Remembering Mary Wilson: The time she asked Big Joe Henry out for a drink
Mary Wilson, a true star and diva in the music world worthy of the adulation and stardom reserved for a Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, passed away in her sleep Monday at the age of 76 in Las Vegas.
Mary had a storied career as one of the founding members of The Supremes. Mary was born in Mississippi, moved to St. Louis and Chicago before settling in Detroit. It was in Detroit where living in a housing development at the age of 15 that she met Florence Ballard while in Elementary School. The duos performed at a local talent show and were a big success. They were invited to audition for Milton Jenkins, who wanted to form a girl group that would compliment his male group called The Primes.
The Primettes were formed and Milton added Diana Ross and Betty McGlown. The Primettes were signed to a record contract at Motown in 1961 and Berry Gordy, head of Motown, changed the name to The Supremes.
Betty McGlown left the group to get married and have children and she was replaced briefly by Barbara Martin, who eventually left the group. Some say she was dropped by Berry. Mary, Flo and Diana made up The Supremes and in 1963, they had their first No. 1 hit and would go on to have 12 more.
In 1964, Florence was removed from the group when she objected to the special treatment that Diana was getting. Flo, after all, was the founder of the group and didn’t like taking a back seat. She was replaced by Cindy Birdsong.
It was during this time that many thought Mary Wilson should be the lead singer because of her powerful, beautiful voice, stature and personality but that wasn’t to be because it was in 1967 when Berry Gordy changed the name to Diana Ross and The Supremes after the two had a love affair from 1965 through 1970 and a daughter.
After hit after hit, the group broke up in 1970 when Diana said goodbye to the group in a concert in San Francisco. Mary Wilson held on to the group with a number of additional female singers. Mary embarked on a career singing her Supreme hits and many other covers that were written for her but sung by other artists.
I met Mary Wilson in 1996 when I was hosting an Oldies cruise on Norwegian Cruise Lines. On the show was Mary, Dion, Paul Revere, Sam Moore and others. I hosted 50 of our listeners at the time and my part was to host a listener party with the artists and host three shows in the big theatre on the ship.
The artists rotated opening up and the first night I hosted the show, I was doing my jokes, introduced the acts and Mary Wilson was the closing act. She came over to me before she went on and said that she thought I was a funny guy and got the crowd ready to enjoy themselves.
She then asked me if I’d like to have a cocktail when we finished up the show. I thought I was dreaming: Mary Wilson from The Supremes asking me to join her for a drink. I tried to contain my emotion. I introduced her on stage, and she gave me a warm hug and had a killer show with three standing ovations.
I came off stage after closing the show to a very happy audience and Mary says stay right there, I’m changing and we’ll go. We went to a quiet section of the ship and sat with a bartender who I reminded every 20 minutes (kiddingly) that this was Mary Wilson, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. Mary laughed the first two times and then I stopped.
Talking with Mary felt that we knew each other for years. She talked about, after I asked, some of the struggle as an all-Black woman’s group, the difference in pay and her accepting a lesser role in a group where some thought she should have been the lead.
We laughed about the music business and the fact that her songs were still so popular 30 years later and she talked about her struggle in getting legislation for the original members of music groups to retain the rights to the name of the group. There were too many “fake” groups out there using the name of the legendary acts that made the true hits. That was an amazing discussion.
We talked about divorce: She was recently divorced and laughingly ordered a double when the subject came up. We talked about comedians: life on the road, family and cooking. We talked until 2:30 a.m. in the morning, some three hours. We met again the third and final night of the shows for another two hours.
I found her strikingly beautiful inside and out. I loved her passion for music and doing the right thing. She was humbled and grateful for her success and my whole experience left me with a deeper fondness for her and the hard work that goes into becoming a true superstar.
Mary Wilson — Rest in Peace and thank you for allowing me the opportunity to enjoy your company.