Mary Wilson: In the name of love

As one of The Supremes, Mary Wilson changed the face of America. She tells John Walsh how her sequins sold the civil rights movement

They wore long, tubular evening gowns, shimmery with sequins, and they undulated their lissom bodies and waved their elegant arms through a dozen pop-soul hits that brought an instantly recognisable bounce to the soundtrack of the late 1960s. The Supremes weren't just the most successful girl group of the decade, they were in the top five pop-rock-soul acts of any gender or nationality. They broke records as well as made them: for the biggest number of US No 1 hits (12); the largest number of consecutive No 1 hits (five); the first album by a girl group to top the album charts (The Supremes A'Go-Go); and, most significantly, being the first black female music act to appear on television, on The Ed Sullivan Show.

It was in December 1964, and was a landmark in black consciousness. "I've had Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg both say to me, personally, that seeing The Supremes on the Sullivan show made them recognise that, hey, maybe I could do that too," says Mary Wilson, co-founder of the original group and the only singer to survive its many incarnations, before it packed up in 1977. "It seems that we inspired people to see what they could become. It wasn't something that was a given, then – to be black and know that you could make it."

A mistress of understatement, Ms Wilson is a big, sassy dame in a short black frock, dark brown hair as sleek as a seal, long silver fingernails and tons of showbiz chutzpah. After 16 years of singing background harmonies behind Diana Ross and, later, Jean Terrell, she gratefully embraced a solo career. Now 64, she still sings in cabaret and jazz clubs around the world, for nine months of the year. She's not, however, in London this week to sing "You Can't Hurry Love" and "I Second That Emotion" and other Supremes classics. She's rather indignant about the prevalence of "a lot of fake, phoney groups" – ie Supremes tribute bands – "working in Europe, until it's got to the stage where agents won't book me, they'll get the cheaper phoney group instead." She's here to open an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert museum called The Story of the Supremes, from the Mary Wilson Collection.

At first sight, it seems to be no more than a display of frocks, presented like precious artworks in that respectful V&A style – fabulously long swishy concoctions of tulle, silk and millions of beads and sequins, weighed down by rhinestone and pearl accessories – but you soon discover that there's a lot more going on. This is a frock show with attitude, with social history and political bite, in which The Supremes aren't just celebrated but given a political context and emblemised as agents of massive change. As TV monitors remind you, their heyday, 1964-1970, coincided with the battle for human rights fought in the riot-torn streets of Detroit, climaxing in the march on Washington and exploding with the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968. It is the exhibition's provocative thesis that Wilson, Ross and Florence Ballard, the third founder-member, were a vital cultural catalyst. "How socially subversive could three sequinned girl singers possibly be?" asks a billboard in the entrance. The answer is: "Very, apparently."

Many people know the story of how the girls grew up in Detroit's experimental Brewster-Douglass housing projects and met at the junior high. They shared a love of music and were put together as the Primettes, a girly spin-off from a male group, The Primes, whose manager took an interest in the 14-year-olds. When they joined Berry Gordy's Motown label in 1961, and changed their name to The Supremes, they were still kids from the block, who bought dress patterns at the five-and-dime store and ran up frocks on Singer sewing machines. Their first eight singles failed to trouble the charts and they became known as "The No-Hit Supremes". Their transformation from girls-next-door into slinky crooners with Marge Simpson hair and world-conquering moves has been attributed to Gordy, their charismatic and forceful boss (and later Ross's lover). But Wilson says it was the girls' own doing.

"People think we had the look imposed on us. No, we did that. We went to Saks Fifth Avenue and bought what we wanted. We were the kind of girls who always played dress-up. We had an idea of what was class, and we'd take the clothes to Motown and they were wise enough to understand that, yeah, it was a little different from all the others. It was our little ace card."

But Mary, I ask, what did three girls from Detroit's segregated housing sector know about class? "Oh, we knew," says Ms Wilson, smiling at my dimness. "Our parents always got Vogue magazine."

