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Mary Wilson (The Supremes)

January 2009

SHE has been known to give Diana Ross a good verbal hiding when recalling her days with The Supremes but sadly Mary Wilson is steering clear of the subject today.
"I'm not going to get into that," she says, matter of factly.
How about the story of you dating Tom Jones?
"Oh my God, you've been reading my books. I can't talk about it – you have to read the books."
Hate it when that happens.
She will admit they used to hang out in Las Vegas with Tom and Elvis Presley.
"Unlike a lot of us he was not as partying as people thought," she says of The King. Some of us enjoyed what we were doing. I think maybe he wasn't having as much fun as we were (laughs).
"People think he was this wild guy but I think he was kind of shy, an unassuming guy. Whereas some of us were just crazy wild and loving it all."
Did you ever sing with him?
"No. I didn't get that opportunity."
You were too busy partying, weren't you?
"(Laughs) That's right. Somebody had to."
One of her books – Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme – was turned into the hit movie Dreamgirls. Sort of.
And this is another touchy subject.
"The film was loosely based on The Supremes but it's not the story of The Supremes," says Wilson. "I think the guys were inspired by us but they took A LOT of our history. They should have paid us," she adds with a manic laugh.
As a result she describes its success – the film starred Beyonce and Eddie Murphy – as "bittersweet".
Did they mislead people about the real story of The Supremes?
"Well, that's hard to say and I'm not going to get into that. It's a little too legal. I'll just say they should have paid us. But it still was a beautiful piece, it really was."
It was in 1958 that Mary Wilson met Florence Ballard while at school. The pair were recruited by Milton Jenkins, manager of male vocal group The Primes, for a female spin-off called The Primettes. It was Wilson who invited Diana Ross to join. All three were living in a housing project in Detroit.
As The Primes became the Temptations, The Primettes moved to Motown and turned into The Supremes, and for the next 15 years would enjoy huge success with hits like Stop In The Name Of Love, Baby Love, You Keep Me Hanging On and I Second That Emotion.
Up until the Spice Girls they were the world's most famous and best-selling girl group.
But their story wasn't that simple.

The Supremes with Mary Wilson (left)

Encouraged by label boss Berry Gordy, Diana Ross was pushed forward as a group leader and from 1967 they were renamed Diana Ross & The Supremes. Ballard, unhappy with the change, quit and died in poverty nine years later.
Her replacement was Cindy Birdsong, formerly one of Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles but by 1970 Ross had left for a solo career.
Since then Wilson has pretty much been living off her time with the group, even touring an exhibition of Supremes gowns around the UK last year.
"It's not just the gowns. It's the memorabilia, video footage and audio, so it's really about the time."
So were you the hoarder of the three?
"I inherited them. Everyone left so I inherited everything. I kept them in my garage."
So it's a lot of short dresses?
"No, long gowns. We have a couple of short ones in there, too. We were into hot pants back then, too. We have minis, maxis. All these things are coming back."
Her latest step into the past comes with a tour to mark the 50th anniversary of Motown. Billed as Once In A Lifetime – Motown Legends Live 2009, it'll arrive in Nottingham this summer.
Wilson has worked with all of her co-stars in the past but, with the exception of her and Martha Reeves, they're really background players. The Commodores are without Lionel Richie. Jr, Walker's All Stars don't include their leader (he died in 1995) while The Miracles are minus Smokey Robinson.
Lionel and Smokey are busy doing their own tours.
"Oh, he's fabulous," she says of Robinson. "He's a fun guy, he's great looking, he still sounds wonderful and he puts on a fabulous show."
I tell her that he came to Nottingham two years ago.
"I hope that after I do this particular show with all my friends that I'll have the chance to come over and do my own show because obviously then you can do more of what you really do now. On this particular show I'll probably just do all of the hits, which is fun, you know."
So what would her own show include?
"It's really a variety of things. I still do all of The Supremes hits. That's a given. But then I do some Sting songs, some Rolling Stones and Stevie Wonder."
The last time she came here was on the Dancing In The Streets tour with Reeves and Edwin Starr, who lived in Chilwell up until his death in 2003.
"We started out in the early days together, back in the 60s so I knew him very well. We were kind of like family. Everyone pretty much kept up with each other throughout the years. Whenever we'd get back together, like on that tour, we all went over to Edwin's place and had dinner and talked about the old times."
"I just love it," she says of the touring.
"You're very lucky when you find a job or a career that you really love and you can do it all your life. You don't have to be at the top of the charts for it to be enjoyable."
What does she think of current girl groups? Not so much the Spice Girls as they're dated now...
"(Laughs) If they're dated then what am I?"
You're classic.
"I'm timeless. That's what it is. In terms of the newer groups, I'm 64 years old so my children who are in their 30s and my grandchildren are the ones who listen to the music. They're really up on it. When I get in the car I turn their music off and turn on the soft stations (laughs). That tells you where I am."
She adds: "I am very proud when the girl groups are there because that's what I represent. They're doing a good job of representing."

Once In A Lifetime – Motown Legends Live Tour 2009 comes to the Arena on Wednesday June 24.

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