN: So in other words this is a prelude to an entire album.
MW: Yes, it is.
DN: Did you record that in the UK or in the U.S.?
MW: I recorded it in the U.S., and a lot of the recordings were done in Detroit, Michigan.
MW: I’m very proud to say that, yes. And the majority of the people were, I think, Detroit musicians as well, so I’m really pleased with that.
DN: What was it like, recording in Detroit again?
MW: Fun—fun, fun, fun. Now this has been done over a period of five years or so, so it wasn’t done all at once. And it was fun because I had a chance to hear and work with some of the newer musicians, and there are many there in Detroit; music is still very prevalent in Detroit, Michigan, I’m very proud to say. And I had a chance to spend lots of time with the people there that I grew up with, so it was fun—the whole thing was fun.
DN: Good, good. Well, I was going to ask you when you were reflecting about the people that you were label mates with—Stevie, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas and all the many people you just mentioned—did you ever… and this is a pretty obvious answer to this question, but did you ever expect when you started out all those years ago that you would still be doing what you’re doing today?
MW: I think as young people you don’t really think about tomorrow. I don’t think we were thinking about tomorrow or today. When I was young I really thought that adults came from another planet—I had no idea I would grow up to be one. So no, I don’t think we were, but we did know that we were onto something really good and that we absolutely adored it and loved it and wanted to do it forever. But who knew what forever was? So now in looking back, however, in retrospect, we were very lucky to find our niche very early in life, period. But we didn’t know we were wonderful—we knew we were good. Yeah, we knew we were good.
DN: And at what point did it really occur to you personally that The Supremes really were—and I’m going to use the word because it really is true—at what point did you recognise The Supremes as being legendary? At what point did it really hit home for you?
MW: Like I said, we knew it all the time.
DN: Okay [laughs].
MW: Now let me explain that so it’s really in context and makes sense. When I first met Flo, Diane and Betty, and then of course Betty left and Barbara joined us and we were still The Primettes, I just felt that I had met people who made up the rest of my life, you know what I mean? They made up me, and I became very whole, and never thought of doing anything else other than what I was doing. And when we auditioned at Motown Records we were very disappointed when they didn’t accept us right off—as I said, we thought we were just wonderful. I remember Florence saying, “They must not be that great if they don’t know how good we are.” We just knew it. But then when we did go back to Motown, which is where we wanted to be, we started recording, and each song we thought was going to be a hit, and it wasn’t. So after a while we started thinking, “Why is it no one knows how great we are?” But when we got that hit record on The Dick Clark Show—it was in 1964—and the whole audience just started going crazy when we walked out onstage, it was at that point that we were accepted. And we were like, “Wow, wonder what took ’em so long?” So that’s kind of the feeling we had: we were always very special—in our minds, anyway.
DN: And obviously you have so many, many memories of the last fifty years, so it would be unfair to ask you to single out any particular one. But having said that, are there maybe two or three moments during the last fifty years that have been particularly special for you where you’ve just shook your head and gone, “Wow, I never expected to do that,” whatever “that” is?
MW: Well, as you said, probably all of those moments were like that… one just topped the other. I was always pinching myself. When we met some of the major stars; when we started singing on TV shows like The Ed Sullivan Show, which we were mentioning earlier is a new release here in the United States; I’m not sure if it’s released there in England. But we started doing the Ed Sullivan television show, and I think we ended up doing about sixteen of those. So that was a milestone, because we grew up watching The Ed Sullivan Show, and that was the best you could do—if you did The Ed Sullivan Show, you had made it. So that was one of those moments when we knew. We were almost on there every other Sunday or so; obviously, every time we had a hit record we would go on there as well. So that was definitely a milestone when we were saying, “Oh, this is just great.” Then we started working with great people: the Sammy Davises, the Ethel Waterses, the Lena Hornes; hanging out with Sidney Poitier… all of that was just grand. Then of course we did some command performances over there in England, which definitely were at the top of the list of having made it; having achieved it. We hung out with Princess Christina, who was the sister of the future king of Sweden—he’s the king now, but at the time he was the future king. Over in England we were accepted like The Beatles were accepted here in the U.S., so that was a milestone. We had our second record released… well, first was “Where Did Our Love Go” but “Baby Love” was Number One in England and we started traveling there. So all of those moments were… it’s like having children, you can’t say you like one better than you like the other.
DN: Sure, sure. I want to pick up on something you said because it’s really interesting to me: you mentioned about finding yourself as a singer and as a solo artist, and I guess in one sense I understand what you mean but in another I’m like, “Hm, that’s an interesting comment.” When you stop and think about that, who do you… well, I can’t say aspire to be, because that’s not true, but more like what are your reflections in fact on who you are as a solo performer and a solo singer? What do you think of yourself?
MW: Well, I always thought of myself as a singer, but obviously once we became famous I was not really out singing a lot where people actually heard me singing and knew what I was all about. in fact, only a few times, but sometimes I’ll go online and some of the things people say, it really hurts me; it’s like I’m not really a singer. And to me, it’s just because I never was out there singing out front. Now I am, so people… it’s kind of like even Lena Horne wasn’t really considered a great singer, yet still she was a singer. So I’m like that in that people say pretty cruel things about me not really being a good singer, but I understand that because I grew up around great singers… like Aretha Franklin and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and all these great signers. So I understand what they’re saying, but yet and still I am a performer and yes, I’ve only just learned how to be a bonafide soloist, because it takes practise. People don’t understand that sometimes you don’t just come out doing that and it does take practise when you’ve not done it. All my big career with The Supremes, I never really, really sang, so it took my not being a Supreme to really get out there and practise, practise, practise, practise and to bring out my talent and just find out about my talent. So now I’ve done that and I do feel that I am a bonafide singer now—actually, I am. But it did take years for me to study to really become who I am today.
DN: Well, I can remember—again, I want to reference the time I saw you in San Francisco—and actually, the first time I saw you was actually not at the Plush Room but was at the tribute concert for Angela Bofill, and you sang “Here’s to Life”. And I remember sitting next to a longtime friend of mine and I did say to him—I have to be absolutely honest and tell you that I said to him, “I never knew Mary Wilson could sing like that.” I was like, “Wow.” So I guess the upside of it is that you have a whole world of music in front of you that you can develop.
MW: Oh yes, and that’s the way I feel. It’s like now I have really started my career—only now have I really gotten started, and I hope I have enough years left on this earth to do everything I want to do, because I certainly do. There’s a beautiful song called “Yesterday When I Was Young”…
DN: Oh yeah, gorgeous.
MW: I just started doing that in the Lena Horne show that I do, and it is absolutely beautiful. Some of the lyrics are exactly what I’m experiencing now: it was like the “youth is wasted on the young” kind of story. When you get older it’s like, “God, if I could just only have a little more time to do all the things I want to do!” So that’s kind of the way I feel now. But that’s why I want to come and live in another part of the world, just to experience different things and to grow in different areas. So that’s really what I’m in search of now is just to expand myself, and sometimes when you live in the same place it’s hard to really develop yourself—it’s so much the sameness. So that’s what I’m looking for in this part of my life.
DN: That sounds fantastic, it really does. And it’s really refreshing because of course it would be easy at this point in anyone’s career, especially—we’ve referenced the fact that you’ve had a fifty-year career—it would be very easy just to sit back and say, “Well, look—I’ve done it all. There’s no more excitement here, there’s nothing for me to achieve.” But you sound the exact opposite—you sound like this is a whole new world, in a sense, that’s opening up and that you’re really exploring it.
MW: Yes, yes. I’ve always been that way, and I have children who are like that as well. We are explorers, we’re very curious to get out and do different things. So yes, that’s kind of what I’m doing now. I don’t believe in sitting down and just reflecting on, “Oh God, I’ve done so much I think I’ll just rest a bit.” I don’t want to do that… I don’t want to do that.
DN: Well, just to wrap up, tell us what’s on your immediate agenda. Obviously you mentioned about coming back to Britain—is that something that you expect to do in the next few months or is that later in 2012?
MW: Well, it’ll be later, hopefully in 2012… hopefully it’ll be probably the fall of next year, I would imagine. However, right now as I said I’ve been out on the road all this year, so I’m going to relax a bit right now. Because I’ll be sixty-seven pretty soon, so I need to rest up, rejuvenate my whatever, and then I’ll get back out there and tour. I’ve got to sell my house here in Las Vegas before I make the move, so that’s going to be one of the determining factors of when it happens, my move.
DN: And do you have a lot of shows coming up in the New Year already booked?
MW: Not a lot of shows, because as I said I was really planning on coming to England, so it’s one of those things where I don’t want to tie myself down here so I’m not free enough to move around. So I’ll just get my house in order and sell it and then I’ll move on.
