It’s safe to say that if any musical artist was underrated, it was ex-Supreme Mary Wilson, who died in February at the age of 76.
An elegant soul singer whose voice struck gold and platinum repeatedly as a member of the Supremes from 1961 — when Wilson and fellow Supreme Diana Ross signed with Motown Records — until her departure in 1977, it would seem that Wilson’s career path from there would have been similarly successful, but it wasn’t.
When her debut solo album, the disco-fied “Mary Wilson,” was released in August of 1979 — essentially the same month that disco became a laughing stock. With the “Disco Sucks” movement in full-swing, Wilson’s debut flopped, despite the grandeur of its songs. When Wilson moved toward recording her second solo album, with no less a sensation that Elton John’s producer Gus Dudgeon behind the boards, Motown dropped Wilson from the label in 1980 after only four songs were recorded.
“I was very excited about these four songs… it wasn’t the formula disco of my first album,” wrote Wilson in her autobiography, “Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together.” “Two of the songs were big ballads. The other two were rock and roll in the style of Tina Turner’s mid-‘80s hits; I was certainly ahead of the time.”
Even gone from the Motown family, Wilson’s solo career got messy. When her next album, “Walk the Line,” came out in 1992, her then-label CEO Records went into bankruptcy the next day, and consequently the album received minimal attention.
As time went on, and Wilson’s Motown catalog became part of the Universal Music Group and its catalog division, the singer, author and activist not only recorded new socially relevant material, but hoped that her early solo material would be re-released in the digital age. These were the conversations that she had with Bruce Resnikoff, President/CEO of Universal Music Enterprises, and daughter Turkessa Babich, the CEO of Wilson’s music company and the keeper of her mother’s flame.
Wilson even recorded a YouTube video at the start of Black History Month with the exclamation “At last.”
Sadly, she did not live to see the release of “Mary Wilson: Expanded Edition,” which dropped on Friday.
This digital debut puts together, for the first time, all of the tracks produced by Hal Davis for her eponymous 1970 solo album, with the four songs produced by Dudgeon that were given to her as a settlement for being dropped by Motown in 1980, as well as “Why Can’t We All Get Along.” That song, penned in 2005 by Motown staffers Angelo Bond and Richard Davis (who co-produced the track) and recorded on Motor City turf at the Recording Institute of Detroit, came with a dual message – one directed toward her old friend, Diana Ross, when a proposed reunion of The Supremes in 2000 fell apart during negotiations (Ross’s Return to Love tour went forward sans Wilson, but with former, latter-day Supremes), as well as a plea social justice between Black and White America.
“She was adamant that ‘Why Can’t We All Get Along’ be her anthem,” stated Wilson publicist Jay D. Schwartz.
Wilson and the song’s cowriter, Richard Davis, met during his time with Holland-Dozier-Holland’s production company in Los Angeles when Brian and Edward Holland produced “Mary, Scherrie & Susaye,” the final studio album by the Supremes. Released in 1976, the album featured Wilson along with Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene.
“Why Can’t We All Get Along,” came about, according to Davis, as part of a 2006 conversation he was having with fellow Detroit songwriter Angelo Bond, who had also worked for Motown. Each man wanted to write something with “social import,” collaborated over the phone, and thought of Wilson as the perfect voice for it.
“She had traveled around the globe, as an activist and as an ambassador and appeared to have a social conscience,” says Davis, referring to Wilson’s lobbying for “Truth in Music” legislation, prohibiting the usage of an act’s names without an original member taking part (or legally licensing the name); Wilson was also appointed by Secretary of State Colin Powell as a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department.
“Mary told me that she had been having similar thoughts, ideas that reflected her life and her career,” Davis recalls. “It was uncanny. So she stepped into the pond and took a gamble on me.”
Though the song was written between 2005 and 2006 and recorded in 2007, all parties knew of the track’s continued relevance today.
“That song of ours and Mary’s is still powerful, maybe even more so than 15 years ago when we first wrote it,” says Davis. “People have a profound love and respect for Mary in ways that she never knew. She was a winner and a fighter, and the stars in the cosmos and the gods in the heavens smiled on her to carry a message of a song like that.”
Wilson’s daughter Turkessa Babich says of the song, “Its relevance to the present day, amid the chaos we experienced in the last year, means that it’s crucial that’s it’s released now. But when it was written, it came after the Supremes’ reunion tour was discussed – a missed opportunity.”
Babich recounted her mother’s disappointment about having “worked so hard to get her first solo album out after the Supremes,” only to watch it sink like a stone from the weight of the “Disco Sucks” movement. “Having it taken away so dramatically and abruptly was traumatic to her.”
Babich says that after “Mary Wilson: Expanded Edition,” that there will be additional volumes of her mother’s unreleased music, along with a slate of rarities coming from Motown/UMe’s Supremes collection.
“I made that commitment to her the last time we spoke, less than two weeks before Mary passed,” says Resnikoff, whose relationship with Wilson reached back more than 20 years.
“Mary cared about three things,” he continues. “First and foremost, about the artist community, which is why she was so involved in supporting legislation helpful to fellow artists, songwriters and producers such as the Truth in Music Act. She was interested in talking about the Supremes, and we always got around to talking about her solo music. She wanted to release it, but, she wanted to make sure that it was the right time.
“Look, her solo career has been overlooked and underappreciated, to some extent,” he continues. “Those Gus Dudgeon songs alone? He’s a legend and these songs were meant to show a different side to Mary. So, what Mary and I agreed on, from the beginning, was that The Supremes were but one aspect of her life, one where she was a member of a seminal group, a full-time legislative advocate for the rights of creatives and fans – maybe more so than any other artist I have ever worked with – and a truly great solo artist.
“She wanted younger audiences to get and experience that.”