Mary Wilson's Detroit story, unfiltered
A Supreme diva revisits the Brewster Projects where the dream began
Mary Wilson was not supposed to do a Friday morning photo shoot at the former Brewster Recreation Center, the second abandoned building she had been in those last 48 hours she was back in her hometown. In town for Detroit Homecoming, Wilson had had dinner in Michigan Central Depot, spruced up just enough for all the other fellow ex-pats invited back to the city. And then she had done a panel discussion at a still-under-renovation loft in Corktown, also abandoned not too long ago.
It was a hasty, maybe hare-brained, pitch. Take the 1960s glamour girl back to where it all began – the Brewster Projects, where Wilson formed the Supremes with Florence Ballard and Diana Ross – and photograph her among the ruins. This was not part on the Detroit Homecoming docket.
And yet, she was down for it. After Wilson’s panel discussion, where she discussed her career at Motown, she had full intent to go relax at her hotel and visit some friends still in Detroit. But after pitching the last-minute photo shoot to her -- with an assist from the City of Detroit’s social media manager Amber Lewis and The Neighborhoods photographer Cyrus Tetteh – she surprisingly agreed to it. We whisked her away from Homecoming (I doubt the folks at Crain’s know this story, until now), and rode with her in the back of her chauffeured SUV to the old rec center.
Along the way, I wanted to discuss with Wilson her Detroit story, some of the stuff that maybe wouldn’t make for a panel discussion. “I kind of talk in stories,” Wilson begins. “I have two books. And both of them are good.”
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
TN.org: I have to say, I’ve interviewed you before, and I’m still a big fan of the music The Supremes released in the 1970s. I don’t think a lot of people appreciate your 1970s output.
Mary: You know what, it’s a big divide. We have a lot of fans that only like the ‘70s stuff. They live by it. And then there are others who are more into the early stuff.
I know you get tired of people asking, but what’s your favorite Supremes song?
I got three, four children, and I don’t have a favorite. You can’t have a favorite. But there are sings that you have to sing all tlhe time, because they’re just so meaningful to me. Like “Reflections.” Of course, “Stop in the Name of Love,” is the public’s favorite, and “Baby Love,” I have to sing those. You know, there are favorites for different causes. I find that some of the lyrics of the songs are so relevant to today. And now I totally understand them differently than I did in the ‘60s, so they become favorites. It grows on you – lyrics like, “you can’t hurry love, mama said you can’t hurry love.”
What was it like growing up in the Brewster Projects?
Moving into the Brewster Projects to me was like moving into Hollywood, because I grew up in Southwest Detroit.
I didn’t know you grew up in Southwest.
Yeah, Southwest Detroit. I had a great, idyllic childhood because my aunts and uncles kind of raised me, gave me everything a little child (could want). I was like a princess. I was an only child. Then I moved in with my mother, and she moved us into the Brewster Projects. Well, it ended up that that was more exciting than the life I had been living with all of my people at the time. And now here I am in the projects with all these people, and the music was everywhere, and rock ‘n’ roll was new. It was so much fun. It just changed my life – the different acts there…and everyone dared to dream. Guys went to the sports center, and they were singing on the streets. It was a fun, wonderful time.
Where in Southwest did you live?
I was at Outer Drive and Bassett. I went to Boynton Elementary, and I did my first concert at Ford Auditorium, I think it was. All the schools in Detroit had a huge musical concert, and I was in one of them. I must have been in second or third grade. For some reason, I’ve always been in music but I never really thought anything about it. It just kind of followed me.
I know you went to Northeastern High School, where several Motown alumni attended.
I went to Northeastern. However, I got sent to (a school) across from Cass (Technical High School). I got there (and) I saw all these girls there and I said, "I don’t want to be here." So I told them, I wanted to change schools, so I went to Northeastern and I’m so glad I did.
Martha Reeves once told me Northeastern had a renowned music program.
Are you kidding? The best. We had Mrs. Breaux. We had Mr. Philbert. And…what was her name, the pianist? I can’ t think of her name, I can see her as clearly now as I did when I was in school. She played the piano, redhead. And I talked about this on my panel, the educational system in Detroit was phenomenal, and the arts department and the music department were just faboulous. Probably the reason why I became a singer was because we had such a great musical department at Northeastern.
