Wednesday, January 18, 2017.
Motown defined an era of American culture, and The Supremes helped lead the way. Landing 12 No. 1 hits and touring around the globe, this female trio made a lasting mark on music history.
Original member Mary Wilson, still performing and now a long-time Las Vegas resident, says she thinks about her years as a Supreme every day. She has accomplished a great deal since then, including becoming a solo performer and — fulfilling her mother’s wish — a college student.
Preparing to perform at The Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz on February 24 and 25, Wilson recently shared some of her favorite stories.
The Supremes are such a legendary group. How did being in The Supremes impact your life?
The Supremes started singing when we were very, very young, when we were barely teenagers. So it changed our whole teenage life, because we were professionals while we were still in high school. I never even had a chance to think of what else I’d like to become, because becoming a Supreme, that was it.
When we first graduated from high school, we were begging Motown to get us a hit record, because if we didn’t, our parents would make us go to college. So we got that first hit record in 1964 - people were going to college to get better jobs and more money, and we were already there.
What was it like working with the Motown label?
We were in awe of everyone there. We were there when Steve Wonder was there, and we hung out with The Four Tops and of course The Temptations started out as part of our group. It was like a musical Disneyland.
It was really an education and it was fun. We had chaperones, we had musical directors, we had Mrs. Powell, our etiquette person, we had our choreographer — we had everyone (to help us) right there.
The Supremes performed at Las Vegas casinos – what was that like?
So much was happening at the time when we opened at The Flamingo in ’67. They’d only started having black performers in the hotel back then. Everyone would come (to shows) all dressed up, guys would have cigars, women would have big diamond rings, people tipped the maître d’ to get the best seats.
You have lived in Las Vegas now for more than 20 years. How does living here compare to your performing days?
It’s totally different. It’s a bigger, bigger, bigger place, with traffic jams and the whole bit. When we were working (in Las Vegas), I used to love driving down the Strip and seeing the name on the marquees, who’s who. Today, I avoid going the Strip.
You decided to go to college at New York University in your 50s – what led to this decision?
My mom was always telling me, “Get an education.” We (The Supremes) were in Sweden and hanging out with the Princess Christina and her brother in 1968, and it dawned on me, I’m hanging out with these kind of people, and I knew that I really did need to go to college and get more education so that I could feel on par with all these people I was meeting in my life.
Are there any special projects you’re working on now?
I’m working on a coffee table book based on the Supremes gowns that I own. They’ve been in museums around the world— there’s about 50. I’m hoping to get an exhibit in Las Vegas.
How does it feel performing solo?
I loved being a part of The Supremes. I dream about it all the time. It was great having friends to work with and other people to bounce ideas off of. But things do change. I absolutely enjoy now being on my own, because I can do what I choose to do. I was ready for it after so many years, but not a day goes by I don’t think about Diana (Ross) and Flo (Ballard).
“Mary Wilson — Up Close & Personal” will run at The Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz on February 24 and 25. For tickets and more information, visit: www.thesmithcenter.com/event/mary-wilson-up-close-personal.
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