ED GORDON, host:
It's more likely than not that you've had Mary Wilson in your CD collection for years. After all, she's one of the founding members of the Supremes. She stayed with the group until it finally disbanded in 1977. Since then, she's pursued a solo singing career, she's acted, and been a bestselling author.
We talked about many things, including Mary's recent heart surgery. She explained what happened.
Ms. MARY WILSON (Founding Member, The Supremes): They saw that I had three arteries that were clogged up. So I had the angioplasty where they blow up the balloon and put a stint in there and hopefully keep that open so that I won't have that problem again.
GORDON: Mary, one of the things we talked about right before we started the interview was the idea that this - once you had to slow down, really kind of threw you for a loop, because, you know, you're continuously working - we should note - even today.
Ms. WILSON: Yes, yes. In fact, I had to cancel quite a number of really important engagements. Now, I mean, I healed up so quickly, I'm ready to go back to work and I have no work. But I have so many other projects that I'm involved with.
In fact, the one that I'm really excited about is the Truth in Music, some legislation that we're trying to - we being a lot of the rock ‘n' roll celebrities from the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s - are trying to get passed in the federal courts, but right now we've had to go to each state.
There's so many phony groups who are taking over the names of famous groups. So…
GORDON: Yeah. Let's talk about that, Mary. The idea that what you have is impostor groups - impostor Supremes, impostor Drifters. This has been going on for years, though.
Ms. WILSON: Right. It has been, and, you know, one of the biggest jokes has been - and unfortunately, it's at the cost of some famous people - on any given night you can probably see a Drifter, a Coaster, a Platter group in different cities, states, countries. And they have no affiliation with the original recording members.
Now this bill that we've passed - actually, let me tell you. It's passed in Pennsylvania, Illinois, South Carolina, North Dakota, and now we have it pending in Michigan - which I'm very happy to say - and also Nevada. And we're working on California. So really are moving fast.
We wanted to make the public aware that they're being defrauded, and also that it's taken away the livelihood of some of the groups who are, you know, a lot older. I'm 62, and some of these people - I mean, I remember having my first date on some of the Coasters' records and things like that.
And, you know, for them to - in their twilight years - to have to see their legacies, the history that they've made being destroyed and just totally - people just taking their names.
GORDON: For those performers that are still working, like yourself, what this does is - to a great degree - undercut your ability to make money, because sometimes promoters are booking these, quote, imposter groups.
Ms. WILSON: Of course. I mean this - that's the main reason. We may say all these other reasons, but really, they are taking money out of our - you know, in fact, I spent millions trying to stop these people. So that money could've been going to my grandchildren. I have eight.
As we all know - especially those in Afro-American community - you know, we have not had fortunes and legacies to leave to our children. Well, I have. And a lot of the artists have. But yet, and still we have to give this money away to fight for our names. In the bill, the legislation says if you are not one of the recording members of the music, then you must say that you are a tribute to.
GORDON: So you don't have an issue with the music being performed by others as long as they're not passing themselves off as, quote, the originals.
Ms. WILSON: As long as they're not saying that they are. You can go online and there is a CD that's out - if you push in Supremes, this CD will come up. Well, it's our picture on the cover, but it's not us singing. All they have to say is it's a tribute to the Supremes, or girl groups like the Supremes.
You know, but don't use our images and our legacies and our history as your own as if we never existed. It was hard enough to make history in the ‘60s being black, and we did that. And for people to just use our history and our legacy as if it were theirs, it's just not right.
GORDON: As the years go on and the idea of the memory and the power and the history of the Supremes - it doesn't seem to weigh in, in many of the Motown acts. Could you ever have imagined that 30, 40 years later you'd still hear it? It would still be as strong as it is today?
Ms. WILSON: That's a very difficult question to answer, because I remember when Florence, Diana, and I were 13 years old and we started singing as the Primettes, you know, we did dare to dream at a time when it was almost an impossible dream for us to want to be stars.
To say that we thought it would last, you know, some 50 years later, no, I don't think that we ever thought about that, but we knew we were good. And we knew we were supposed to. So that's why it's even more important that we let people know the things that we accomplished.
But I also want to tell you that I graduated from NYU.
GORDON: You mean recently?
Ms. WILSON: In 2001, I got my associate's degree. I took time away from my traveling and went back to college and got my degree. And I'm…
GORDON: What made you want to do that, Mary?
Ms. WILSON: Well, I recall being 13 or 16 years old and signing our first contract, recording contract. Well, I didn't know what the heck was on that contract. That's why I went back to college, because I realized that there was so much that we, the Supremes, had given away because we didn't know how to read those contracts. I mean, we could read. We graduated from high school and all that. But the understanding was not there.
GORDON: What about getting back in the studio, Mary? Ever thought of that? I know that there was a time that you were looking at doing some stuff with Holland-Dozier-Holland again. Talk to me about getting back into the studio.
Ms. WILSON: Well, basically, I am with the Holland Group. Hopefully, I should be able to finish this recording within this month and it should be released. I've also just recorded - myself - a live jazz album or CD that I'm taking on the road these days. And I've been doing this for quite a while now, but I just decided to invest in myself and record it.
GORDON: Well, Mary, we're so glad to see you back up on your feet and salute you for going back to school and getting that degree, and most importantly, continuing the fight to keep the legacy of these groups not only out there but justly out there.
Ms. WILSON: Justly out there, thank you.
GORDON: So Mary Wilson, as always, wonderful to talk to you.
Ms. WILSON: Thank you.
GORDON: Mary Wilson is a founding member of the Supremes.
(Soundbite of music)
The SUPREMES (Musical Group): (Singing) …back where we used to be. I'll never walk away this time. I want you back in my life. I'll show you what love can do. Turn around, turn around. There's nothing that I can say. I'm hoping you can find a way. Oh, all you got to do is turn around, turn around. I had let you slip away too fast. If I could I would relive the past. I would never make the same mistake. I want you back again. I'm hoping these words reach you. I'll always be needing you. I'm hoping that you're still free to open your heart to me.
I'll never walk away this time. I want you back in my life. I'll show you what love can do. Turn around, turn around. There's nothing that I can say. I'm hoping you can find a way. Oh, all you got to do is turn around, turn around. Hey! Ooh, baby. Hey! Turn around. Hey! Won't you turn on around? Hey! Ooh, baby.
GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. And if you'd like to give us a comment, call 202-408-3330.
NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.
The SUPREMES: (Singing) Oh, baby. Won't you turn around? I'll never walk away this time. I want you back in my life. I'll show you what love can do…
GORDON: I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS AND NOTES.