Mar 1, 2021
Mary Wilson, a founding member of the Supremes, died at the age of 76 this February. She was the child of working class parents who moved North during the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South. The family came out of Mississippi and settled first in Chicago. Wilson came to live in Detroit when she was three and famously met future members of the Supremes, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, growing up in the Brewster Projects. This was the first federally funded housing project for African Americans in U.S. history.
A teenager, Wilson auditioned for Motown in 1961 and the rest is history. Referring to the rigorous, disciplined routines of Berry Gordy’s Motown, Trevor Noah comments that going to Motown was like going to army bootcamp. In fact, Berry Gordy was influenced by the auto assembly line concept and referred to Motown as his “hit factory concept, Hitsville, USA.”
In his tribute to Mary Wilson, Noah comments that the sound of the Supremes changed the face of female singing groups in the U.S. These three young women becoming famous, appearing repeatedly on programs like Ed Sullivan, gave hope to all poor young women in U.S. neighborhoods and ghettos.
In a 2008 interview with British V&A (Victoria & Albert Museum in London) with host Stuart Cosgrove, Wilson gave a sense of what it was like becoming famous in the early 1960s. This was the era of the Civil Rights struggles, the Viet Nam war and its increasing protests, and a growing awakening about the repressive attitudes and misogyny of the 1950s’ period.
Wilson tells a story about being chaperoned on a bus trip to the segregated South, and arriving hot and tired at a hotel with a pool where whites were swimming. She said they dove in to cool off and the whites climbed out of the pool. And then returned, when they realized that this was the famous Motown Review full of glamorous stars!
She also tells the story of Florence Ballard’s troubles after being raped as a teenager and the lifetime effects that destroy women’s lives.
The Supremes at their origin were considered a young “girl group.” It was one of the hundreds that were being promoted across the U.S. on radio, and finally on TV. From country to doo-wop to pop, music was traditionally promoted according to social categories and divisions. The “girl groups” popular among major sections of the white population sang close harmony, as did earlier black groups. But the Supremes, under the deliberate management of Berry Gordy and Motown, crashed through social barriers to make Motown-sound “crossover” music. It brought the sound of rhythm and blues combined with pop to the forefront of the U.S. music scene. It was a sound that held its own against the “British invasion” of the Beatles, as evidenced by the Supremes’ twelve Number One hit singles at the top of pop charts.
Mikael Wood of the Los Angeles Times commented on the glamorous and sophisticated sound and look of the Supremes, writing that it “challenged white listeners’ ideas about Black music, blurring cultural lines in a way that softened the ground for long-awaited political change.”
The lyrics of these songs, mostly written by Holland/Dosier/Holland for Motown, reflect the constant preoccupation of young women and girls to be accepted and supported by men, as much as they reflect love and sexual attraction. Dependence on men, then, as increasingly now, is an economic reality for most women. The music of the Supremes expressed it with honesty and emotion. Aren’t lines like, “No matter what you do or say, I’m gonna love you anyway,” familiar enough even today?
Every generation has its music. This music became more overtly political with songs like “Love Child,” which reflects the social bias against unmarried mothers, and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” in protest of the Vietnam War. But the early music, and singers like Mary Wilson, will remain appreciated by women long after their deaths, for giving us all the determination necessary to get through another day, and the comfort of knowing that, someday, things are going to get easier.