Former Supreme Mary Wilson's solo album set for Friday digital release
2021 was going to be Mary Wilson’s year. It’s the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Supremes to Motown (Jan. 21, 1961) — and as a founding member, Wilson was eager and willing as always to promote the Supremes all year.
But the glamorous 76-year-old was also bubbling over with excitement that her ill-fated 1979 solo album Mary Wilson would be rereleased by Universal Music Enterprises in an expanded edition, augmented by new and never-released recordings.
“At last! At last!” Wilson enthused on a YouTube video uploaded Feb. 6 to her channel. Included in the expanded album would be four songs produced by Gus Dudgeon (Elton John, David Bowie), as well as new material.
“Thank you, Universal, for chiming in with me and helping this come true,” Wilson said excitedly, speaking from her Las Vegas living room. “Hopefully this will come out on my birthday, March 6. Yeah!”
Sadly, two days later, Wilson died peacefully in her sleep, of hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. It was a shock to friends and family, as her energy never seemed to flag.
“She always took care of everyone, and at 76, she had more energy than my children do,” said Wilson’s daughter Turkessa Babich, 46. “When she posted her little YouTube chat, you could tell she had this natural high of knowing that her album was finally going to be out there, and it was amazing to see.”
Babich is determined to execute the projects Wilson was so excited to launch.
That begins with the digital release Friday of "Mary Wilson: Expanded Edition," with a CD release planned further down the road The package includes the original album, produced by Hal Davis in haute ’70s disco style, plus three remixes of the song “Red Hot.” The album sputtered in 1979, too late to get traction as a disco hit, and according to Schwartz, pulled altogether only a few weeks later. He believes the July 1979 “Disco Sucks” rally in Chicago’s Comiskey Park helped sink it.
Today disco is viewed in a less judgmental way, in part thanks to an HBO Bee Gees documentary that focused on the unfortunate reactionary aspects of the “Disco Sucks” rally.
A stark contrast to the disco sides are four less formulaic songs produced by Dudgeon in 1980 for a second album that never happened, including a funky, Tina Turner-esque version of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Green River,” and the lush “You Dance My Heart Around the Stars,” a picture-perfect '80s pop ballad.
Also on the set is an unreleased 2006 song, “Why Can’t We All Get Along,” which could serve as an anthem for our time. Wilson hoped so, as does her team.
“Why Can’t We All Get Along” was co-written and produced by native Detroiter Richard Davis, vice president of Eddie and Brian Holland’s Gold Forever Music. Davis co-wrote the Freda Payne Vietnam era hit “Bring the Boys Home,” with Angelo Bond, and teamed up with him once again to write the equally topical “Why Can’t We All Get Along.” Both men were convinced that only their fellow Detroiter Wilson could do the song justice.
“It’s about conflict between friends and family -- and those conflicts are still here, and are more amplified with what is going on in the country,” Davis said.”
When Wilson asked why they didn’t go for a singer with a higher profile, Davis explained that he felt that her empathy, Detroit roots and charitable work were something you could hear in her voice, and vital for a song about healing rifts. Wilson, Davis is quick to point out, was also a very attractive blend of elegance and funk.
“I told her, it’s because you have authenticity, street cred,” Davis said. “You are able to sing that song and it would be believable, because you’re a believable person. You are committed to honesty and to doing good work. She helped contribute to the betterment of (the late) Florence Ballard’s family. That’s what Mary was about.”
The song, recorded in 2006, was never released, but Wilson felt passionately that it needed to come out in the wake of last summer’s protests, the insurrection and divisions in the country.
Her daughter agrees with the description of her mother as a peacemaker, pointing to her classic stance in the Supremes. “She was always the one in the middle,” said Turkessa. “Even with the Supremes, buffering Diana and Flo. She has always been that type of person, to put everybody ahead of herself.”
It’ll be a challenge to complete all the projects Wilson was juggling. Before the pandemic hit in 2020, 2019 had been one of her busiest years, with an appearance on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and the release of a sumptuous coffee table book devoted to the Supremes’ gowns, Supreme Glamour.
“She’s been busy her whole life,” said Turkessa. “All those bills she was pushing for, were really important to her.” Among them, the Music Modernization Act passed in 2018, which led to veteran artists being paid for pre-1972 work. She was continuing to push for a commemorative stamp for Florence Ballard, and getting the ‘Truth in Music’ act passed in more states.
“It’s against these bogus acts who get away with performing as the Supremes and others, claiming to be someone they’re not,” Turkessa said. “It passed, but only in 35 states. It really needs to be in effect in all of them, and all over the world. You can read about it on her website marywilson.com, her YouTube channel and all her socials. All that will continue to be up to date.”
Part of the plan for later in the year when in theory, the pandemic is more under control, is a Celebration of Life service for Wilson. Detroit is among the locations being considered, her daughter says.
“Detroit is her home, she loved Detroit,” Turkessa said of her mother. Wilson could wear haute couture and dazzle international audiences, but she was also the proud Brewster-Douglass girl who graduated from Northeastern High School, and frequently returned home.
The Celebration of Life would coincide with the release of a second solo Mary Wilson album -- the rest of the Detroit-recorded sessions produced by Davis.
Because of COVID-19 restrictions, arrangements for Wilson proved to be difficult for her family. Along with Turkessa, the family consists of a son, Pedro Jr.; 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild. (Son Rafael died in a car accident at age 14, in 1994).
While social media was reporting incorrectly that there was a funeral for Wilson (complete with bogus photos, to Schwartz’s bafflement), her body was still in Las Vegas as her family tried desperately to get her moved to Los Angeles. They were finally able to secure a mortuary with the help of California Rep. Maxine Waters, and the House of Winston brought Wilson to L.A. for final arrangements.
“She’s at rest at Holy Cross Cemetery, with my brother (Rafael),” said Turkessa. “We had a very private, intimate burial for my mother. We were able to do the viewing at the House of Winston, and had a few close family members there, along with Claudette (Robinson) and Eddie Holland, and some other folks. We did the best we could in these hard times. And we’ll continue doing all the projects she had planned out. It’ll take us time. But we’re going to continue her Supreme legacy.”
Susan Whitall is the author of “Women of Motown” and a longtime contributor to the Detroit News. Contact her at susanwhitall.com