The Motown empire had its own charm school, and supplied the girls with an etiquette coach called Maxine Powell. What was the best lesson she taught them? "How to get in and out of a limousine." She giggles at the memory. "Ms Powell was a little bit broad in the back, and she'd demonstrate how not to get into a limo, and we'd just die laughing because she was so hilarious. We had to learn how to kinda slide in, in case the photographers got you. Her other thing was, How to Sit and be Interviewed on a Stool – whatever happens, always keep your knees together."

The girls even took deportment class with books on their mile-high beehives. "Lots of the Motown acts took the class," she says. "The Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. But the Four Tops refused. They were a bit older. They said, 'We already know how to stand up.'"

And so the image of The Supremes gradually came together. They learnt their shimmery stage moves from Cholly Atkins, a professional Broadway dancer and choreographer. Their hair became more and more elaborately styled, "because most of the guys who did it were gay, and to them, the bigger the better. We'd meet people backstage on TV shows and say, 'You wanna work with us?' And they'd show us things, and we'd say, 'We like that.'" It sounds, I say, like three queens with a throng of courtiers. "Princesses, please," says Wilson. "We weren't married then.

"There were many black artists before us," continues Wilson, "pioneers like Sammy Davis Jnr, Chuck Berry, Eartha Kitt. We came after them, but we arrived just when the world was beginning to open up. Countries were starting to open up to what people of other cultures were all about."

Not that everyone was crazy about other cultures. The Daily Mail characteristically reported that three singing "negresses" had come visiting. "It wasn't a word used in the US at the time," says Wilson. "We read it and thought, What? Who are these three black negresses?" She laughs – a rich, Ethel Merman guffaw.

Their success coincided, rather spookily, with the end of the human rights battle. In 1961, John Kennedy had backed King's stand against the segregation laws, and been elected president. The following year, The Supremes hit the road and found themselves singing to segregated audiences (and hearing rocks being flung against the tour bus). In 1963, King rehearsed his "I have a dream" speech in Detroit, before taking it to Washington. Kennedy was assassinated and his successor, Lyndon Johnson, passed the Civil Rights Act, which effectively banned segregation all over the United States. Was it a coincidence that The Supremes had their first No 1 hit shortly afterwards, and began an unbroken run of success? The theory that political harmony meant increased black record sales doesn't wash. The hits kept climbing the charts during the terrible riots that followed the passing of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, giving all US citizens the vote. At a performance in Cleveland, fans had to file past National Guard tanks because of the likelihood of race riots. Detroit itself went up in flames in 1967 near Motown headquarters and 43 people died. King was assassinated the following year (the girls sang "Somewhere" for him on The Tonight Show) and America settled into a new future, where the race issue was eclipsed by Vietnam.

This was the background against which The Supremes sang "You Keep Me Hangin' On", "Love is Here and Now" and, perhaps their best song, "The Happening". How did they stay so perky and upbeat? "It was supposed to be a big hit movie, The Happening, and it was a big deal for us because we were one of the first to do a movie soundtrack. So we were happy. You can hear it in the music: 'Hey! We doin' a soundtrack!'" What were her memories of King? "We were doing a lot of public engagements, so we'd always be in the same running team, you know? Berry Gordy was close to him, so the stars would hang out together. People asked us later: 'were you aware of what was going on?' Of course we were. Politics was about the same thing then. Everyone was part of the movement. Politics was part of our job. We all wanted the same thing." But they never became the voice of black protest, did they? They were never in danger of being confused with Malcolm X. "No," says Wilson. "We became the face of the black movement just by being black and prominent – the face of young black women, achieving something."

While her old adversary, Ross, has become newsworthy for public tantrums, Wilson sails on as the benign face of the old Supremes. She recently nailed her colours to Hillary Clinton's mast. Does she think it more important for America to have its first black president or its first woman president? "They're equally important. I think there's enough of us – I'm speaking as a black, now – to vote Obama in, but I think we need a woman first, because the world needs healing. In America especially, I think we need to heal a lot of ideas that've gone astray. America's a great place of possibility, but right now it's about money, and that's taken away from the real things in life."

So speaks the girl from the segregated housing block who once had lessons on the correct way to enter a limo, and now stands at the V&A Museum, surveying the sequinned evidence of how she and two schoolmates changed the world.

The Story of the Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection, V&A, London SW7 (020-7942 2000), to 19 October

Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor