Sunday, March 21, 2021

Vintage Articles:
Exclusive Supremes Interview -
by Christopher Stone // The Advocate -
August 13, 1975

It has been over a month since the sudden passing of original Supreme Mary Wilson at age of 76, just weeks before her 77th birthday. Unfortunately we’re at that time when many of the musicians I’ve either written about or have been part of the music on this blog are passing away, that’s besides the pandemic we are in right now, when so many are dealing with death and loss.

Mary’s passing prompted me to go into my archives where I found some old issues of The Advocate that I had scanned several years ago. Still the American LGBT publication of record, their August 1975 Discos! issue is where I found this particular article - an exclusive interview with The Supremes by frequent Advocate entertainment contributor and editor Christopher Stone, who is still active today as an author in gay fiction and non-fiction.

I’ve covered The Supremes here on the blog several times in the past, so it’s no surprise that I have a soft spot for the last two Supremes lineups. While those groupings had less pop success than previous incarnations, they had some of their greatest showings in the discos, which certainly further solidified their loyal gay following, a fact that’s well-highlighted in this particular article. Their current single at the time “He’s My Man” was perfectly primed for disco action and marked something of a comeback for the group after a near 2 year gap between releases.

The interview generously touches on the strong gay following they have, namely the fondness drag performers had for them. While here Mary laments that they had yet to go to a gay venue to see any of the drag tributes to them, interestingly a few years ago, a defunct local publication here in Toronto where I live had a regular Then & Now column written by DJ and writer Denise Benson, documenting memories of bygone local clubs and discos. Her columns have since been compiled into a book, but I recall one particular column on a club called David’s which featured a memory of this particular lineup of Supremes making a surprise appearance there to judge a drag competition, probably not long after this interview had been conducted.

By this time the group consisted of Mary Wilson as the sole remaining original member, plus the return of Cindy Birdsong and the new addition of Scherrie Payne as their primary lead vocalist. Though Payne doesn’t have a great deal of quotes in this interview, Mary and Cindy’s comments here more than hint at their internal struggles with Motown and the uphill battle before them trying to re-establish The Supremes as a musical presence.

Though The Supremes would only last a couple more years as an active entity, Mary’s battle for recognition was really only just beginning. It would be the better part of a decade before her first book, Dreamgirl - My Life As A Supreme would come out and help turn the tide against the official line at the time which seemed to marginalize The Supremes as little more than Diana Ross’ launching pad, with Wilson and the late Florence Ballard as mere musical footnotes.

Together with the social discussions that have been rippling through society lately, the #metoo movement among them, has me thinking about what it means to be a woman, a black woman, in an industry that has often denied one's agency on both grounds. While I am neither, so many of the artists that I love are. That being said, even I have to admit that I have at times been guilty of that casual sexism that often exists in musical coverage, where often so much emphasis and credibility is placed on the (usually male) producer as the creative driver that the agency and artistry of the woman (usually the vocalist) goes underrepresented and unacknowledged even on work that bears their name.

Certainly when we talk about agency, Mary’s legacy is a testament to it. While much has been written about Diana Ross’ legendary ambition and tenacity, she certainly wasn’t the only Supreme with grit and determination. As someone who sustained a long performing career herself, Mary Wilson had to fight an uphill battle for agency nearly every step of the way. After spending years on the wrong side of Motown politics, battling the label throughout much of the 1970s and 80s (well documented in her second book and subsequent updates), she had emerged in the last decades of her life not only a seasoned performer, but an astute operator in the politics of the music industry and a tireless ambassador for the Motown legacy. To the point where her efforts helped change laws in Washington, she also ended up cultivating a working relationship with Motown's parent company, Universal Music, having been a part of practically every Supremes release and re-issue in the past 20 some years. It was perhaps a much more generative relationship than the one she had with the old Motown label when this article was written.

To paraphrase what the lady herself said in a 2017 interview; unlike some of her contemporaries, she had a chance to fight back and show the world what she was made of.

Rest in Peace and Power Ms. Mary Wilson.


Exclusive Supremes Interview
By Christopher Stone

He’s My Man” is rapidly becoming a disco monster.

D.J.’s report The Supremes as one of their most requested albums.

THE SUPREMES ARE BACK! proclaims Motown’s billboard on the Sunset Strip.

After a two-year hiatus from recording, the most popular female group in the history of the record industry is back - and the ADVOCATE’s got ‘em!

Motown’s Supremes Biography: “…those [stars] who qualify as institutions by virtue of their extraordinary achievements are few and far between. Narrow that down to female ensembles and Motown’s fabulous Supremes are virtually without peer.”