So how did so much talent come out of Northeastern – and Motown?
It’s the water. (Laughs). I mean, who knows. You know, ‘what makes the Motown sound,’ and who knows? I don’t know, it’s who knows. There is so much talent in Detroit, and it still continuously goes on. I understand Kid Rock is working in town…there’s just so much talent here.
Have you been keeping up with any of the news Kid Rock has been making recently?
My grandsons are fans, and so I go to the Derby (Brown Derby in Hollywood) every year and Kid is there, and so I had to get an autograph for my grandsons because they love Kid Rock.
(We pass by the Fox Theatre. “We used to do lots of shows there.”)
Did you see “Detroit?” Part of it takes place at the Fox.
I did not see it. A lot of my friends have seen it, and they’re not very happy about it. They don’t think it really depicts the total thing. But movies can be like that, you know.
What did you think of “Dreamgirls”?
What did I think of it? I thought it was great. However, people think it’s about The Supremes, and it’s not. I have mixed emotions, only because not of the end product – it was beautifully filmed piece and it was really gorgeous, but it’s not about the Supremes or about Motown. Although like a lot of other things, people used our success and our history and our all-these-things to create whatever, and we don’t get paid.
I sing “I Am Changing” from there. I say, “I know you guys think this is about The Supremes, but it’s not and I should know because I didn’t get paid.” (Laughs.) The audience loves it. But it’s true. I’d love to do a movie based on my books, and a lot of the movie companies say the story’s already been told, but it has not.
You’ve written two books, Florence has a biography, Diana has an autobiography…
I was the first. And I was the one who had the bestseller.
But even with all the books, has the full story of The Supremes been told?
Well, it never can be. Because everyone has a different point of view. Even though Diane and I were there at the same time, our views of what was going on at the time were different. There were many ways of telling the story. And some people can say ‘that’s not accurate, ‘cause you know, I was there.’ But the way people tell their stories…
What’s the story about Mary that hasn’t been told enough?
Mary? Well, that dreams do come true, and I was very fortunate to have met Florence and Diane, because when I met them, I realized a dream that I followed my entire life, and my dream came true because of that. So for me, meeting them was one of my favorite stories because that just changed my life. It’s who I am now.
Do you still keep in touch with Diane?
Well, not the way I would like to. However, we’re like a family unit that doesn’t see each other all the time, you know what I mean? You know, except for maybe you know, funerals and weddings and things like that, but no we don’t keep in touch the way –
(Our driver stops at the Starbucks on Woodward and Mack and interrupts to ask Ms. Wilson’s coffee order. “What do you usually take?” he asks. “It’s very difficult. They even get it wrong when I go in there and say it, okay? But it’s espresso macchiato with extra foam. Because when you say macchiato, they think you’re talking about the other with all the milk and all that, I don’t like the milk.”)
Wherever I went, that’s where my star was.
What’s something about Mary Wilson you think people don’t know?
Ooh. Well, I think most people are very confused about me because they don’t know…
I’d say, for starters, most people don’t know you have a tattoo on your right shoulder. (She is wearing a blue, strapless, lace dress.)
I got lots of tattoos.
I don’t know, I don’t really count well. But I have a lot. (She then lifts her dress to reveal a tattoo on her left thigh – a heart with an arrow through it, and a name I can’t make out – before quickly pulling it down.)
This will show when I have a slit on my gown. But I do have a lot.
Why do you get tattoos?
I got them at a time when I was exploring life, living life. I mean, I’m always doing that. I’m one of those people who’s very inquisitive about life, and I take on life. And whatever comes to me in this moment…the tattoos are part of that. Also, see, I’m a Pisces. There are different parts of me that conflict, and that’s what’s confusing to most people because they see me as this nice, quiet, little old thing, and then other people see me as (shouts) LIVE! up in person, and they both are me, but I know how to juggle myself. So I’m not confused by it, but a lot of people are confused about who I am, really.
