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Mary Wilson – former Supreme, solo singer, diva and living legend – listens patiently as I sit and chirp away about race relations, identity politics and the impact of Motown on modern US politics. And then she tells me: ‘We were 13 years old. What we wanted was to make great music.’
‘In the early days, we just wanted to sing,’ explains the artist with the girl group whose honey-coated voices made history with records like ‘Baby Love’, ‘Love Child’ (a scandal in its day for dealing with the subject of illegitimacy) and ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’. ‘It wasn’t until later that we started to think about all the rest.’
‘All the rest’, however, was what made the Supremes such a phenomenon – their unique sound, the power of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s songwriting and the high glamour of the Motown diva machine providing a group of young, talented black women with a visibility and popularity unprecedented in pop history.
The longest-standing member of Motown’s super group was in Britain at the end of 2008 to promote The Story of the Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection, an exhibition of the Supremes’ outfits currently touring the country in conjunction with the Victoria and Albert Museum. The gowns trace the group’s rise from their roots in the Detroit housing projects in the 1950s, when school friends Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross formed the Primettes in discount-store dresses, to the elaborate one-off Hollywood creations from the height of their fame in the 1960s.
All of this – the glitz, and the fuss, and the memory of a hyperbolic glamour that resonates across five decades of social change – does it feel a little false, when the music was what started it all? After all, it wasn’t long before civil rights activists started declaring that Wilson, Ross, Ballard and other Motown artists were sell-outs, controlled by Barry Gordy and other music bosses who were making them cave in to white norms of dress, taste and femininity.
Wilson goes quiet for a moment. ‘No, we weren’t selling out,’ she says. ‘Definitely not, although I know there will always be people who are going to dislike it. Firstly, it was very creative – yes, we were young, but we weren’t controlled completely, we had our own styles and got to choose our own dresses. And then, you have to understand that when we first started out, what we were trying to achieve was so far-fetched. We had all dreamed of that sort of success but never imagined it would actually happen. For us, as young artists, as young women, as black women and as black human beings, it was something not expected of us.
‘When we started, playing in segregated clubs to black audiences, we didn’t know that in a few years’ time we would be playing to huge mixed audiences of white Americans and African Americans. Once the laws broke down and segregation broke down, the music brought people together. And, when it happened’ – she pauses, collecting her thoughts – ‘well, it’s important that, as human beings, we all do what we can. Nowadays you don’t see so many people marching for their rights, but back then it was so important, for blacks and for women, too, because people don’t like change. And I was there, too – we were all there,’ she says, recalling the thrilling energy of the civil rights protests of the 1960s. ‘But you can’t achieve everything by marching and demonstrating. Sometimes you have to play the game.’
Famously, Motown’s ‘Artist Development’ division gave its young black artists training in etiquette and personal grooming in order to maintain control over the sleek, polished Motown image. Wilson insists that, far from selling out to a white image of pop-stardom, ‘Artist Development was preparation for the kind of work we were doing. The personal grooming, the work ethic, all of that was just as important as the music, in some ways.’
She believes that education remains ‘the most important issue’ facing black America today, from a class perspective as well as a racial one. ‘Providing young people with the training they need for the work they choose to do, whatever it is – that was what Artist Development did for us, and it is still so important.’
So what does she think about the progression of the black music scene after Motown? Some have condemned elements of rap and hip-hop for glorifying violence and misogyny and reinforcing the negative stereotypes that Motown worked so hard to dispel – but not Wilson.
‘I think music, in general, always grows up,’ she says. ‘For us, the times were different. We sang about love and happiness back then because that was what the world wanted and was all about. Gangsta rap represents a different reality. I’m sure that the young people who were making such music were just that: young. Now they’re growing up and the message will change. When you’re young, you’re a little wilder and carefree – I know I was!’
‘Music has evolved and Motown was one of the models, one of the templates for that evolution,’ Wilson continues. ‘Rap and hip-hop are new sounds, but they are inspired by the sounds of the sixties, too. I think it’s true that the Motown sound and Supremes music did have an effect on not only black society, but on America and the world at large. I wouldn’t say I’m all that surprised that the music has lasted all these years and continuously inspired people, because we knew at the time we were on to something special, and looking back 50 years, what we felt then is still true now!’
Mary Wilson will be participating in the ‘Once in a Lifetime – Motown Legends Live Tour’ in June 2009, tickets now available online. The Story of The Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection is at the Grundy art gallery, Blackpool, until 1 February, then the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, from 21 February to 7 June and the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol from July to August 2009