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Valley Weekend : MUSIC : Supreme Inspiration : Mary Wilson will transport fans back to halcyon days when she opens with hit songs at the 'Legends of Motown' revue at Universal Amphitheatre.

August 24, 1995|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

You remember Mary Wilson. She was the one in back. While the Supremes filled the 1960s with a medley of hit songs, she peered over Diana Ross' shoulder, cooing "oohs" and "baby baby."

All of which paved the way for steady if less-celebrated work once the group disbanded. For the past two decades, this lesser Supreme has played clubs, corporate functions and state fairs.

But before you cast judgment on the relative merits of this career, consider: The woman loves to sing, whether it's for an audience of 3,000 or 300.

"When you find, early in life, a job that is perfect for you, well, why change?" Wilson asks. "I found my niche. This is what I want to do the rest of my life."

And tonight and Friday she will do it at Universal Amphitheatre as opening act for the Four Tops, the Temptations and the Spinners in a "Legends of Motown" revue that is touring the nation. The size of this particular venue and the expected crowd hark back to halcyon days with the Supremes.

"I'm a little concerned," she says. "A lot of people haven't really seen me perform solo. I hope it goes well."

The transition will be smoothed by a set that includes numerous Supremes' hits, including "Stop! In the Name of Love," "Love Child" and "Reflections."

Nostalgia, it seems, is in the air these days and music fans seem anxious to look back. The "Legends" tour drew almost 5,000 people to a stop in Cincinnati on June 28.

"The crowd danced and sang along," noted a review in the Cincinnati Enquirer. Wilson's rendition of various Supremes' hits were, the article noted, "generally stronger and funkier than Diana Ross' originals."

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The songs "make me feel like a kid again," Wilson says. After all, she began singing with Ross and Florence Ballard when the three of them lived in Detroit's Brewster housing project. They signed with Berry Gordy's fledgling Motown label in 1961, directly after graduating from high school.

Their first hit, "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes," reached No. 23 on the pop charts in 1963. The following year--teamed with legendary producers Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier--they recorded "Where Did Our Love Go," a No. 1 hit that launched a string of gold records, sold-out performances and television appearances.

These three women epitomized the Motown sound--clean vocals and melodic hooks aimed at luring both white and black teen-agers. In only a few years' time, the Supremes scored a dozen No. 1 hits and established themselves as the most commercially successful female group of the 1960s, according to the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll.

The good times did not last long, though. Ballard bridled at her secondary role and quit in 1967. Ross left two years later, embarking on a solo career just as the group's single, "Someday We'll Be Together," shot up the charts.

Undaunted, Wilson kept the Supremes alive. With Jean Terrell singing lead, the group chalked up a half a dozen more hits including a 1970 cover of "River Deep-Mountain High," recorded with the Four Tops.

But eventually Terrell departed, leaving Wilson to tour with two backup singers, billing themselves as "Mary Wilson and the Supremes." In 1980, Motown secured a federal court order that forced her to change to "Mary Wilson of the Supremes."

So it was that life after the Supremes brought varied fortunes to the three original members.

While Ross' star continued to shine, Ballard unsuccessfully sued Motown, alleging she had been forced from the group. She died in 1976, having gone on welfare to support her children.

Wilson, meanwhile, was left somewhere in between.

"We made millions of dollars and sold millions of records, and we'd get our little allowance," she told The Times in 1986. "But when the Supremes disbanded, I only had about $100,000 in the bank tax-free."

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So she took to the road, appearing mostly in Europe, the Far East and the Middle East. A 1988 single, "One Night With You," drew a positive review from Billboard: "It appears that the other ex-Supreme has created a bona fide pop radio hit with this dramatic power ballad. Wilson delivers a stirring performance."

And the sour taste left from the Supremes' split provided grist for not one but two "tell-all" books by Wilson.

The first, "Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme," was less than flattering to Ross, detailing the group's contentious lineup changes and its less-than-hidden arguments and on-stage shoving incidents.

A sequel, "Supreme Faith: Someday We'll Be Together," focused on the years that followed the breakup, specifically her solo career and a triumph over an abusive marriage.

"I think a lot of people believed I would never write the book because Mary Wilson has always been the sort of sweet girl in the Supremes who went along with everything," she said at the time. "My image is like a shadow."

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