Teacher told me to pack in singing, confesses ex-Supremes star Mary Wilson
Mary Wilson of The Supremes talks touring with Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, her mine clearance charity work and why you shouldn’t always listen to your teachers with entertainments writer WAYNE SAVAGE
HOW different would Motown have been had Mary taken her teacher’s advice and packed in singing?
“That’s what he said,” laughs the singer, joining Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings when they come to town next week.
“He said I should become a writer because he knew I was singing [with the Primettes as the The Supremes were known then] when I was in high school and said ‘you know, if you want to graduate from school you better buckle down’.
“I wrote this great term paper and when he read it he saide ‘instead of doing this little singing at Motown you should consider being a writer because this paper is brilliant’.
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“So when I started going to Motown and we started getting out our little records when I was 16 or 17 I started keeping a diary because I was meeting people like little Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye. It was just so exciting going down to Motown so I started writing about it.”
Those diaries went on to form the basis of her best-seller Dreamgirl - My Life as a Supreme. And the teacher?
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“He and I did stay friends for years. He was very proud of me and said to me one time ‘I’m so happy Mary you didn’t take my advice’,” she laughs.
Mary met Bill and the rest of the Rolling Stones in 1964 while doing a TV movie documentary call Tami - appearing alongside the likes of James Brown, Gaye and The Beach Boys to name a few - and remained friends all these years.
Bill came to see Mary on tour earlier this year, ending up spending the day with them. When he mentioned he was doing another tour with the Kings Mary told him she’d love to join.
“He said ‘oh I can’t afford you’,” she laughs. “I’m like ‘well give me an offer I can’t refuse’.”
Mary, elementary school acquaintance Florence Ballard, Betty McGlown and Mary’s neighbour Diane Ross first started singing together in 1959.
All approaching or in their early teens, they were assembled by the manager of male singing group the Primes, Milton Jenkins, who decided to organize a spin-off girls’ group.
Many rock and roll DJ shows around Detroit later, the Primettes auditioned for the Motown record company but were told by Berry Gordy Jr to come back once they’d graduated high school. Regular visitors to his Hitsville recording studio every day after school, he gave in and signed them on the condition they changed their name.
And so, in 1961, Mary, Florence, Diane and Betty’s replacement Barbara Martin became The Supremes; becoming [and remaining] a trio after Barabara left the following year to start a family.
Countless hits followed - Baby Love, Stop in the name of Love, Back in My Arms Again and You Can’t Hurry Love to name a few - and Mary was the only constant member of the group from their incarnation as The New Supremes in 1970 until they disbanded in 1977.
She’s continued to tour as a solo act - her new CD, Life’s Been Good To Me is out now - and she’s also a best-selling author and cultural ambassador.
A spokesperson for various charities, she’s particularly proud of her work with the Humpty Dumpty Institute, a non-government organization which establishes partnerships to raise money and awareness for landmine clearance projects across the globe, including Sri Lanka, Laos and Vietnam.
That must be emotional?
“Yes, yes, yes. You would think at this time in our human evolution we would be over these kind of things but they still are there. There are places where unexploded bombs are still just laying around. There are children who pick up these things for scrap metal money and they’re maimed by them,” she sighs.
“I believe it was in Sri Lanka where we went to an entire village where some of the family members have been maimed so the government have put up this housing facility for them; the whole village is full of those kind of people. That’s scary.”
Joining Mary on stage will be Rhythm Kings members Wyman, Georgie Fame, Albert Lee, Beverley Skeete, Geraint Watkins, Graham Broad, Terry Taylor, Frank Mead and Nick Payn.
Bill is full of praise for Mary.
“I have admired Mary’s talents since we first met in November 1964 during the TAMI Show. We’ve been friends since that time and remain so. It’s wonderful to have Mary join us onstage. It will be a fun tour - full of great music.”
Surrounded by so many great musicians, inspired by and who remain fans of Motown like so many others to this day, she must get asked to share stories?
“Yes,” she laughs. “But Bill Wyman has more stories than I do.”
Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings come to the Ipswich Regent on Thursday, December 1.