ary Wilson is back in Detroit, and not for long. But she wants to come back home more often.
Wilson’s name is of course synonymous with Motown (and, by default, Detroit as a whole), having founded The Supremes and being the only member to stick with the group until the very end. She has worked solo in the decades since, which brings her back to Detroit for a three-day engagement at the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
It’s almost full circle for Wilson, who is performing with the orchestra for the first time. As Motown found immeasurable success in the 1960s, producers began calling on DSO musicians to enrich the label’s sound, playing on some of the label’s biggest hits — including, quite coincidentally as Wilson notes, The Supremes’ “I Hear a Symphony.”
BLAC: How often do you get back to Detroit?
Wilson: I get back at least three times a year, but I’d love to work here more often. I have a lot of friends and family still here…but you know, I lost my cell phone at the airport, and my laptop has been on the brink. If I come here and don’t call them, they’re going to say “Girl, why didn’t you call?” [Laughs.]
BLAC: Have you noticed any of the big changes going on in Detroit lately?
Wilson: Of course! When I was growing up, Detroit had a great community, but when Motown left to go to California, it was right after the riots. It was quite devastating to be here during that time. And it was heartbreaking to see how this city has been doing. But now things are changing. You see it all the time.
BLAC: You grew up in the Brewster Projects. Have you noticed it was demolished?
Wilson: Yes. I had a great childhood, you know. I went to Northeastern High School, Flo [Florence Ballard] and I were going to Bishop Elementary, and that’s where we met and started the Primettes. Some of my greatest memories are in Brewster. I even have a brick — I came just in time to take a brick, and when I took it with me back to the airport, the guy at TSA said “you can’t bring that through security,” and I said, “Hey this is part of the Brewster Projects,” and he said, “I don’t care where that’s from,” so I had to check it separately. [Laughs.]
BLAC: Tell me more about your gig at the DSO.
Wilson: I was thrilled when they called me. To get a gig with the DSO is really special. When Motown was getting bigger and bigger, Holland-Dozier-Holland and the other producers started using the symphony.
I’ll probably do six, seven or eight Supremes songs, and then do some ballads and standard material. I’m a different kind of singer than what I’ve done with The Supremes. My style is ballads…the American Songbook. I’m not really a pop singer, I’m more of a jazz singer.
BLAC: Speaking of Holland-Dozier-Holland, I have to say one of my favorite Supremes albums is the “High Energy” album (the last Supremes album with H-D-H production). I especially like the clip of you, Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene singing “You’re What’s Missing in My Life” on “American Bandstand.”
Wilson: That’s one of my favorite albums. H-D-H came back and really gave us some great recordings. We just weren’t getting the radio play, unfortunately.
BLAC: Are you familiar with the efforts to preserve United Sound Systems, and the talk of it being torn down if I-94 is widened? Did The Supremes ever record there?
Wilson: I can’t remember…I don’t remember the names of places, we were all over the place. But that’s kind of a shame if it happens.
BLAC: One of Motown’s greatest albums, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” was recorded there…
Wilson: Marvin Gaye and “What’s Going On” is one of my favorites. That should be in the country’s greatest songs. One of our songs, "Where Did Our Love Go," just made it in recently — the Library of Congress.
BLAC: What else are you working on these days?
Wilson: I have a CD coming up, and I’ve released two songs: “Life’s Been Good to Me” and “Johnnie Mae,” a tribute to my mother. Hopefully it will be out in a month or so — some were recorded right here in Detroit. I’m also working on a coffee-table book; this one will be about the Supremes’ gowns.
BLAC: I’ve heard that you’re the keeper of all the gowns, is that right?
Wilson: There are gowns that are missing that we don’t know about. I’ve even bought some of them off eBay, and I don’t know where they got them from. But I have the majority of the gowns; once everyone left, I ended up with all the gowns. Some of the ones that were stored at Motown were never given back to me. But some are stored at the Grammy Museum, some are at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and some are at the Detroit Historical Museum.
BLAC: I have to ask, since you’re staying in Greektown — are you hitting the slot machines while you’re here?
Wilson: No! [Laughs.] I live in Las Vegas, but you know, it doesn’t do much for me.
Mary Wilson’s performances will take place on Fri., Apr. 8 at 10:45 a.m., Sat., Apr. 9 at 8 p.m., and Sun., Apr. 10 at 3 p.m. in Orchestra Hall. Conductor Jeffrey Reid, Music Director of the acclaimed Orchestra Kentucky, will hold the baton. For more information, visit www.dso.org.