News just reached us that Mary Wilson (b. 1944) has suddenly passed away at the relatively young age of 76. I was going to subtitle this post “The Last Supreme” but stayed my hand knowing that, without reading the post, an army of Furies would fly into my windshield to inform me of the obvious fact that Diana Ross is, in fact, alive. But Diana Ross is Diana Ross. She left the group in 1970. And as anyone who has seen Dreamgirls knows, the other original Supreme Florence Ballard was cruelly booted in 1967; she passed away in 1976. Whereas Mary Wilson stayed with the group through 1977, with two other substitute Supremes. And in more recent years she would tour again as a Supreme, doing Supremes material…making her — you got it — the Last Supreme.
Coincidentally, though I almost never go to see concerts of live music, I caught Mary Wilson at the Ford Amphitheatre in Coney Island just a couple of years ago. Dick Zigun had spare tickets and slipped me one, and I was out there anyway, so I stuck around for the show.
I found the experience so moving and profound that I posted about it on social media at the time (wish I could find the post). Basically, I had gone to the show with a smarmy, jokey attitude about going to see the ruins of old Motown acts, consisting of few surviving members, and their nephews and nieces, and people hired at casting calls, and what have you. But instead, it was one of those Ratatouille moments that critics get from time to time, when you are struck like a thunderbolt about the essentials, about what’s really important, and it also brought me some insight about show business.
Because this elderly woman (you’ll anticipate me) phoned nothing in. Though she had sung back-up on the hit versions of these half-century old hits, she now sang the lead, and sang them like she owned them, with grace and power and authority and generosity and cheer. And the audience loved her uncritically, without cynicism, without barriers. And so it was pure, a pure connection, of a person, it might have been ANY person, bringing expressions of joy and longing and memory to a bunch of other people. A person with a gift…regifted it. I looked around and saw the happiness of the people around me, but also, as I said, this was a couple of years ago. These have been some terrifying, grim, painful, stressful years, for all of us. She soothed my aching heart, and made me feel connected to the people around me — people from South Brooklyn, whom I might have very well had some serious political differences with outside of this context. For an hour or two we were an audience, and in vaudeville (to me, it’s ALL vaudeville) the audience is “The People”. She accomplished all this, and it was her job. Another day at the office. What a great job to have.
And so I went away from the concert not saying, “She’s not Diana Ross” but “I just saw Mary Wilson”. And had no regrets. It was an illuminating night.