Interview: Mary Wilson on Her Days in The Supremes & the Re-airing of ‘Motown 25’

The Supremes in the '60s
The Supremes in the ’60s – Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, and Diana Ross

Those of us who are old enough certainly remember the television special, “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever,” which aired more than 30 years ago. It was on that show that Michael Jackson did the moonwalk for the very first time.

Now, the special will air at the close of Black History Month on Sat., Feb. 28, 2015 on public television stations nationwide. The broadcast marks the first time “Motown 25” will be on television since its debut in 1983.

Taped before a live audience at California’s Pasadena Civic Auditorium, virtually every Motown artist from the company’s inception appeared on the show, including Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, The Miracles, The Temptations, Four Tops, and, of course, Diana Ross and The Supremes.

This week, Mary Wilson, one of the founding members of The Supremes, spoke with journalists on the phone about “Motown 25” and her extraordinary music legacy. Below are some of the highlights from the conversation.

Mary Wilson, formerly of The Supremes
Mary Wilson, formerly of The Supremes

On the infamous moment during “Motown 25” when Diana Ross took the microphone away from Mary:

The sad part about this is that we were kind of put together without really having any pre-idea of what we were going to do – that being Diana and myself. We had very little time to really get together and hug and kiss and all. Our rehearsal time was cut down to maybe 15 minutes, and we hadn’t seen each other in a long time.

So, when we got on stage, what happened was that I didn’t know that certain things had been planned to say…. I kind of said certain things, and I guess I wasn’t supposed to say those because they had been planned to do it another way. And that disrupted the program. That’s really kind of what happened.

It not only spoiled my moment, but it kind of spoiled The Supremes’ moment in terms of coming together. And we weren’t able to finish our song.

On being turned down by Motown at first:

We were very young when we went to Motown. We were only, I guess, 15 years old. We had been singing for a couple of years. The company was still very young, and they weren’t prepared to take care of four young girls who weren’t even 16 or 17 years old yet. So, we were turned down, not because of our talent, which, at the time, we didn’t realize that. We thought we were turned down because they thought we weren’t good enough. I remember Florence Ballard saying, “Hmmm… how can they turn us down? They don’t know how great we are.” So, that was kind of funny.

Then, we went away, and we came back to Motown. That’s when we started recording and didn’t have the hits, and we were called the “No hit Supremes.” Now, I have to tell everyone that I created that saying because I knew that the artists were talking about us behind our backs because we thought we were so good. We were really, in our minds, great, and why in the heck couldn’t we get a hit like everybody else?…

So, finally, Mr. Berry Gordy put us together with [songwriters] Holland-Dozier-Holland, and they came up with our hit records…. It was like our dream had come true – three little black girls from the Brewster projects had made the impossible dream come true…. For us to become international stars, it was a miracle.

The Supremes in "Motown 25"
The Supremes in “Motown 25” – Cindy Birdsong (who replaced Florence Ballard), Diana Ross, and Mary Wilson

On the degree of interaction The Supremes had with the songwriters at Motown:

The writers and the producers were probably more important at Motown than the artists…. You only became important after you had a hit record. At the time, we really depended on the writers. They would make or break you in those days.

We were very happy to be with Holland-Dozier-Holland. We looked up to them. There was very little interaction because they knew the music; we did not. We only had the voices. So, they taught us….

I’m very happy to say that Holland-Dozier-Holland just got their star on the Hollywood Boulevard, which is well-deserved because we all became famous. And now, they’re famous. They’re the ones who did the work. We really did not give much input into the music because we were working with geniuses, so you didn’t have to.

The Supremes with the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland
The Supremes with the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland

On the family atmosphere at Motown:

It was a small company. It was a small building. And when everyone would come in, it was like a holiday when all of your relatives would come over. This would happen at Motown all the time. It was a family feeling there…. I think that’s another reason so many of us wanted to stay there.

On The Supremes’ legacy in music:

We weren’t the greatest singers. We were not the greatest girl group out there. We just received more hit records than a lot. And, of course, we were there at a time of television that gave us a certain visibility that a lot of girl groups did not have because they came before the 60’s…. We were there, as you might say, at the right time, so it happened for us.

On The Supremes’ image:

Even though we were poor, we went to Motown with a certain image that was just ours. No one created that for us. We were four girls, and ended up being three, who loved glamour. We loved to look good. Grooming was something that was our thing. The people at Motown were smart enough to see that we had something special, something different…. They did not make us. They did not give us that image. That was our image. I’m very proud of that.

On The Supremes’ Gown Collection:

It still is an ongoing exhibit. There are 50-some Supremes gowns that we wore on television – The Ed Sullivan show and all that. My biggest wish is that I could put it up in Las Vegas as a permanent exhibit, so that’s on my wish list.

I’m currently working on the gown coffee table book. It’s an ongoing project because there are so many gowns that have to be photographed, and I’m still collecting wonderful photographs of The Supremes in the gowns. So, it might take a couple of years for that book to actually be completed, but yes, I am currently working on it.

The Supremes in an example of their many fabulous gowns
The Supremes in an example of their many fabulous gowns

On the musical, “Dreamgirls”:

I was totally thrilled about it because I was still in the mindset that, “Wow, we really made it, and they’re writing plays about us….” [But] everyone thought it was about us, so it took our story away from us.

I wrote a book called “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme,” and I cannot get a movie done or a play done because already the play and the movie “Dreamgirls” has been done. And everybody thinks it’s our story, which it is not…. So, it was a bittersweet thing for me.

On Berry Gordy’s Broadway show, “Motown: The Musical”:

I really did enjoy seeing it. I saw it on Broadway, and I also saw it in Detroit when it was there. It was not the story of our lives. It was a story from Berry Gordy’s idea of what was going on. And I think like anything else, different people experience the same situation, they’re going to tell it a different way.

I enjoy seeing various perspectives on what happened. And I wasn’t surprised, and I was still quite happy – “Oh, that’s what he was thinking when that happened!” It was okay. I would have done it a different way, but as long as they said my name a couple of times. “Mary said….” – Hey, I was in there!

I do think he should have had The Supremes out front a little more because we really were the ones that took Motown around the world, even though the other artists were probably more popular than us. But we, The Supremes, were the group that took Motown to all the different countries internationally.

But I didn’t direct it. I can’t wait until I have my own play about The Supremes. Then, I can direct it the way I want to. But I still thoroughly enjoyed seeing the play.

Visit Mary’s website at, and check your local listings to watch “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever” this Saturday, Feb. 28, 2015 on PBS stations. 


2 responses to “Interview: Mary Wilson on Her Days in The Supremes & the Re-airing of ‘Motown 25’”

  1. Sherman Cox Avatar

    Mary Wilson i hope you’ve been good with Cindy and Jean i heard you didn’t go with them thats it i’m gonna call jean terrell to give you a spankin okay happy birthday Mary love Sherman

  2. Melanie Votaw Avatar

    Hi, Sherman. It’s unlikely that Mary will see your post. I know that she saw the article when it was first published, but I doubt she will revisit this page.

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