I remember Mr. Berry Gordy said to me about that once. I forgot how he put it. But it was one of these things where I got…a sin sister. Sin sisters, that’s what he said. (Gordy said,) “You’ve got to make up your mind.” But I can see my hand, and there’s two sides of my hand. That’s the way I am as a person – like a coin, there’s two sides, there can’t just be one.
What were some of your favorite places to go growing up?
Well, the penny arcade. I remember I made my first record there, and this was before anyone wanted to be a singer. And the roller rink – Arcadia? And there was a record shop right down the street from there, and I would stop before going into the rink. Then of course, the Greystone Ballroom was another favorite.
Did you ever sneak out anywhere?
I rarely sneaked out anywhere, but I went everywhere. I was just the kind of person that would walk the city. I wouldn’t say sneaked out, I never sneaked anywhere. Well, that’s not true… maybe when I got a little older I did. (Laughs.)
I remember one time it was a snowstorm – but this is when we were older – and we sneaked out with the Four Tops, and then the snow came and we got snowed in. We had told our parents that we were going to each others’ houses, and we were not there.
(While we wait for coffee, she searches for a sugar packet in her purse for the coffee that will soon come. Like all black women of a certain age, there’s at least one packet guaranteed to be in there.)
Some of the 1970s stuff from The Supremes, I have right here on my phone. (I show her a few singles in my iTunes.)
“I Keep it Hid” is one (I like) – this is my solo, this is when I started doing solos. It was “I Keep it Hid,” by Jimmy Webb. You should listen to that one, it’s the ‘70s.
What was it like when you started singing lead more?
I was always out front. See, I was always in the middle, and people asked me, “when they moved you out of the middle, what about…” But I was a star wherever I went. If I was in the middle, I was a star, if I moved over, I was a star. And when I say star, I mean in my own being. Wherever I went, that’s where my star was. For me, in terms of becoming a singer out front, there was a different feeling because I was not prepared to be a soloist at that point. I had lost my chops – mainly because I had not done it. I was not comfortable because I knew didn’t know, really, how to sing, and it took me a while -- voice lessons and things like that – to study. It took many years to get to the point where I felt really confident as a singer. I had a natural voice, but I didn’t know how to use my voice because I had not developed it at that point.
There was a point when you began managing the whole Supremes operation.
After Flo and Diane left, I took over control. Because I didn’t like what was happening with the group, and I knew if I didn’t do it, I don’t know where we would be. So I had to step up, and I took over management, accounting, and hired people to do it.
What were your thoughts when Motown left Detroit and moved to Los Angeles?
Well, I thought that they were following me, because me and Cindy Birdsong moved first to L.A., then shortly after that Motown left. But we had all been going out to L.A. to do TV shows and all those kinds of things. We kind of had that connection of West Coast and Detroit. But Cindy and I decided to go, and pretty soon Berry and everybody else decided to move out there as well. It was more of our second home. Then the riot came, and that just made it like, “OK, bye!”
Did you witness any of the riots?
Yeah, yeah, yeah, oh yeah. I was sitting at my house on Buena Vista, and I saw a sofa go past my kitchen window, and I’m like “whoa, what is that?” And you know, it was right around the corner.
You were in Russell Woods (Russell Woods is a few miles from 12th and Clairmount, where the riots broke out)?
Yeah, I was on Buena Vista and Petoskey.
I was on Glendale and Petoskey.
Oh, really? Well, all of us lived on the same street. Diane and Flo lived across the street from each other, I lived in the next block down. I know that area well.
Why did you choose to live in Russell Woods?
We had real-estate people and they found the houses, and we didn’t even know that we had bought houses on the same street. We did not know! All three of us ended up on the same street.
And what was it like living there?
I had loads of parties. And next door, I bought a duplex. And Cholly Atkins, the choreographer at Motown, rented the other half of my house. And so, all the Motown acts were always over there.
Who do you miss from Motown?
I miss my Motown friends, that was like family. So many of them have passed, you know. Eddie Kendricks (of The Temptations)…all of the Temps, actually. Paul, Eddie. And then some of the Tops. I miss them all, because we really were like family.
It’s a shame because the groups, there are no more groups. It’s all individuals now. It’s kind of sad.
When you look at the music industry today, there are hardly any groups – it’s mostly soloists.
