When the Recording Academy hosts its Special Merit Award ceremony Saturday in Los Angeles – the afternoon before the 65th annual Grammy Awards – the Supremes are at the top of its list for 2023’s Lifetime Achievement Awards. Together with Nirvana, Nile Rodgers, Ma Rainey, Slick Rick, Bobby McFerrin and Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson, Supremes co-founders Diana Ross and the late Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard will receive the Grammys’ lifetime plaudits, with Ross becoming the first woman to win the award twice (she earned a solo honor in 2012).
“Performing with two talented woman, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballad, is a memory that will be in my heart forever,” Diana Ross said through her publicist. “It was a beautiful symphony. Motown was such an incredible family. I’m forever grateful for the blessed opportunity.”
To go with this accolade, Wilson – who, as a Supreme, was among Motown’s most successful acts with 12 No. 1 singles on Billboard’s Hot 100 – is currently undergoing a much-deserved resurgence as a solo artist. To go with her disco-inspired 1979 debut album, “Mary Wilson,” re-released in an “Expanded Edition” in 2021 (months after her death on Feb. 8, 2021), Wilson’s new dance single, “Soul Defender,” will drop on March 3, 2023, three days ahead of what would have been her 79th birthday.
“The Lifetime Achievement Award is an acknowledgement that all three women contributed, from the very beginning of their career,” said Turkessa Ferrer-Babich, Wilson’s daughter, who, along with Lisa Sabrina Chapman, Ballard’s youngest daughter, will accept the award on behalf of their mothers. “My mom knew that she was going to get this award, someday. Unfortunately, she’ll get it when she is no longer physically with us. I know, though, that she is overwhelmed with excitement that she and her sisters are getting this award. They deserved it. They worked hard and contributed so much to the music industry and the world.”
Talking about the bond between herself and the daughters of Flo Ballard (who died in 1976), Ferrer-Babich states that all are family, just like the original Supremes. “They’re sisters, and we’re sisters. My mom always made sure that Flo’s daughters were included in any award ceremony.”
Tasked with the job of carrying on Wilson’s and the Supremes’ legacy, Ferrer-Babich and “mom’s team” – including Wilson’s longtime publicist and confidante Jay D. Schwartz – have forever pushed their labels, Motown and then UMe, to release everything held in their vaults. “All of her music is her life, with the group and on her own,” said Wilson’s daughter. “To that, her song ‘Soul Defender’ has so many meanings. She was the defender of the Supremes, of soul music, of children. She was a cultural ambassador and a political activist.” (Wilson was crucial to the Music Modernization Act providing pre-1972 recording artists fair compensation on digital music platforms, and the Truth in Music Act protecting artist trademarks.) “Mom was about love, and spreading it to everyone.”
Schwartz, a legend in the publicity business since the late 1970s, seconds that emotion. He talked about Wilson in glowing tones, starting with the friendship that developed upon meeting the ex-Supreme an at club opening in New York in 1982. “It was the Panache on Broadway on 44th Street and this incredibly hot woman in this gorgeous red satin dress – you couldn’t take your eyes off her – walks in,” said Schwartz. “I’m from Brooklyn, listened to WABC growing up with two sisters, so I loved the Supremes. Being a ballsy New Yorker, I walked up to Mary, introduced myself and told her that I was a publicist who was soon moving to California. She gave me her number in L.A., and told me to call her. I moved out there, called her, and worked with Mary until the day she died. She called herself my big sister. We were very close… on the same page, knowing each other’s thoughts without having to say a word.”
The tight-as-thieves bond between artist and publicist gave Schwartz a unique perspective toward everything Wilson wanted to accomplish, from writing books (e.g., 1986’s “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme”) to competing in ABC Television’s “Dancing with the Stars'” 28th season in 2019, to her fierce activism on the part of musicians’ rights and money. “Mary knocked on every single Congress-person’s door to get that bill passed so now everyone gets royalties, not just artists after 1972.”
Echoing Turkessa Ferrer-Babich’s sentiments toward releasing music, Schwartz said that since 1985, he and Wilson had been tireless (“as has so much of the UMe team, from the president to the social media to Sujata Murthy doing our press, then and now”) in keeping the music of the Supremes alive, working with the label to release 2004’s legendary lost album, “There’s a Place for Us,” and 2008’s “Let the Music Play: Supreme Rarities” collection.
“Someone showed Mary and me a video of when Diana did a concert, stopped for audience questions and somebody made a nasty comment about Mary,” recalled Schwartz. “Right there, Diana stopped them and said, ‘I don’t want to hear that. Don’t you dare saying anything bad about Mary. She’s responsible for keeping the name of the Supremes alive.’ See, there was never a ‘feud’ between Mary and Diana. That was made up by the press. They were sisters who knew each other since they were 12 years old… Mary would never let anyone speak ill of Diana. They were fiercely protective of each other.”
Wilson had that same ferocity when it came to making new music and re-opening the chapters of her own solo career’s back pages, including four songs she had recorded with producer Gus Dudgeon, famed for his work in the 1970s with Elton John. Two days prior to her death, Wilson announced on YouTube that she was working with Universal in re-releasing her eponymous solo LP from 1979 featuring Dudgeon’s previously unreleased songs, dance tracks such as “Red Hot” and “Pick Up the Pieces,” and the more recently recorded, socially relevant track, “Why Can’t We All Get Along.”
“Mary posted a YouTube video without telling me, before we got a proper press release together, she was so excited about the prospect of getting new music released,” noted Schwartz. “Why Can’t We All Get Along” was released as a posthumous single on March 5, 2021, weeks ahead of “Mary Wilson: Expanded Edition” on April 16.
As for the future of releasing of Wilson’s music, Schwartz stated that “we know there’s more songs out there,” full albums such as 1992’s “Walk the Line” on the now-defunct CEO label, dance cuts such as 2015’s “Time to Move On,” and the soon-to-drop “Soul Defender” track.
“We’re trying to do something every year around Mary’s birthday such as the ‘Expanded Edition,’ and Eric Kupper’s remix of ‘Red Hot for Pride Month. I promised her that we were going to get this – the release of her old and new music – just as I had promised her, I’d get her ‘Dancing with the Stars.’ It took 12 years, but we kept pushing and we got it. Mary and I wanted that Lifetime Achievement Award for the Supremes, and we’re getting that next week. When Mary wrote the ‘Dreamgirl’ book, she had a slogan: ‘Dreams don’t die. People just stop dreaming.’ We’re not stopping. We will not let Mary’s dream die.”