It’s been a long time since a teenage Mary Wilson formed a singing group with her friends Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, but nearly 60 years later, the Supremes’ music still pours out of radios all over the world. Wilson continues to perform and recently had a display of her stunning Supremes costumes at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She talked to Vegas Seven about dreaming big, staying glamorous and playing Las Vegas way back when.
So many people, so many musicians, are Supremes fans. What’s it like to have people tell you that you inspired them?
In 1959, when the Supremes started singing, it was at a time when African-Americans did not dare to dream, but we did. To be three little black girls making those dreams come true was something of a huge phenomenon for black people to aspire to. Some 50 years later, for people to talk about it, to have people speak of us like that—it’s a great honor.
When did you realize that singing was going to be your life?
When we started singing, it was a hobby; we were doing it just to be doing it, not [as] a job. Black people—it wasn’t something you thought about. You thought about trying to get a good job becoming a nurse, doctor [or] schoolteacher. It wasn’t until after we got hooked in high school and we realized how good we were as a group [that] we said, “This is great, maybe this is something we should consider as more than a hobby.” We were going every weekend to gigs when we were still in high school. During that time we started listening to Motown—the Miracles, Mary Wells, they were in our hometown. We decided to get an audition.
You began looking at it as a career?
Our parents … had saved up a little money to [send us] to college. We were like, “We wanna be singers.” I remember we went to Berry Gordy and said, “Mr. Gordy, we gotta get a hit record! If we don’t get a hit record, our parents will send us to college!”
What keeps you going after all these years?
Most people get a job to get money and then they save up their money to go on vacations. We, the Supremes, found our dream very early in life and it’s never changed. Most people would love to be a singer. It’s a blessing. It’s wonderful to be doing what you enjoy and be paid well for it [and] travel the world. Why would you want to change or retire?
The three of you were so glamorous—you’re still very stylish. Was glamour always important to you?
We were always known for our glamour. That sort of set us apart from the other groups of the time. Keeping the glamour—that’s who I am, that’s who the Supremes were. We were just girlie-girls. I was playing with my granddaughter the other day and she said, “Grandma, we’re girlie-girls, aren’t we?” And I’m like, “Yep.” That was always our type.
You live in Las Vegas, but you’ve also played here many times …
I did Vegas a couple of times last year. The Supremes performed at the Flamingo in 1967, when Vegas was still the Vegas we all think about, not what it has become. Back in the day, it was Sammy Davis [Jr.], Lena Horne, the Rat Pack, that whole kind of thing. It was people who wore fur coats [and] big, giant rings; [they had] big cigars [and] loads of money. It was a different kind of place.
What can audiences expect from your show at The Smith Center?
It’s pretty much an American songbook type of show called Mary Wilson—Up Close & Personal. Normally, of course, I’m Mary Wilson of the Supremes, and that entails more of an R&B show. My cabaret show is basically all standards; it’s really across the board: “Smile,” “What a Wonderful World,” “Body and Soul”— lots of big ballads. I always sang ballads—my talent is more of a chanteuse-type singer. One thing I will say is: Come dressed up. I’ll be in my little sequined gown.
Mary Wilson—Up Close & Personal
February 24-25, 7 p.m., $35–$59, The Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz, thesmithcenter.com