by Renee Westbrook
Special to The Record July 28, 2005 4:36 AM
Moving forward in life isn’t always easy to do. It gets particularly complicated when you’re one-third of the most successful female recording group of all time.
Mary Wilson was just that, spending 1964-69 on the fast track to success as one of the Supremes. Those years and that experience — both the glorious hits and bitter personal wrangling that followed — continue to define her professional persona. They changed Wilson, but she retains her optimistic outlook.
“The older you become, the more you see things as they really are,” Wilson, 61, said in a recent interview. “But that doesn’t mean you have to lose your optimism. Even though I’ve taken the rose-colored glasses off, I still see the roses. I just keep going ahead.”
That effort brings Wilson to Northern California this weekend to kick off the 37th annual Bear Valley Music Festival. Held at the Alpine County town two hours east of Stockton, the festival enables Central Valley residents to escape the summer heat while enjoying performances presented beneath a big top.
This year’s lineup continues Bear Valley’s evolution away from its strictly classical roots. While there will be a production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and the Bear Valley Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Carter Nice will perform with pianist Olga Kern and violinist Sandra Wolf-Meei Cameron, the festival’s two-week schedule also includes jazz (Joe Gilman Trio, Capital Jazz Project), country (Mark Chesnutt) and folk (County Line Trio).
Wilson’s performance will feature both Supremes hits and solo material. She’s been associated with the act for nearly half a century, back to the days when she, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard were teens singing and dancing together in Detroit’s Brewster housing project. The group signed with Berry Gordy’s fledgling Motown Records in 1961 and scored its first No. 1 hit, “Where Did Our Love Go?,” three years later. Dozens of hits followed.
“I caught that train,” Wilson said of the trio. “It was going right where I was happy to go.”
The happiness proved short lived, as Ross departed for a solo career in 1970. It was a difficult period for Wilson, given their years together. She refuses to say too much about the rift.
“It just stirs up more … whatever,” Wilson said. “We love each other. That’s all that really matters.”
Wilson continued with several different lineups before the Supremes disbanded in 1977. Legal problems with Gordy ensued, but the act remains Wilson’s dearest musical association.
“My soul, my whole being has always been with the Supremes,” she said.
And she’s kept moving ahead. A graduate of New York University, Wilson recently received an honorary doctorate from Paine College. She’s the author of two books (“Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme,” “Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together”), has appeared Off-Broadway and in 2003 was named a State Department cultural ambassador. Today, Wilson travels the world promoting American music and mentoring young people. The Supremes’ influence can be heard on her current studio project.
“It has an R&B, hip-hop mix to it,” Wilson said. “But my singing style will still be that of Mary Wilson, which is ballad-style singing. I’m just moving ahead.”