I woke up this morning with the very sad news of the passing of former Supreme, Mary Wilson, at the age of 76. This weekend I finished re-reading the first of her two autobiographies and weirdly had a review scheduled to post this morning. I’m posting this today in tribute to one of the Great Ladies Of Motown.
I love this book. I think I’ve read it twice before but not for the last 30 years so it was time to revisit my now orangey-paged paperback edition. (It now only seems to be in print in an omnibus 2000 edition together with its follow-up “Supreme Faith, also highly recommended, available from Cooper Square Press.) It is one of the great showbusiness memoirs.
Mary Wilson was one of four girls from The Brewster Projects in Detroit who formed a sister group to male R&B combo The Primes (the nucleus of the Temptations). Mary, together with Flo Ballard, Betty McGlown and Diane Ross became The Primettes in 1959 and spent the next five years attempting to realise their dream of musical stardom building up a local reputation and hanging around the local studios of Motown Records until label boss, Berry Gordy, relented and signed them up as The Supremes. Betty had been replaced by Barbara Martin who also left in 1962 leaving the girls as a trio. They became known as “The No-Hit Supremes” by other artists whose careers at Motown soared until for their 9th single for the label songwriters/producers Holland, Dozier and Holland wanted to try them on a song already rejected by The Marvelettes. “Where Did Our Love Go?” topped the US pop charts and started a career which made the trio three of the most famous faces of the 1960s.
So far, so much like a fairy story. Yet this book, alongside J.Randy Taraborrelli’s “Call Her Miss Ross”, published a year after this and “The Dreamgirls” Broadway hit musical (which has never said it was based on The Supremes although Mary was overawed by the parallels when she saw it) has changed the perception of this fairy tale and put serious doubt on any “happy ever after” ending.
Mary saw it all. Diane metamorphosing into Diana moving from background singer to lead vocalist to solo ambitions fuelled by a relationship with Gordy to becoming one of the most successful female artists of all time and Florence, from lead vocals to being undermined and eventually jostled out of the group with tragic consequences. Mary knew what was going on and was unable to speak up.
She took it all in though and there is excellent detail in the recall in this book ghosted by Patricia Romanowski and Ahrgus Juilliard. There’s the perfect balance between the personal and the career (there is an extraordinary appendix of an itinerary which exists only because Mary was a keen diarist which shows how hard these girls were worked). Alongside this you get the changing dynamics of the group which is just fascinating together with Mary’s ill-fated relationship with Tom Jones.
It is this balance which makes this book such a great read. Mary’s voice comes through strongly (certainly more strongly than on a lot of the later Diana Ross & The Supremes single releases). There is just something about tarnish in the glitter which just so appeals.
Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme was published in the UK in 1987. I read the 1988 Arrow paperback edition.