Mary Wilson: Singing Background Didn’t Mean Life in the Shadows

Later in her career, Mary Wilson of the Supremes would incorporate a cool bit into her stage shows.

She’d tell the audience she was going to do a medley of her Supremes hits. When the band struck up “Baby Love” or “The Happening” or one of the many others, Wilson would sing the part she sang on the record: an “ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh” or “aah-aah-aah-aah” or whatever harmony helped frame Diana Ross’s lead vocals.

Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross.

It was a quasi-joke she shared with the audience, self-effacing in such a good-natured way that it didn’t diminish the real contribution Wilson made to arguably the most successful “girl group” of all time.

Wilson, who died suddenly on Monday at her Las Vegas home, age 76, neither felt like nor came across as just a background voice. During their dizzying years at the top of the pop music world, the Supremes were a group. There were three of them — Wilson, Ross and Florence Ballard — equal in the eyes of the world even as Motown boss Berry Gordy began positioning Ross for what would become a hugely successful solo career.

In the end, it may well have been Wilson who most embodied the Supremes.

Ross, by her own and Gordy’s design, was a diva, a star floating above mortals. Ballard took a tragic turn the other way, dying at 32 in poverty and obscurity.

Wilson remained. After Ross went solo in 1970, Wilson kept the Supremes going, on and off, for another seven years. While they had a minor hit or two, Motown more or less discarded them and radio followed. Wilson got little traction for a solo career, so she ended up as a Supremes lifer.

That’s not a bad thing, nor a small thing, and she made it work despite some tough times. She became an advocate for artists’ rights, helping push for reforms that extended copyright protections, gave artists more rights to their own work and names, and barred promoters from claiming to present a well-known group unless it included at least one original member. She used her prestige as a respected vintage performer to support others who may have been lesser known.

It wasn’t all glamorous, and she had some tough times. In the end, she had a comfortable life plus the respect and friendship of much of the artistic community.

If that wasn’t all of her dream, it’s not a bad one to have achieved. And the truth is, it was less of a longshot than her original success.

Thousands of American girls growing up in the late ’50s and early ’60s yearned to be what the Supremes became, which even in the often unstructured world of pop music was a study in remarkable craftsmanship.

Ross, Wilson, Ballard.

In an age when dress codes seemed to be falling as fast as moral codes, Motown packaged the Supremes as the pop music version of old-style glamorous Hollywood movie stars, pristine and almost porcelain in their elegant gowns.

They were ladies. They looked and moved as if they were about to step into the ballroom with Fred Astaire.

Whatever the Ronettes were, the Supremes were not.

It was a level of decorum that could have created a wall between artist and audience. Mary Wilson, for the last half century of her life, lowered that wall without destroying its fascination or mystique.

For that reasons, it’s tempting to suggest she may have had the happiest life of the three. No outsider can know that for sure, but it’s hard not to admire anyone who’s hurled into the tornado of popular music stardom, gets tossed to the ground, dusts herself off and finds a way to navigate the next 50 years.

Whether the Supremes were the best-selling “girl group” ever remains open to debate. It also matters not a whit. If the Spice Girls or the Andrews Sisters sold more records, so what? The Supremes were defining voices and personalities in a golden age of popular music.

Their records endure for the simple reason you can’t get them out of your head.

Wilson often said the group didn’t want to sing what become their first №1 hit, “Where Did Our Love Go,” because it seemed like simple teen stuff, not a song for grownups. The same could be said for subsequent №1 hits like “Baby Love, “Nothing But Heartaches” or “Stop! In the Name of Love.”

Again, no matter. It’s like the choreography for “Stop,” which involved the singers abruptly yet somehow demurely raising one hand at the word “Stop!” Who needed it to be more complicated than that?

Wilson said the group felt a breakthrough with “I Hear a Symphony” and “Love Child.” It’s still arguable that their finale, the ironically titled “Someday We’ll Be Together,” is very much of a piece with their first, “Where Did Our Love Go.” Maybe it’s the answer song.

