A “Supreme” Motown Exhibit Opens At The Grammy Museum

Author: Bill Dudley

Last night, a founding member of Motown’s greatest female group, the Supremes, the ageless Mary Wilson kicked off the first of many Motown exhibits, Legends Of Motown: Celebrating The Supremes.

Mary is still very beautiful,charming, honest, and a great storyteller. Growing up in The Brewster Projects of Detroit, she and childhood friends Florence Ballard and Diana Ross were teenagers who hung out at Motown for many years before they had a hit.

Originally called the “Primettes” (in answer to “the Primes,” who became the “Temptations”), the girls watched other young Motown female singers and groups hit it big like the “Marvelettes,” “Martha & The Vandellas” and “Mary Wells.”  Florence Ballard was the original lead singer. Flo had a raspy soulful voice, while Mary was more of a ballad singer.

Motown founder Berry Gordy made two very important decisions to rectify the status of what were known, (surprisingly,) as the “No Hit Supremes.” (1) Gordy thought Diana Ross’s voice  had a strong pop appeal, thus he made her the lead singer. (2) The dynamic songwriting team of “Holland-Dozier-Holland” were assigned to the Supremes, the result was 5 songs in a row that went to # 1 on the charts. Mary said that “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop In The Name Of Love” and “Back In My Arms Again” weren’t necessarily favorites of the girls at the time, but they spearheaded what would become a total of over 35 chart hits, and 12 # 1 songs.

The firing of Florence Ballard in 1967, and Diana Ross leaving for a solo career in January of 1970, left Mary as the only original voice of the Supremes.  She decided to step up her game by learning to sing more than just harmonies. Mary didn’t want the “Supremes” to fade away. Jean Terrell joined the group as lead singer and many more hits were born like “Stoned Love,” “Up The Ladder to the Roof,” and “Nathan Jones.”

Photo courtesy of Michael Hixon

 

The Supremes began to sputter in the late 70’s and were pretty much done by 1977. Many former members of the Supremes were on hand to hear Mary kick off the “Legends of Motown” exhibit last night, including Jean Terrell, Scherrie Payne, Susaye Greene, and a founding member of the “Miracles”, Claudette Robinson. Notably absent were Diana Ross, and Cindy Birdsong, two longtime Supremes.

Mary still tours, and will be appearing soon with Roberta Flack, and Dionne Warwick later this summer. Her favorite Supremes song is “Reflections,” claiming “it is even more relevant today.” Her voice is better than ever. It grabbed me as both smooth and torturing, illustrating a life of both success and pain.

When asked if the musical “Dream Girls” was the true story of the Supremes, Mary said it was “A great piece of work, but not the real story”. Mary had her own account of the Supremes published in 1986. the book, “Dream Girl: My Life As A Supreme” became a NY Times Bestseller.

This book caused a rift between Mary and Diana which lasted about 10 years, until the death of Mary’s son. Mary was asked by several audience members to dish some dirt on Diana. She would have none of it by saying “Diane is her sister.”  Mary has alway referred to Diana Ross as “Diane.”

I met Mary back in 1986 when the book first came out. She is much the same today, honest, beautiful, and a huge part of the “Legends Of Motown.”

Get all the details on the exhibit here.

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