Mary Wilson: We didn’t even have a contract with Motown for about a year and a half. They had no enthusiasm for us. We had to go in there fighting. For a minute we had to forget we were entertainers and go on a campaign, which was really degrading.

The public never let us down. Our fans have been loyal up to now. But Motown did let us down at the times we needed them most - after Diana left and after Jean left.

Motown’s Supremes Biography: “They were the first exponents of the now world-renowned Motown Sound to reap the rewards of popularity on a massive scale… “It is estimated that the Supremes have sold in excess of 50 million records, which is a conservative estimate…”

Cindy Birdsong: It has been said in print many times, even before I joined the group: The Supremes made Motown and Motown made the Supremes. To see them retreat that way was very discouraging.

Motown’s Supremes Biography: “Unlike most other groups, the Supremes have been able to undergo personnel changes without being adversely affected…”

Scherrie Payne: I may have joined the group at a time when things were looking down but I’ve always been crazy about the Supremes, because I grew up along with them as they were growing.

Many of us did.

Diana, Mary & Flo - Diana, Mary & Cindy - Mary, Cindy & Jean - Mary, Jean & Lynda - Mary, Cindy & Scherrie.

Where Did Our Love Go?,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back In My Arms Again”: the trio’s five number-one-hits-in-a-row during the mid-’60s is a feat yet to be matched.

They introduced an elegant, sparkling, sophisticated look to pop music and, with poise, polish and gobs of glamour, opened the nightclub circuit to rock & soul artists. Their fame was international. They were impersonated everywhere-in the rock musical Hair; in the local drag ensemble in Pueblo, Colorado.

When, in 1970, Diana Ross opted for solo stardom, the public asked, “Is this the end of the Supremes?”

Mary, Cindy and new lead thrush Jean Terrell answered the skeptics with chartbusters such as “Up The Ladder to the Roof,” “Everybody’s Got the Right to Love,” “Stoned Love,” “Nathan Jones,” “Floy Joy,” “River Deep-Mountain High,” “Automatically Sunshine,” and “Bad Weather,” which is still a discotheque favourite.

Then, in ’72, Cindy traded sequinned dresses for a bridal gown and subsequently, maternity smocks. Her replacement, Lynda Laurence, had barely learned her oohs and aahs when she left to become a Mrs. Then Jean Terrell hung up her wigs and went home for reasons still unknown to Supreme Mary.

After 18 months, domesticity paled on Cindy and she returned. Scherrie, Freda’s younger sister, was drafted to round out the trio. But they had no songs to release, no material to record, and no contract with Motown.

Mary: Because of the many changes in the group, Motown was unsure. They didn’t want to put any money behind us, All of a sudden the good writers were taken away from us, and we got no more material. We were just shoved aside.

Cindy: Even though you have been in the business for 15 years, like we have, it’s always a thrill to hear a new record played on the radio. When you hear nothing at all except your old records, knowing there isn’t a new one to be played, it’s a horrible feeling.

It seemed endless, these last two years without a recording. So now it’s such a pleasure to hear our new album being played.

Scherrie: I understand we’re supposed to go into the studio the end of this month to start on some new things for the next album.

As spokesperson for the group, Mary did most of the fighting and negotiating that resulted in a contract, a new album and a fresh club act.

Mary: I made them contribute. Now Motown is doing a lot, It’s not as much as they did in the past. It’s not as much as we’d like them to do. But they are doing what they think is a lot. I think there is still a lot of skepticism there. We want more. The only way we’ll get more is if we become popular again. Then we’ll get everything we want.

Their new album, The Supremes, will hopefully regain popularity for the women as recording artists. One of the LP’s selections,”He’s My Man,” is already a disco success.

It was the danceability of the group’s early records that helped skyrocket them to success. During the ‘60s most every other song played on juke boxes in gay bars was by the Supremes. And almost every show bar featured three guys in sequinned gowns and coiffed wigs pantomiming Supremes hits and duplicating their gestures.

Mary: We have always been very, very popular with the gay community in all areas. I don’t know why they love us or identify with us. I’m just happy about it.

Cindy: They send us pictures and some of them actually favor us. There are a few that really favour Diana. You know - the same eyes.

Mary: Why we have never gotten around to a gay bar to see one of these groups, I don’t know.

Cindy: They sometimes come backstage wearing jeweled gowns. From a distance you might actually think they were the Supremes. You know the wigs we used to wear? Their wigs would be almost identical. Their gowns would be something similar to something we had worn in the past.

Little was heard from the Supremes last year, but an ex-group member was making news. Florence Ballard, who was heard on over 20 of the trio’s hit records, was discovered living on welfare with her mother in a ghetto neighborhood.