Well, there’s no Motown anymore. That’s what’s missing – people who are really interested in creating style, giving good direction to the artist. But it is a different time frame, a different outlook on how things should be. It’s a different culture now.
It’s kind of missing. I had thought about a school like Motown had, in having training, but I’m not in a position yet. But I still would like to do it. I would need a partner who could execute things. I’ve got all the ideas, but I need someone who can execute. Even a performing arts center could be here, which could all be part of that. So I’m going to try to put the word out to get that started.
(It’s been about ten minutes, and still no coffee. Ms. Wilson decides to check in with the driver. “I’ll watch your purse,” I say. “Oh honey, ain’t nothing in it. All girlie stuff.”)
What’s your favorite song right now?
Favorite song now is “Here’s to Life,” and I sang that last night at the concert. Lyrically, it’s so much of what I believe in my life. And now that I’m 73 years old…it really resonates with me, in terms of realness about life. Everybody talks about reality, it’s one of those kinds of songs.
(As we approach I-75 and Mack, Ms. Wilson begins to recognize her surroundings.)
Are we close to Highland Park? You know, that’s where Jackie Wilson’s from.
What did you think of Jackie Wilson, Mr. Entertainment?
That was my favorite artist, Jackie Wilson. He really influenced me. His music, style, he was the epitome of an entertainer. It was a shame he came along at a time when no one really remembers him well now. He’s not one of the icons of whatever that (era was)…taped TV shows started then, and I don’t think he was on TV as much, so he just didn’t transcend the time. But he was one of the reasons that I (got into music).
Who’s one person that should’ve been on Motown, but never was?
You know, Rev. C.L. Franklin wanted Aretha Franklin to be signed to Motown, and the story goes – I don’t know if it’s true or not – that Mr. Gordy turned her down.
You should go to talk to Berry about that.
Nah. You know, some stories just kind of have a life of their own. But it’s understandable, because he really wasn’t after soul. He was after creating the new sound, so it probably was true.
(We park outside the rec center, which is slated for redevelopment, and Ms. Wilson surveys the area.)
This gave me, or us, the opportunity to dare to dream because of all the music that was around and all the people who were so happy and optimistic. And people think that it was all bad here, and it wasn’t. The 14-story buildings were new, so we were like in a new apartment building. We were like heeeeey! It did inspire us to dare to dream of bigger and better things.
(Prior to the shoot, Ms. Wilson freshens up. “I just need to perhaps put on some lipstick, and powder down a bit.” I suggest that Lewis can help her with her makeup. “Oh no, I never let anyone do my makeup but me.”)
(Wesley Hans, a security guard watching over the rec center from a small SUV, shares with me and Ms. Wilson’s driver that he once met the then-budding star around the time she signed to Motown with Ross and Ballard. He also grew up in the Brewster Projects. At first he was reluctant, but we offered the chance for Hans to meet Wilson again. He steps out the truck, takes off his hat and shakes her hand.)
Wesley: I lived on Eliot between Brush and John R – Sunshine Supermarket, Big Daddy’s…
Wesley: I used to play on Eliot between Mack and Beaubien – St. Peter’s.
Mary: Oh, okay!
Wesley: And one day – I ain’t trying to tell your age…
Mary: Whew! It’s OK…it’s alright.
Wesley: One day, we were out front playing. We were on Mack, and a cab pulled up out front, and we looked around, and you were coming down the steps. If I remember right, you had a pretty white gown, and it had a train to the back of it. And me, and about three other guys ran and picked your train up…
Wesley: …and held it until you got into the cab. And that’s my little footnote.
Mary: I’m trying to see…were we coming out of a performance?
Mary: Out of a house?
Wesley: Yeah, over on..
Mary: Oh, I used to live on Eliot.
Wesley: You had just signed, or were getting ready to sign, with Berry Gordy. And we were kids out there, I was about 13 or 14.
Mary: I must have come out of my house. It was the row houses, right?
Mary: Yeah, that’s where I lived.
Wesley: And people tell me when I tell people the story, “you ain’t meet no Mary Wilson, you never seen her.” But I tell them. I didn’t know it, but I carried her train.
Mary: I’ll put that in my next book!