Wilson and Cindy Birdsong, who in 1967 replaced Ballard, don’t sing on “Someday We’ll Be Together.” It’s Ross with Motown’s house backup group, the Andantes, and that factoid pretty well symbolizes just how over it all was by 1970.

It’s striking in retrospect to realize only about five years passed between the Supremes’s first hit and their last. As with the Beatles, it seems like longer.

Also like the Beatles, Wilson and the Supremes didn’t reach their original world fame on an overnight express.

Ballard, Wilson and Ross met when they were fellow students living in the Detroit projects in the late 1950s. They all loved to sing, they were all in love with Sam Cooke. They were particularly in love with Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, who made the dream of a hit record seem possible for kids who could not be Elvis Presley.

For one of Wilson’s first public performances, she lip-synched to the Teenagers’s “I’m Not a Juvenile Delinquent.”

The future Supremes began as the Primettes, the “sister” group to the local Detroit male group the Primes, who included future Temptation Eddie Kendricks.

At first the three girls rotated lead voices. Ballard had the best pure voice, a powerful gospel sound. Wilson’s alto worked nicely with ballads, and Ross, whose voice was the most distinctive if slightly nasal, often led when they sang popular songs of the day like the Drifters’s “There Goes My Baby.”

The B side of their Lupine release. Mary Wilson sang lead.

They recorded a flop single for the Lupine label, then a half-dozen flops after they finally nagged Gordy into giving them a deal with Motown, at first as backup singers and hand clappers.

But Gordy liked them — especially Ross, with whom he had a long affair — and when he matched them with the ace writing/production team of Lamont Dozier and Eddie and Brian Holland, the result was “Where Did Our Love Go.”

Gordy saw that as the elusive winning formula, which meant Ross became the exclusive lead vocalist. Small ironic footnote on how little things can shape history: Eddie Holland had wanted Wilson for the lead on “Where Did Our Love Go,” but he was outvoted by his brother and Dozier.

Early Supremes. Wilson, top. Ross and Ballard, front.

Wilson, publicly at least, was less dismayed than Ballard at becoming a permanent backup voice, saying that backup singing was integral to the Supremes’s sound. The only thing she really missed, she said, was Gordy taking Ross out of the harmony mix and keeping her only in the lead. After spending so many years perfecting three-part harmonies, Wilson said, their absence made the music less rich.

In any event, once the 1960s Supremes dissolved, many of the stories turned away from the music into the personal interplay among the group members. This accelerated after Ballard’s death in 1976, with her funeral becoming a flashpoint for the tension between Wilson and Ross.

Wilson later said she felt Ross used the service as a showcase for herself. Wilson had a similar complaint after the 25th anniversary Motown television special of 1983, when Ross famously pushed Wilson away from a microphone.

It was a feud in many ways never resolved, and not only because Wilson embraced the Supremes for the rest of her career and Ross generally treated them as a waystation.

When the Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Ross did not attend, leading to speculation she didn’t want to share the spotlight with Wilson. When Ross later agreed to one Supremes quasi-reunion tour, it would not have Wilson. It ended up falling apart before it started.

Relationships among old friends can be complicated, though, and Wilson always tempered even her strongest criticisms of Ross with the caveat that at one time they were intimate friends who shared life-changing experiences. That, she said, would never change.

Ross spoke less of Wilson, though she said on several occasions that it was Wilson who refused to reconcile.

Mary Wilson ca. 1987.

Perhaps Ross’s sentiments are best reflected in and between the lines of her response Tuesday to Wilson’s death.

“I just woke up to this news,” Ross tweeted. “My condolences to you Mary’s family, I am reminded that each day is a gift. I have so many wonderful memories of our time together The Supremes will live on, in our hearts.”

She got the last part right.

David Hinckley wrote for the New York Daily News for 35 years. Now he drives his wife crazy by randomly quoting Bob Dylan and “Casablanca.”

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