“Being a little black girl growing up in Detroit, Michigan, when segregation was still the thing of the land, I think that what I recall most of my career is that it was one of those things where we dared to dream and we made our dreams come true,” singer Mary Wilson of the Supremes said on Tuesday morning.
Wilson was in town to appear at the Summit on Race in America hosted by the LBJ Library. The event dovetailed with the opening of the museum’s new exhibit, “Motown: The Sound of Young America,” a 60-year retrospective that is on display through January 2020.
The exhibit, curated by the Grammy Museum, traces the rise of the legendary record label and explores its lasting impact on modern American music and culture. It includes an abundance of albums, concert programs, photographs and other memorabilia. There’s a keyboard and harmonica played by Stevie Wonder and fabulous stage costumes worn by the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Jackson 5, the Supremes and more. A series of video interviews with Motown artists like Wilson, Smokey Robinson and Duke Fakir alongside modern performers like John Legend contextualize the label’s development and enduring influence.
In the early years, the Supremes were one of Motown’s flagship acts. “There were many girl groups out during that time, but we really were one of the ones who helped break through,” Wilson said.
At the time, Billboard magazine tracked African American releases on the Rhythm and Blues Records Charts (before 1949, it was called the Race Records Charts). Under mastermind Berry Gordy’s guidance, Motown artists began to cross over onto the Pop Charts. In 1964, the Supremes became the first girl group to log five consecutive No. 1 hits on the Pop Charts. They were the first girl group to repeatedly sell a million records, earning almost a dozen gold records.
The Supremes were the glamour girls of their era, and two sets of their amply bejeweled stage gowns are the most stunning costume pieces in the exhibit. Wilson says the impact of their achievements was “probably magnified because black wasn’t beautiful yet.”
She was raised in the Detroit housing projects where, as a teenager, she formed a singing group with friends Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Barbara Martin (who quit before the group signed to Motown). Her parents had no illusions about the cruelty of the world at large but dreamed of a better future for their children. They emphasized the importance of manners and decorum, knowing their children would endure more scrutiny than their white counterparts.
“I grew up with a mom, a dad who could not read or write,” she said. “For them, it wasn’t a very wonderful world, because they had to work hard, but they were looked down (on) as human beings. So when we, the Supremes, made it big, I felt that we had totally achieved not only our dreams but our parents' dreams.”
It gave young girls something to look up to “for once in the life of black community,” she says.
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Mary Wilson of the Supremes sang to us backstage at the @lbjlibrarynow’s Summit on Race in America! The museum’s Motown exhibit opens on Saturday. #marywilson #supremes #motown #soul #austin #texas
At a panel at the summit, Wilson, Duke Fakir of the Four Tops and Claudette Robinson of the Miracles all lauded Gordy as a visionary who created a rich environment for young artists to grow and develop. He transformed impossible dreams into reality.
Gordy was a self-made man who built his company from the ground up. In the early days, before he owned his own studio, Hitsville, USA, Robinson said Gordy pawned his suits to pay for his recording projects. “He was not a rich man,” she said. “Sometimes it took all day long to record two tracks. Even one mistake was one too many. We didn’t have Auto-Tune. We knew you had to sing on key and harmonize and have a blend. If you didn’t have that, you had to sing again.”
As he established his company and moved into his own space, Gordy created an environment to nurture his young artists. In addition to writers, musicians and choreographers, he hired an etiquette coach. At the dawn of the civil rights era, Gordy and his artists recognized the power of music as a “great unifying force,” Wilson said. They weren’t just representing Motown; “You were also representing the black race,” she said.
As the label began to score hits on the mainstream pop charts, it “softened the blow of the civil rights movement” for white folks, Fakir said. “As Martin Luther King was slowly marching down the street, our music was seeping out of their houses,” he said.
The groups toured extensively in the South during the civil rights era. They endured discrimination and abuse, but they also witnessed the power of music to change people. Wilson recalled a hotel stop on a Motown revue tour in the ‘60s. The musicians had been on a bus for days, and they were exhausted. When they saw the hotel had a pool, they all grabbed their suits, ran down and jumped in. The white kids who had been hanging out in the pool immediately jumped out. But Stevie Wonder, who was part of their entourage, had a song on the radio at the time, and as the white kids recognized him, they reevaluated their decision. Soon the white kids and black kids were in the pool together.
“Music is sort of like an ambassador,” Wilson said. “We’re in a business where we make people smile.”
Though there’s been a surge of divisive rhetoric around race over the last few years, Wilson feels like our country has come a long way, she said.
“Coming from the black community, you know, our great-grandparents and our grandparents were slaves. So now, yes, it’s 2020 almost, all people are not still free, but yet, still, we are free in many ways that our parents didn’t have an opportunity to be,” she said.
She understands that people might be frustrated by the pace of progress, but "things really don’t happen overnight," she said. "We tend to think that they should, and they really should, but they still don’t. So now that people are stepping forward, I think that’s going to come faster. Because things are moving faster now than they ever moved before."
She’s inspired by the way women are using the Me Too movement to voice their trauma and begin to heal. In her 1986 memoir, “Dreamgirl,” Wilson wrote about how her friend and bandmate Florence Ballard was raped by an acquaintance after a sock hop, derailing her dreams as they were beginning to take off.
“It brings tears to my eyes whenever Florence’s name is mentioned,” she said Tuesday. “She was 14 years old, and she was virgin, and so people were ashamed to say anything about it. So Florence had to suffer in private with that, and so it was very, very hard.”
Ballard became withdrawn, a shell of herself. She tried to quit the band, but Wilson and Ross convinced her to stay. She returned, but she never fully recovered.
“Diane and I really felt that once we became famous she would be able to get over it,” Wilson said. “Like everyone else says, ‘Once you’re rich and you’re famous, you’re happy,’ and that’s not true. It bubbles under there, and for Florence, she suffered in silence, as I said, but also, the money didn’t help.”
Things weren’t always rosy for the Supremes. Their recording contract was “really awful,” Wilson noted during the summit. Sometimes songs that seemed like surefire hits failed to chart, and even after the Supremes were selling millions of records, Motown tightly controlled their finances. There was a power struggle in the band as Diana Ross set her sights on a solo career.
“Anything that went bad would doubly affect her,” Wilson said. Ballard began drinking heavily, and in 1967 she was asked to leave the group. She died less than nine years later when she was 32.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, she’s an alcoholic,' or, 'He’s a drug addict,’ but they don’t understand the pain that makes people do that. They do that to kind of hide the pain, or to live, to survive,” she said.
“So the (Me Too) movement for me is something that I’m very, very proud about because I know it helps people, and I know that it could have helped my friend Flo.”
Wilson is optimistic about the future. She believes the next generation will move us forward.
“Before, the laws prohibited certain things to happen, but now we’re changing those laws, and women are out there trying to change those laws,” she said. “You know, there was a time when (we said), ‘Behind every great man, there was a great woman.’ Well now, the slogan is alongside or sometimes even in front. We’re running for president.”
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