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Supreme encounter shows dreams come true

  • Published Monday, Dec. 26, 2011, at 7:29 a.m.

You never know what life is going to bring you, but it’s those fun surprises that keep us going.

Back in the mid-’60s when I was a big fan of The Supremes, I would never had thought for a minute that many decades later I’d be sitting and chatting with Mary Wilson, a founding member of the group and the one who remained a Supreme until 1977, when the trio disbanded.

I caught up with Mary when she was in Wichita for an appearance in conjunction with the exhibit “The Mary Wilson Supremes’ Collection” at the Wichita Art Museum.

As we sat in the middle of the exhibit, she looked around and said, “I don’t think of these as just gowns or costumes, these are beautiful. I think of them as art.”

She says that although she’s always asked which is her favorite, she won’t answer. “That’s like asking who is your favorite child.” But while she says she loves them all, there’s a pink chiffon gown that she later admitted she doesn’t like.

During her career, she has traveled the world — and doesn’t seem to be slowing down. That’s a lot of singing and a lot of travel considering she started singing professionally at the ripe old age of 15. When Motown finally offered the trio a recording contract, they had to have their mothers at the meeting to sign the contracts.

“My mom couldn’t read or write, but she signed it,” Mary said. “Our mothers thought it would be a good thing for us to do because it was positive. Then they saw us making records and they thought, ‘Hey, this is good!’” And Mary says that was when she knew she wanted to be an entertainer for the rest of her life.

“Florence used to say, ‘We is terrific!’ that’s exactly how she would say it. And we thought we were. Now I look back and don’t know where we got that confidence,” she said.

“Today, everyone thinks they’re a star, but back then it wasn’t like that at all,” she said. It took awhile for the group to have a hit, and they were getting anxious about it. “We knew if we didn’t hurry up, we’d have to go to school or go to work,” she said.

After a dozen disappointments, “Where Did Our Love Go” hit No. 1, and suddenly they were on the go more than ever before. They were one of the first Motown groups to perform outside the United States.

Mary recalls how once they were signed with Motown, the company sent the group to Maxine Powell, a woman who taught classes in poise, motivation, self confidence, etc.

“She said to us, ‘One day you’ll meet kings and queens,’ but when we got out of there, we laughed because here we were, we hadn’t been anywhere and we lived in the Brewster Projects,” she said with a laugh. Yet, as she spoke, she was sitting only three feet away from the three pearl and beaded dresses she, Cindy Birdsong and Diana Ross wore when they met the Queen Mother in England.

“Maxine taught us how to get in and out of a limousine,” she said, demonstrating the technique. “That’s something some of stars need to learn today.”

The three young women became known as a “classy” girl group.

“We made sure we looked classy and acted classy. Even the choreography was classy. We looked elegant doing the moves, and the moves showed off the gowns,” she said.

The experiences and success came fast and furious. She met everyone from Ed Sullivan and Dick Clark to Tom Jones and the Beatles. As they traveled to other countries, The Supremes would sing and sometimes record in other languages. “It wasn’t too difficult because we learned it phonetically. Actually I enjoyed it,” Mary said.

She says she still talks to Diana two or three times a year and stays in touch with friends she made while touring.

“I’m still touring. I live in Las Vegas, at least that’s where my suitcases are when I’m not travelling,” she said. The economy has cut down on the number of huge corporate events and fundraisers she once did, but that allows more time with her eight grandchildren. She had three children and adopted one child.

“Yes, I had my children and, if I went on tour, they went with me,” she said.

About this time in the interview, a group of second graders from Colwich Elementary School came through to see the exhibit. They didn’t recognize Mary, but the teacher, Diane Stolz, certainly did. Before long, the kids surrounded us, had their picture taken with the star and even got to hear her sing before they went back to school.

“I love for children to see this exhibit because it’s not only about the gowns, it’s part of music history, and they can see that dreams do come true,” she said.

You might think that this Supreme entertainer would think her dreams were over when the group broke up in 1977, but you’d be wrong.

“It was bittersweet, but I had sort of been treading water and getting ready for what would come next. I grew up a lot during that time. I knew I loved being an entertainer, and I decided I would figure out how to continue doing that and see what happened. It was the ’70s. Disco came in, it was a whole new world. I didn’t consider myself a survivor, but there were some very hard times, but I got through them,” she said.

Is she thinking of retiring?

“No, I love working. I have a new single, “Life’s Been Good to Me,” and a jazz CD on my website.

“I hope I’m lucky enough to sing all the way out.”

Reach Bonnie at 316-268-6246 or by e-mailing bbing@wichitaeagle.com.

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