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A Motown original recalls her path to stardom

There’s no mistaking the pride in Mary Wilson’s voice as she talks about the accomplishments of the Supremes, the Motown singing group that she belonged to in the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s not just that the Supremes recorded an amazing 12 No. 1 hit songs in the 1960s, or that they were selected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or that Billboard entertainment magazine has called them “the most successful girl group of all time” and one of the “most popular artists ever” in any musical category.

And it isn’t just that they toured with Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and dozens of other soul stars, or that they repeatedly performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and every other major TV program of the ’60s.

“I’m proud of the example we set for young black women,” Wilson said in a telephone interview last week. “The Supremes were classy, we were glamorous. We worked hard. We were talented. We showed young black women that they could achieve greatness.”

Wilson, now 71, co-founded the Supremes as a teenager and stayed with them longer than any other member, from 1959 to 1977. She will re-create the group’s sound Feb. 13 in the inaugural show at the new Diamond Room showroom at Samuel’s Grande Manor in Williamsville.

She and her backup singers will sing and dance their way through lots of Supreme numbers, in addition to songs from Wilson’s solo career.

“I love getting up and performing, making people happy,” Wilson said.

If you had told Wilson when she was a girl that she’s someday be part of a world-famous musical act, she would have thought you were crazy. She grew up in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing project. “Growing up there, the idea of someday becoming successful or famous was an option you didn’t even think about,” she said.

But she loved to sing, and so did her friends Diana Ross and Florence Ballard. They formed a teenage singing group that performed at sock hops at high school gyms. Ross’ friend, William “Smokey” Robinson was one of the first acts to sign with Motown Records, the Detroit record company formed by upstart black businessman Berry Gordy.

With Robinson’s help, Wilson’s group, then called the Primettes, got noticed by Gordy. He signed them and quickly decided they needed a better name – the Supremes.

It took three years for the Supremes to nail down their first big hit – “Come See About Me” – in 1964. After that, the group caught on like wildfire, and not just in Detroit.

“Starting with that one, we had five straight No. 1 hits, something that very few artists have ever done,” Wilson recalled.

With the Supremes, the Temptations, the Four Tops and other groups leading the way, the Motown Sound had a huge impact, not just in the United States but in Great Britain.

“When we toured England, we found out we were as popular there as the British acts were in America,” Wilson said. “We got to meet the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, all those bands. We’d spend time with them in the private clubs over there.”

The talented Ross was always the lead singer, and in 1967, Gordy decided the group should be called Diana Ross & the Supremes. A few years later, Ross went solo and became a major star. Wilson and other singers continued performing as the Supremes until 1977. There have been a couple of reunion tours since, but they never really recaptured the magic.

There has been some tension over the years between Wilson and Ross, but Wilson still considers Ross more than a friend. “Diana and I have always been on speaking terms,” she said. “We’ve had our difficulties, but we care about each other … We’re like sisters.”

Wilson is proud of her own accomplishments, including a number of solo records that received excellent reviews. She has written two autobiographies, and is working on a third book, a coffee table book about the Supremes’ famous gowns.

She has helped many charities with fundraising over the years, and once appeared at the White House during the administration of President Bill Clinton.

In 2002, she earned an associate degree from a college in New York City. She’s now living in Las Vegas and taking acting classes in hopes of getting some film and TV work.

One role she truly loves is being the mother of four and grandmother of eight.

Do the grandkids ask her about her days as a world-famous Supreme?

“My grandkids know a little about the Supremes,” she said with a laugh. “But to them, I’m just Grandma.”

email: dherbeck@buffnews.com

Preview

Who: Mary Wilson

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 13

Where: Diamond Room, Samuel’s Grand Manor, 8750 Main St., Williamsville

Tickets: $28.50-$54.50

Info: samuelsgrandemanor.com, 634-8425.

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