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Come See About Her: The Supreme Gowns Of Miss Mary Wilson
In January, Supremes singer Mary Wilson will be exhibiting her collection of over over 30 of the glamorous performance gowns she wore during the glory days of Motown at the African American Museum in Philadelphia.
Designed by Hollywood designers in the 1960s, including Bob Mackie, Michael Travis and Pat Campano, the lavish gowns worn by the Supremes were a major expense for Motown, at times costing $2,000 each.
This exhibit marks the first time these gowns will be featured as a collection, and though the gowns will be the centerpiece of the exhibit, rare video footage, album covers, and music will also help put visitors in context to appreciate the artistic and social accomplishments of one of pop music’s most celebrated and iconic groups. In addition to featuring the Supremes’ 1960′s and 1970′s fashion, “Come See About Me” is a broader testimony to Ms. Wilson’s journey to self-actualization, with programs that help foster self-esteem in women and young girls, as well as encourage women’s empowerment.
On October 10th, Mary Wilson was hosted by PNC bank at 16th & Market, one of the sponsors of the event, to publicly announce the show. Introduced by contemporary rock and roll DJ and Philadelphia music history icon Jerry Blavat, Wilson spoke about the upcoming exhibit, her time with the Supremes, and even performed briefly for an exuberant audience. PNC Regional President Bill Mills Jr. noted during his remarks that, although he had met former United States Presidents, never had he been so nervous as he was to meet Mary Wilson. Both African American Museum CEO and President Romona Riscoe Benson and Mayor Michael Nutter were also plainly thrilled to be in the company of the singer. Nutter, in endearing comic form, was very warm toward Blavat as well, referring to him by his better known handles “Geator with the Heater, the Boss with the Hot Sauce.” The crowd cheered and applauded, as Nutter continued, “y’all think I don’t know this stuff!” Blavat shouted back from his seat, “you’re the only mayor, ever, that knows the real music!”
Following the event, Wilson sat down with two.one.five to reflect on this exhibit, her life in Detroit, her illustrious career with the Supremes, the vision of Tamla-Motown founder Berry Gordy, playing with the Funk Brothers, playing Philadelphia, and her soft spot for the late Marvin Gaye.
two.one.five magazine: Can you tell me a little bit about the dresses, how long had they been in your garage?
Mary Wilson: Well, you know, initially we stored all of our gowns in Motown, and then we all moved to Hollywood. That was 1969. So from 1969 they started being shipped around.
two.one.five: With you?
MW: Yeah! Many of them are here today, [but] they’re stored with the person who cares for them in Kansas.
two.one.five: Do you have a favorite?
MW: Everyone asks that! Not really, because I love them all..
two.one.five: But do you think of a specific time in the Supremes’ history when you think you look the best, a specific picture, or..
MW: Well, you know in the seventies… no, no, there were some when Diane was still in the group that are gorgeous, absolutely gorgeous… no! You know it’s like children. You can’t love one more than the other… [laughs]
two.one.five: How much influence did you have in the way you looked in the group with what dresses you got to wear, etc. I mean you were groomed extensively by Berry Gordy..
MW: No, we weren’t! I don’t know why people think that.. No we chose our own dresses.. We had chaperones until we were I think 25, and they would always assist us. But, the three of us always chose our gowns! I know everyone thinks that they put us together, they cleaned us up, made us these cute little dolls..
two.one.five: … I did the Motown tour, I remember they said that everyone got put through this finishing school!
