RAMBLIN' ROUND: Mary Wilson: A 'Dreamgirl' Supreme

AP Photo/Bob Dear, FileThe Supremes, from left, Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross, perform during a reception for them in a hotel, in London. Wilson, the longest-reigning original Supreme, has died at 76 years old. Publicist Jay Schwartz says Wilson died Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, at her home in Las Vegas and that the cause was not immediately clear.

Like lots of others who like music, I not only enjoy listening to it, I enjoy reading about it too — especially in autobiographies.

What makes it even better is when the author's musical skills move over into the literary realm. Even if the said musician's literary works don't rival their musical endeavors, I'm happy if he or she can simply spin a great yarn.

Musicians who have also written outstanding autobiographies and the titles of their books include "Chronicles: Volume I" by Bob Dylan and "Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen, along with a couple of books written by former members of The Band, "This Wheel's on Fire" by Levon Helm and "Testimony" by Robbie Robertson.

I'd have to include any of the several autobiographical books Willie Nelson has penned. He even applied his wit to the title of his book "My Life: It's a Long Story."

Those are all outstanding works where the soul of the writer seeps through on the written page much like it does when they're singing and playing music — and another I must include among them is "Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme" by Mary Wilson. Her 1986 autobiography featuring her memoirs of her life with the Supremes — as well as before and after her years with the famed group — ranks right up there with the best.

I've been thinking about Mary Wilson this week following the announcement of her passing at the age of 76 in Las Vegas. I've always thought her contributions to The Supremes have been woefully under appreciated, along with the work of the other two female vocalists who sang with the group at different times during their remarkable reign at the top of the charts.

I happened upon the book "Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme" at a used book store and it immediately captured my attention. I've always been fascinated by many of the Motown artists, such as Marvin Gaye, the Temptations and of course, the Supremes. Now, here was the chance to get the inside story from one of the main insiders.

While the main spotlight of the famed Motown group usually fell on lead singer Diana Ross, I've always thought Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard deserved more recognition.

While Ballard would later leave the group to be replaced by Cindy Birdsong, Mary Wilson would endure as a Supreme, even after Diana Ross left the group to start a solo career.

Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong must have known it was coming — because Motown maestro Berry Gordy had already insisted the group be billed as Diana Ross and the Supremes. 

The Supremes started their musical life with another name, initially known as the Primettes — before settling on the name that would etch their names in musical history.

Even though they first came on the scene at the height of the British Invasion, bands such as The Beatles often had to battle the winsome so-called girl group which came from the projects of Detroit to Motown Records and then to the top of the charts.

What a run they had! They scored 12 number one hits from 1964 through 1969. Sixteen of their singles entered the top ten. Move over Beatles! Move over Rolling Stones! The Supremes are hitting number one again.

They scored their first big hit with "Where Did Our Love Go" in 1964, when the song topped the Billboard charts for two weeks. Their next single, "Baby Love," also shot to number one, followed by three more number one songs: "Come See About Me," "Stop! In the Name of Love"  and "Back in My Arms Again."

Their glamorous image — orchestrated by Gordy — had them performing in evening gowns and pearl necklaces, an image out of step with the times, when guitar-based bands were considered the epitome of cool.

No matter. If the Supremes would not conform to the musical norms of the era, then those norms would come to them — such as when the heavy rock band Vanilla Fudge recorded a psychedelic version of the Supremes' song "You Keep Me Hanging On."

Much credit for the success of the Supremes should go to the Motown's brilliant production and songwriting team, of Holland-Dozier-Holland, who wrote and produced their first chart-toppers. The Motown House Band, known as the Funk Brothers, also contributed mightily to their sound.

Still, it took the Supremes to deliver the magic — which they did on record after record and performance after performance.

While the producers placed the vocals of Diana Ross far in front at Gordy's behest, the backing vocals of Wilson and Ballard — then later, Birdsong — gave the Supremes' recordings a unique facet that wouldn't be matched on the solo recordings Ross later released. Think of hearing "Where Did Our Love Go" without Wilson's and Ballard's background vocals of "Baby, Baby," while Ross sang the verses — it just wouldn't be the same.

I always thought it a bit unfair how Diana Ross had been pushed to the forefront of the Supremes, at the expense of Mary Wilson, Ballard and then, Birdsong.

"Dreamgirls: My Life As a Supreme" gave Mary Wilson the chance to tell the story of the Supremes from her point of view.

Yes, the Supremes endured for years after Ross left, having hits such as "Floy Joy," penned by their Motown label mate, Smokey Robinson.

Back in 2000, a promoter decided to book a reunion tour of Diana Ross and the Supremes — but couldn't come to terms with Mary  Wilson or Cindy Birdsong. Ballard, unfortunately, has passed away in 1976.

Nevertheless, some other singers who had been temporary members of the later lineup of the Supremes were signed for the tour instead. Wait a minute, I thought. How can it be a reunion of the Supremes without Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong?

Even though Diana Ross was a superstar by that time, the public wasn't biting. After all, it wasn't really the Supremes singing with Ross during the Supremes reunion tour.

The tour had been booked to play in 29 cities, but was canceled after only 13 performances due to poor ticket sales.

Seems the public agreed, a tour billed as by the Supremes without Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong was not so supreme, after all.

Oh yes,"Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme," became a bestseller and is considered one of the best autobiographies ever written by a musical artist.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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