Mary Wilson of The Supremes Talks 'Motown 25' TV Special (INTERVIEW)

"It was like our dream had come true," Wilson says of making it big with The Supremes. "To become international stars was a miracle."
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Paulette Cohn
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"It was like our dream had come true," Wilson says of making it big with The Supremes. "To become international stars was a miracle."
The Supremes Photo

The Supremes: Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross, Sept. 1965. (Photo: Jac. de Nijs / Anefo (Nationaal Archief) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Supremes will be back in our hearts again when the legendary TV special Motown 25 makes its national public broadcasting premiere on February 28th. The historic concert, originally televised by NBC on May 16, 1983, saw the reunions of The Jackson 5, The Miracles, and The Supremes, and introduced Michael Jackson's moonwalk to the world.

Like a majority of us, for Mary Wilson, one of the founders of The Supremes, Jackson's new dance move was the highlight of the show. But the low point — which wasn't televised but was talked about by audience members and leaked to the press — was what happened when Wilson got on stage with Diana Ross and Cindy Birdsong: At one point, Ross grabbed the microphone away from Wilson, which made it look as if there was dissension among the ladies.

The true story, according to Wilson, who declares it is the truth and she is sticking to it — is that The Supremes' rehearsal time was cut down to 15 minutes, even less after hellos and hugs were exchanged, and so no one told Wilson that there was a plan in place for Ross to invite Motown founder Berry Gordy to join them on stage.

Wilson recalls, "All I knew was Diana said, 'Hey, Berry. Come on down.' I said, 'Yeah, Berry. Come on down.' Me and my crazy self that I am, I enjoyed the moment. I said certain things and I wasn't supposed to say those things, because they had plans. That disrupted the program. I am sorry to say it happened, because it not only spoiled my moment, but it spoiled The Supremes' moment of coming together, and we weren't able to finish our song."

The journey to make it to the Motown 25 special began for The Supremes back in the early 1960s, when Motown was a fledging record label. Wilson, Ross, Florence Ballard and Betty McGlown (who left the group before its first hit) — then known as the Primettes — auditioned for Gordy and were rejected. They thought they were turned down because he thought they lacked talent, but later discovered it was because they were only 15 years old and the label wasn't prepared to care for four teenage girls.

"Baby Love," written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland in 1964, topped the charts in the UK and the US:

But they were persistent, finally convincing Gordy to sign them. He agreed with the caveat that they change their name to The Supremes. It wasn't smooth going for the girl group at first, and, as a result, they were called the "No-hits Supremes." That changed when Gordy put the singers together with the writing and producing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland (Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland), who not only came up with The Supremes' first hit song, "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes," but went on to write nine more chart-topping hits for the ladies.

"It was like our dream had come true," Wilson says. "Three little black girls from the Brewster Projects had made the impossible dream come true. We weren't even [able to vote] yet. To become international stars was a miracle."

The Ed Sullivan Show Guests: They kept us hanging on. Diana Ross, Cindy Birdsong, and Mary Wilson of The Supremes groove out on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968.

Diana Ross, Cindy Birdsong, and Mary Wilson of The Supremes groove out on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1968. (Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Getty Images)

The Supremes weren't the only girl group on the Billboard charts. There were numerous others competing for the best songs — The Shirelles, The Chantels, The Ronettes, to name a few — but there was something special about The Supremes that took them to the top.

"I think it was our dedication to what we were doing and realizing that we were at Motown, which was the best place to be," Wilson says. "They had every writer you could imagine you would want to write for you. We enjoyed what we were doing and we were very dedicated to doing it for the rest of our lives."

It was also a matter of right time, right place. And Wilson is the first to admit it. "We were not the greatest singers. We were not the greatest girl group out there, but we had more hit records than a lot," says Wilson, who still gets thanks from young artists who grew up listening to The Supremes. "We just happened to be there at a time when things were changing, and television was there. We were there at the right time, so it happened for us."

In 1970, Ross departed the group for a solo career and was replaced by Jean Terrell. Ballard had previously exited in 1967, which was when Cindy Birdsong became a Supreme. At that point, Wilson was the only original member — and she did her best to keep the group intact.

"Stop! In the Name of Love" was a number-one hit in the United States from March 21, 1965, through April 3, 1965:

"That is something that Berry Gordy said once about the original Supreme when we received our star on Hollywood Boulevard," Wilson says. "He said, 'Mary Wilson is the glue that kept The Supremes together.' I guess that is a good thing."

But The Supremes of the '70s was a different group than the '60s. Even as they made their own history with songs like "Stone Love" and "Up the Ladder to the Roof," Wilson knew the end was in sight.

"At that point in our career, I knew it was time for me to quit but there was no way I could quit at that time, so I kept it going. It was for selfish reasons that I was the glue. I know the fans loved the '70s Supremes, and I did, too. But I've always said, it was a different group. The problem as I see it is even the record companies have lumped us all together. I guess I am part of that, too, because I was trying to keep it together until I could figure out what I was going to do with my life."

Mary Wilson Photo

Wilson at Moscow's Spaso House, February 2011. (Photo: US Embassy in Moscow [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Since The Supremes disbanded, Wilson has gone on to become a solo performer, author, musician's rights activist, and the curator of various museum displays of The Supremes' glamorous stage costumes.

And there has also been recognition for their unique contribution to music. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inducted the group — Ross, Wilson and Ballard — in 1988. They were immortalized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994. And three of their songs, "Where Did Our Love Go," "You Keep Me Hangin' On," and "Stop in the Name of Love," have been incorporated into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

"As a Supreme, we used to say, 'We dare to dream,' about making our dreams come true," Wilson says. "So receiving the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Award was one of those moments where we could say, 'We did dare to dream and we did make our dreams come true.'"

Tune in when Motown 25: Yesterday · Today · Forever, also starring Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, the Four Tops and many others, makes its national public broadcasting premiere on February 28th at 8 p.m. ET & PT/7 p.m. CT. Check your local listings.