MW: Yes, but not where it came to our gowns. And I know what you’re speaking of. We had this wonderful department at Motown called “Artist Development.” We had a choreographer — Cholly Atkins. We had Maxine Powell who was our mentor. She taught us about our image and she would say things like, “you girls will be singing before kings and queens,” you know, and “you’re just diamonds in the rough and we’re here to polish you.” She really groomed us in that way of self-worth. People say she was an etiquette teacher but she wasn’t, she was more of an inspirational kind of person. And then we had other classes where they taught us the harmonies and this and that, so each department had a specific job. So this is what people are referring to. But it’s like movie actors and actresses — they did the same thing. But we were not made over into this glamour thing. When we first auditioned for Motown, we went in there with little cheap pearls that we bought at Woolworth’s — I don’t know if you know Woolworth’s …
two.one.five: …the “five-and-dime”…
MW: …yeah, five-and-dime store! You know, so, even though they were cheap, we came there really sophisticated and they saw that we already had this image. And so they bought into it, and continued it. But it was pretty much our doing.
two.one.five: And how important was that for selection of artists with Berry Gordy? I mean, he was looking obviously for the singing and the playing talent, but was he looking for an actual physical image as well? Everybody was so good-looking there!
MW: I was gonna say, we came as whoever we were. And what I loved about Berry and Motown is that they accepted the groups, whoever they were. I think everyone had their look, and they had their own style. And when we made more money with the records then we got better clothes! But I’m very proud of the fact that, you know, people tend to think that when you’re Black and poor and live in the projects, you know, that everyone’s poor and [people] don’t try to look after their image. But people really dressed very well! And those from Detroit even today are good dressers. So we come from a long line of good dressers! [laughs]
two.one.five: In Motown, when you were starting out, I know that Berry Gordy was very conscious of the Black image in American mainstream households. He wouldn’t put Black faces on the households until Ed Sullivan…
MW: … no no no no, not having the photographs on album covers came from racism in America. I those days Blacks didn’t sell well at all! So, no photographs at all were put on there. So it all had to do with that, you know what I mean? It wasn’t just Motown, it was everybody across the board…
two.one.five magazine: Right, that’s what I’m saying — so, as singers putting out some of the best music at the time, the most popular music at the time, was there any resentment [for Motown] looking at other White artists…
MW: …well we always had our pictures on ours [laughs]! We got lucky!
two.one.five: Were you aware of other artists in Motown feeling that they should have had their photos on their records?
MW: You know, because everybody was pretty young, I don’t know if we were really aware that the pictures were supposed to be on the album covers, or that they weren’t. We were just really young, naive to the world as well. So you know, it was pretty early in Motown vision in terms of what should be, what shouldn’t be — they just went along with the trend and, you know, it was very obvious that if you had Blacks on a cover, some people wouldn’t buy it. Because, rock and roll hadn’t really gotten into the mainstream.
two.one.five: And was that something that bothered you — coming from Black American culture, making this great music that white people were buying — is that something that you were conscious of as you were making the music? Was it a conscious thing for performers at Motown that, maybe they wouldn’t buy it if they had really associated it with Black people?
MW: I don’t know that anybody was thinking about that. You know I really don’t know. And I know what you are asking. But let me put it to you like this — this was still the time when Black people were not accepted as full-fledged… human beings!
two.one.five: Before the Civil Rights Bill…
MW: Yeah, you know, and we were still fighting for our rights, to be able to vote, to do all these things! So at this time, all we were concerned with was singing, and making records! We weren’t thinking about all that other stuff, you know? And I’m really proud to say that the record business — the record industry — has always been the kind of industry that embraced Black AND White. But still the social situation was [not in favor of Blacks]. So, a company like Berry Gordy’s, which was one of the first Black-owned record companies, they were just concerned with making music. So whatever the laws were, of course, you go along with the law, because that’s what you did. Had it been in the South, maybe it would have been different, because they really had to adhere to the law, whereas up North — in Detroit, Chicago, places like that — you know, we were kind of like, Blacks who had come to the free state! So, as I said, I don’t believe that Motown and the people who were there were so concerned with all of that. They were just concerned with making good music.
two.one.five: Do you have a favorite memory from your time at Motown? I’m sure you have lots, but, do any stand out?
