A lot of people think I’m home counting the beads on my old Supremes gowns,” says Mary Wilson, 42, “or looking at old gold records.”
Neither is the case, of course, though plenty of the latter line the walls of the modest ranch-style stucco home in Studio City, Calif. that Wilson now shares with her mother and three preteen children. Twenty-five years have passed since the Supremes—Wilson, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard—began an assault on the pop Top 10 that would bring them twelve No. 1 hits and turn them into the leading girl group of the ’60s. Ballard was bumped from the trio in 1967, Ross bolted for a solo career in 1970, and Wilson—after carrying on with replacement singers for several years—finally packed away the Supremes’ trademark sequin gowns in favor of a solo career of her own.
Lately, however, Wilson has been unpacking once again, sorting through her memories of those glory days as well as the diaries she had kept since her teenage years in Detroit. The result, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme (St. Martin’s, $16.95), is a book that Wilson hopes will set the record straight about the contribution each of the Supremes’ founding members made. Wilson was particularly stung, she admits, by Where Did Our Love Go?, a history of Motown Records by Nelson George published earlier this year. In it Wilson is described as “just there, like a piece of cotton.” Dreamgirl, she says firmly, “will prove that I’m not somebody who was ‘just there.’ ”
Sitting in the cross hairs of Wilson’s memoir is Diana Ross, her former childhood friend from their days together in Detroit’s Brewster Projects. Ross emerges as a pushy egocentric who borrowed boyfriends as casually as clothes and who later on relied far more on savvy than soul to advance her career. According to Wilson, Ross soaked up the spotlight like a light-starved plant, kept her own dressing room while Wilson and Ballard shared, and tried to dominate interviews once the press started coming around looking for stories. “Diane always liked to be the center of attraction,” says Wilson. “If you happened to be in her way while she was going toward the center, that was your fault.”
Thanks largely to her romance with Motown Records founder Berry Gordy, suggests Wilson, Ross became the Supremes’ lead singer, leaving Ballard and Wilson to sing little more than ooh-ooh-baby-baby background vocals. Then in 1967 Gordy changed the group’s name to “Diana Ross and the Supremes.” Ballard, long unhappy with her dwindling role and by now battling alcoholism, left the trio shortly after and died in poverty in 1976. Though the name change “was the worst thing that ever happened to us,” says Wilson, she and Ross never spoke of it, and when Ross left to start her solo career three years later, Wilson learned of it through the newspapers.
Ross has refused all comment on the book, just as she refused to be interviewed by Wilson during its writing. “At that point I honestly believe that Diane thought I may be capitalizing on her,” says Wilson. “She probably doesn’t know how I feel. She probably thinks I resent her success.” Wilson insists that Dreamgirl Wasn’t meant to be “a Diana Dearest book. I still love her,” she says, noting that Ross is the godmother of her daughter Turkessa, 11. As for the romance with Gordy, says the singer-turned-author, “Diane was 16 or 17 years old, and this man liked her, loved her. Heck, I probably wouldn’t have looked back either.”
Wilson is less sanguine about the Motown mogul, however. The Supremes’ original contract earned them about $5,000 apiece per million records sold, she notes, and through much of their career they were kept on a skimpy weekly allowance. She writes that, during her years at Motown, she never saw her tax return (“hard to believe, but…true”). When she tried to carry on the Supremes with fill-in singers after Ross’s departure, Motown tried to keep her from using the name. “Motown can do nothing with the name, but I can feed my children, take care of my mother,” says Wilson, who is still in litigation with the company over that issue as well as a question of unpaid royalties.
Though she has no recording contract these days, Wilson still tours as much as 10 months each year, often performing in Europe and the Far East. Divorced since 1981 from her Santo Domingo-born husband of seven years, she has recently begun dating Ademola Adefesho, a Nigerian who owns an L.A. boutique and does her makeup, hairstyling and wardrobe. Wilson’s beehive hairdos are long gone, like the skintight sequin dresses and the spike heels, but other trophies survive. At home, old photos and paintings of the trio hang in several rooms, and out front a ’59 Rolls sits parked in the driveway. It is a reminder of the Motown glory days, and, like Wilson, it seems to have quite a few miles left in it.