Review: Motown Singer Mary Wilson Gets A Supreme Anthology

Mary Wilson
The Motown Anthology
(Real Gone Music)
3 out of 5 stars

Videos by American Songwriter

As the only member of the Supremes to be in every incarnation of the group (she started with the Primettes and continued through Diana Ross leaving and the group’s final years), Mary Wilson holds a unique place in the history of Motown’s music. Her unexpected death in Feb. 2021 at 77 ended a remarkable and often inspirational career that found her adding author and political activist to her impressive vocal talents.

All of this and much more are detailed in the sumptuous 44-page book included in this expansive examination of Wilson’s contributions to the legendary label. It’s the first full compilation of her recordings there and likely the last word on her involvement with the Detroit and later LA-based iconic imprint.

There is no disputing Wilson’s clear, powerful, and expressive voice. It connects well on the handful of Supremes tracks like the early doo-wop influenced “The Tears,” the later disco-styled but still soulful and sprightly “Early Morning Love” and the sweeping ballad “Closer Together,” a  sampling of the instances she was lead vocalist with them. A few rarities like her version of “Son of a Preacher Man” and a strange take on Jim Pepper’s “Witchi Tai To,” the latter not surprisingly unreleased at the time, show a willingness to color outside the standard Motown lines that even her followers might not have heard.

Those, along with many previously unavailable songs and mixes—all meticulously documented in the booklet with dates and details of when overdubs were done and other specifics—dominate disc 1 of this double package. The second platter adds a few more Supremes rarities then reprises Wilson’s entire self-titled 1979 release, recorded in the heat of the dance explosion (strap in for the disco version of Creedence’s “Green River”), all remixed for this set. A closing, near seven-minute “Why Can’t We All Get Along” recounts her often troubled history in the group as she relates her history to an old friend. It’s somewhere between melodramatic, cheesy (It’s time to heal the universe), and charming but gains in intensity resulting in a stirring climax as she shifts to a more widespread if clichéd theme of loving each other.

The issue is with much of the material she was given to sing (which simply doesn’t match the quality of the Holland-Dozier-Holland penned Ross-fronted tunes), the production (a combination of lush and nondescript R&B) and Wilson’s strong, pure voice which lacks the personality to make it distinctive. Unlike Ross or even her replacements such as Jean Terrell and others, it would be hard for any but Wilson’s most fervent fans to pick her vocals out of a lineup of other talented singers of the time.  

The package is beautifully compiled and presented. Some mediocre inclusions and the dated disco productions notwithstanding, Wilson is well served by this comprehensive, overdue collection of her Motown work. Fans will find it invaluable, others may not need everything here.

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