MW: Oh gosh, so many! Oh, sure! You know, one of the best things is that Berry Gordy always had Christmas parties,
and they’d always give gifts to all the artists. And it depended on where you were on the totem pole what you got! So in the earlier days we didn’t get much, you know [laughs]! The artists who were making money with the record sales, they would you know maybe get fur coats, a diamond watch, things like that! So the Christmas parties were always great, because they would give out the gifts, and allll of the artists would be there — we’re talking Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, the Miracles, the Temptations, Supremes, Marvelettes — you know, everyone’s there! And it was such a celebration, with all of us, you know, it was like a family reunion — or not a reunion, because we were still very young — but it was just a family group getting together, and we’d get these wonderful gifts! And I always remember [the parties], because even now many of us are just like extended families, you know, and so the Christmas parties were just so much fun. And then, you know, recording our first number one record, [and] seeing Marvin Gaye sitting over at the piano just kind of playing — he was just so sexy… and we’d all, all the girls would just surround him like, “ohh… he’s so cute!!” [laughs] So there’s lots of memories, you know? And then, working with the Funk Brothers — the guys who made all the music — that was also a lot of fun, because the guys were just crazy.. I mean those guys were so.. did you see the movie, [Standing In The Shadows Of Motown]? Oh, God. And, most of them now have passed, unfortunately. But they were a good group of guys. And we were recording right there, in the room! We were singing and the guys were playing, so it was like being at a party, you know, and the band was playing, and …
two.one.five: …they had them 24 hours, round-the-clock, someone was playing…
MW: Yeah! BUT, but, it wasn’t one band, you know, there were a whole lot of musicians, and so whoever was available, that’s who would do it.
two.one.five: Do you have a favorite memory growing up in Detroit?
MW: Oh yes. Many of them. Detroit was a great city. Was a great city! Detroit first of all had a great educational system. I mean we had great teachers. I was saying — I think it was yesterday, one of the interviews — the educational system had Shop for boys, and Home Economics for girls. You know, we had Drivers Ed. — it was just filled with educational things, and it was just all fun.
two.one.five: Who are your top five most influential artists for you?
MW: Well, you know, obviously Smokey Robinson. He was one of our first producers. So I have an affinity for him because he really was wonderful. Still IS, actually, in terms of creating music and lyrics. Holland-Dozier-Holland, who gave us all of our million-selling records, because they really taught us how to record, and things of that nature. Now in terms of artists out there — oh! There’s a lot of them. I did something here, a PSA for Doris Day, because she is celebrating her 90th birthday. And she probably was one of my favorite artists. I grew up to her music like [sings], “…que sera sera, whatever will be, will be…” She’s one of my favorites, actually. Always has been. Nancy Wilson, Nat King Cole — can’t forget Nat King Cole, in our household he was the king! So a lot of people like that. I’m really into jazz, and standard material.
two.one.five: Which jazz artists do you like?
MW: Shirley Horn, Tony Bennett, Nancy Wilson, Carmen McRae, Bill Williams — I mean just so many. In my household that was what was played. My dad had a huge 78 collection, and so I grew up listening to that.
two.one.five: Where’s that now, do you have that collection?
MW: No, I don’t have it. I wish..
two.one.five: Last question, do you have any favorite memories of performing in Philly, from the 60s, or 70s?
MW: Oh sure! At the Uptown Theater, with Georgie Woods! Oh yeah. We would come here, and there was a time when they would have a movie, and then in between the movies, the artists would perform. And I was on a show with Jackie Wilson, Dionne Warwick, all kinds of people! And Georgie Woods of course was the DJ there. And of course we did shows with the Geator [Jerry Blavat]! As he mentioned, some of the earlier radio shows we did were with him! Before we had hit records, we did his show, because we were really pushing to get, you know, a hit record, and so Berry would send us here!
Mary Wilson’s gown collection will be on display at the African American Museum in Philadelphia from January 25th to June 30th, 2013. For more information, visit www.aampmuseum.org or the link for the exhibit.