The Supremes, one of Motown’s most legendary girl groups, were known for their iconic singles, fabulous fashion and tumultuous personal drama. First known as The Primettes in 1959, the group originally consisted of Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Betty McGlown before skyrocketing to fame throughout the 1960s as Diana Ross & the Supremes. While they disbanded in 1977, the music of The Supremes is beloved to this day. Wilson, who stayed with the group until it disbanded, still performs solo concerts throughout the world and will hit Suffolk Theater on Sunday, March 1.
“I will probably have eight, nine or 10 Supremes songs, but then I do some rock-and-roll things,” Wilson says of the Suffolk Theater performance. “I might do my Rolling Stones medley there, and I love ballads, so I’ll do some of my big ballads. I’d say my forte is singing ballads, even though my history and making money and selling records is Supremes! It’s going to be a sort of eclectic show, but it’s always up. The show is geared to make people feel good.”
In addition to continuing to perform, Wilson continues to find ways to tell the story of The Supremes, which went through periods of both turmoil and triumph. It’s impossible to mention The Supremes without referencing the late Ballard, who was fired from the group in 1967, just as Ross became the headliner. Ballard battled with alcoholism and depression for years, and sadly died of a heart attack just as she was on the cusp of a comeback in 1976. Ballard, who was just 32, was dealing with deep trauma from a sexual assault as a teen that Wilson has opened up about in order to dispel misconceptions about the troubled talent. One of Wilson’s current projects is to have a commemorative stamp of Ballard created. “A lot of fans are helping me with this, and I think it would be quite wonderful. I’m hoping we can get it out in time for the Supremes’ 60th anniversary.”
Despite the drama—which was fictionalized in the musical and film Dreamgirls—Wilson remains close with Ross. “We’re sisters,” Wilson says. “I probably see her more than my [actual] sister. We’re not on the phone every day, but we are definitely still friends.”
Wilson is also an author, having released autobiographies Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme and Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together. Her newest book, a coffee table tome, Supreme Glamour: The Inside Story of the Original Pop Fashionistas, goes in-depth on the Supremes’ distinctive gowns and outfits. “Even though it’s about the gowns and all the pizazz that we did wearing them on various TV shows around the world, it has a really great overview of our entire career,” she says. The book is co-written by Mark Bego, who Wilson describes as her partner in crime. “Fans who love the Supremes’ history, all that is there. One girl told me she was just reading the text, another one said she was just looking at the pictures!” Wilson notes that the fashion is as much a part of The Supremes’ oeuvre as their songs. “Initially, we started out as recording artists, but our image really caught on and I can almost say, at this point, that people equate the music and fashion,” she says. “That’s why I decided to do this book. The fashion was so big!”
At 75, Wilson shows no signs of slowing down. She was a contestant on the most recent season of Dancing with the Stars, and was an active proponent of the Music Modernization Act, which helps musicians receive royalties for their work. But for now, Wilson is just excited to perform at Suffolk Theater: “I just can’t wait to come to New York!”
See Mary Wilson at Suffolk Theater, 118 East Main Street, Riverhead, on March 1. For tickets and more information, visit suffolktheater.com.