Motown’s Supremes Biography: “In ’67 Cindy Birdsong stepped in to replace Florence Ballard, who had grown weary of the hectic pace of show business, preferring marriage and family.”

Rumors have persisted that Flo did not prefer to leave, but was forced into retirement.

Cindy frankly discussed the woman she had replaced: Florence was my favorite before I joined the group, because she was so outgoing and she welcomed strangers openly. I never thought I would be taking her place. When I met the Supremes, I was a member of Patti Labelle & the Bluebelles. Girl groups didn’t get along too well. Ignoring that, I became friends with the Supremes. I like their group - their style. Of course, I always loved our group. I thought we were better than them.

I knew the Supremes were having a lot of problems. The way Florence left was … rather … bluntly. It seemed that they just scooped her out of there so fast. She was on stage one night and I was on stage the next. She didn’t have any idea that she wasn’t going to be on that stage the night I replaced her.

I guess a lot of people point the finger at me. I came in there so fast. I was on stage within a day and a half after I joined the group. Of course, I was so wrapped up in what was happening to me that I didn’t really consider Florence. But I felt funny about it because I found out a little of what was really going on just before I went on stage.

And how do they feel about that other ex-Supreme - the one they performed several paces behind when they were re-dubbed Diana Ross & The Supremes?

Cindy: All those rumours about fights are completely untrue. I think our relationship with her is better then when she was singing with us - when we were singing with her.

Mary: We’re probably better friends now than we’ve ever been. That’s not saying that we see each other every day. But I think we’ve both grown up a lot. I see her… maybe once every time I’m home.

Cindy: Our paths cross so infrequently because she is busy with a movie career.

Mary: I thought she did a fantastic job in Lady Sings The Blues.

Cindy: She should have gotten the Oscar, I thought.

The Supremes are not preoccupied with the past. They’d much rather talk about the 50 million records they hope to sell rather than the 50 million-plus already sold. They have emerged from a crucial, grueling two years confident, rested and real.

Cindy: Everything has gotten very casual and relaxed. You see how we come dressed for an interview (she tugs on her T-shirt). When I first joined the group we would have walked in here decked out like we were going to church on Sunday - almost with gloves and hats on. Our lashes would not be missing.

Mary: With the responsibility of getting things back in order, we have not had as much of the fun or excitement as before.

Cindy: Scherrie asked, “Where are all the guys you told me I was going to meet?”

Mary: And all the glamorous parties …

Cindy: Scherrie’s the only single one now.

Mary: Don’t worry, Scherrie. It’ll all come in time.

Hit records, television, Vegas. “It’ll all come in time” seems to sum up the feelings of these optimistic voices.

Mary: For the mass public, we have not been around. For us, we’ve never stopped. Sometimes I get very upset when people say “Well, the Supremes are dead.” DEAD HOW? We work just as much as we’ve ever worked. In fact, we’re trying to cut down some of our work because we each have families and other things we want to do.

We’ve been popular among our fans. It’s the mass public, the people all over the world that you have to reach through television and records, that we have not been popular with. But that’s because we have not been involved in those mediums for two years. We’ve got to saturate those two markets again.

They say the other groups, the Three Degrees, Labelle, are beating us. I think they still have a long way to go before they can catch up with us.

As far as I’m concerned, the Supremes have never died, honey … I want everyone to know that

disco delivery #51: the supremes - high energy (1976, motown) (saturday january 26, 2008)
the supremes - mary, scherrie & susaye (reprise) (thursday march 8, 2007)
disco delivery #1: the supremes - mary, scherrie & susaye (1976, motown) (tuesday january 10, 2006)

the guardian - mary wilson: the supremes' tenacious star who refused to accept defeat (by alexis petridis) (tuesday february 9, 2021)
new york times - mary wilson, co-founder of the supremes, dies at 76 (by derrick bryson taylor) (february 9, 2021)
rolling stone - lamont dozier remembers mary wilson: ‘she was the glue that kept the supremes together’ (by elias leight) (february 9, 2021)
rolling stone: mary wilson's tireless music business advocacy (by ethan millman) (february 12, 2021) - motown spotlight february 2021 - mary wilson (by sharon davis)
eur web - mary wilson: reflections of a supreme journey! (by scherrie payne) (february 14, 2021)
the irish post - tribute to a musical legend: remembering mary wilson of the supremes (by michael j. mcdonagh) (march 3, 2021)

wikipedia: the supremes (1975 album)
discogs: the supremes - s/t lp
the funk & soul revue - rare cut: the supremes - he's my man (by george haffenden) (october 28, 2017)
christopher stone - author


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