DN: All right. Well, certainly I can speak for everybody that I know in Britain who is familiar with your work and the work that you’ve done over these many decades that they will be thrilled to have you in the UK, although I’m sure some of the people in the U.S. will be asking when you’re going to come back.
MW: I know, I know… and of course we did mention we have those DVDs that’re newly released from Motown/Universal. I’m really thrilled that they’re really getting out some nice projects; as I mentioned, that Supremes DVD of performances on Ed Sullivan is just great. And also The Temptations—they released some on The Temptations as well, so those are all just wonderful. And I sit back and listen to them… in fact, I was just looking at one of the DVDs and my granddaughter said, “Grandma, what happened to the colour?” That’s what great about these new DVDs that they’ve released there on The Temps and The Supremes, and I think some other artists as well—The Miracles and all. It’s wonderful because you can see the progression of the time: it was, yes, originally black and white, then it went on to colour, and you see the dress codes where it was very sixties, and then the seventies and the bellbottoms and the hip area… you saw how the hairstyles changed any everything, so they’re really a beautiful compilation of CDs.
DN: Do you laugh a lot when you watch them?
MW: Yes, yes, and then I’m also amazed at how young we looked and how thin we were. And we really did a lot of great movements—Cholly Atkins gave us great choreography, so to see all that choreography and see all the different songs we sang… for me, I love watching them. I don’t watch them that often; whenever they come out new I’ll watch them then and then put it away. But I know a lot of fans who can tell you what earrings we wore, what colour shoes… because they watch them over and over and over, and then they ask me, “Do you remember?” and I’m like, “No.” Because I don’t watch them over and over and over again.
DN: It’s great that technology has allowed us all to really even see things that we never saw back at the time.
DN: And then for you to really see them, I’m sure it brings back many memories. So it’s great for all of us that in fact Motown/Universal are doing that. And of course I believe it was earlier this year or the year before when they brought out the whole box set with The Supremes’ final albums that you did together, which was also a wonderful box set.
MW: Yes, yes, so they’ve been really consistently releasing some good things out of the vaults, and I’m very happy, because otherwise people would not have gotten the chance to hear them. Now they’re releasing some things that have never been heard—some of them I listen to and I’m, “Oh my God, I had forgotten we did that.” It’s really beautiful; technology has definitely added a lot.
DN: It really has. Well, one thing we haven’t yet heard—and I guess this may be a little prompt for anyone who’s listening—the one thing we haven’t yet heard is the Mary Wilson solo album that you did at Motown. I know you did an album; you probably did a lot more recordings that we still haven’t heard from that time period. If I’m not mistaken I think the album was called Red Hot?
MW: Yes, yes, it was Red Hot. That was my one solo album that I recorded. And I did a lot of other recordings with The Supremes, they show up every now and then on some of the compilations, which is nice. I don’t know when or even if they’re interested in releasing anything on Mary Wilson, so we all have to wait and see—I will too.
DN: Yes, we will. All right, well, it’s really great catching up with you and I appreciate your time. I know we’re coming up to Christmas and you just got back from obviously spending almost the entire year, so I’m sure you want some rest and get rejuvenated and ready for 2012. And I will ask you this: I normally wouldn’t ask this question, but since we’re about to start a New Year, do you have any New Year resolutions?
MW: I have a lot of New Year resolutions. Some have to do with health; I want to definitely take care of my health, because as I said, getting up there in age, things start creeping up. My New Year’s resolution is to have a healthier diet and lose a few pounds—those are my main, main resolutions. But then of course I have other things: for career I want to make the move to England, that’s next on the list. So there are things like that. Perhaps fall in love? I don’t know… that might be a good option too. Look, if I went through my whole list you’d likely say, “Oh, you’re gonna remake your life.” Yeah, probably so.
DN: Well hey, I don’t think it’s ever too late to fall in love, is it?
MW: I hope not.
DN: I hope not either. Well, it’s really been delightful talking to you, and again thank you for your time. I wish you the absolute best holidays. And as I said, although I’m sure some of your American fans will be, “Oh no, Mary, please don’t go and live in England!” we will absolutely be thrilled to see you here. So I wish you everything good for the New Year.
MW: Thank you. I told all my friends, “Then you’ll just have another vacation to come to England. Hey.”
DN: That’s right—an excuse to get on a plane and cross the ocean and see our lovely United Kingdom, right?
MW: That’s right, exactly. Well okay, have a nice New Year’s.
DN: Absolutely. Take good care of yourself, thank you, and see you soon.
MW: Okay. Thank you.
With special thanks to Kevin Melville and David Krause
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.