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Mary Wilson, on protecting artists’ work, her first visit to Vegas with The Supremes, and why it’s still ‘Diane’ Ross

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Illustration: Chris Morris

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Criss Angel, Mary Wilson and Jeff Timmons

Mary Wilson, co-founder of The Supremes, rehearses for a September 2008 appearance on the Dennis Bono Show at Sam's Town.

Carlos Santana and Mary Wilson at a listening party for Carlos Santana's new album <em>Guitar Heaven The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time</em> at Vanity in the Hard Rock Hotel on Aug. 25, 2010.

Carlos Santana and Mary Wilson at a listening party for Carlos Santana's new album Guitar Heaven The Greatest Guitar Classics of All Time at Vanity in the Hard Rock Hotel on Aug. 25, 2010.

Mary Wilson, an original member of The Supremes, performs with Human Nature at the Imperial Palace, Sept. 19, 2009.

Mary Wilson, an original member of The Supremes, performs with Human Nature at the Imperial Palace, Sept. 19, 2009.

Mary Wilson is flanked by <em>Jersey Boys</em> stars Jeff Leibow, Deven May, Rick Faugno and Peter Saide.

Mary Wilson is flanked by Jersey Boys stars Jeff Leibow, Deven May, Rick Faugno and Peter Saide.

Mary Wilson is no background singer. Not today.

That was not always the case, of course. Wilson was a founding member of The Supremes, where during the band’s peak, she was a backing singer for Diana Ross. She, Ross and Florence Ballard formed the band out of Detroit in the late 1950s.

The Supremes would become what is, to date, not only the top Motown act in history, but the best-selling American vocal group ever.

Over the years, the trio changed lineups -- most notably with Cindy Birdsong replacing the unhappy and underused Ballard in 1967 -- as Ross assumed the center singing position. Their history closely mirrored the Broadway production and the 2007 film version of “Dreamgirls,” which is viewed by many contemporary music fans as an unauthorized biography of The Supremes.

The group ultimately dismantled in the 1970s, beginning with the departure of Ross herself in 1970. Wilson embarked on a fruitful solo career during which she has become one of the country’s finest R&B and jazz vocalists. Wilson also has led the fight against “impostor” groups borrowing from the names and material of such classic groups as, well, The Supremes.

Stunning still, at age 67, Wilson is headlining through Sunday at the Riviera’s Starlight Theater (tickets are $29.95, $39.95 and $59.95; go to Riviera.com for information).

Wilson was interviewed last week on “Kats With the Dish,” on KUNV 91.5-FM (the show can be found at LasVegasSun/blogs/kats-report).

Highlights of the conversation:

On her battle against impostor groups: It has to do with a lot of fake groups who go out and call themselves by a group’s name that made all these records. Of course, I hate to say this, because there are a couple in town, but The Coasters, The Drifters and The Platters, right? Of course I have known all of the original guys. Unfortunately, Carl Gardner just passed away. He was the only original Coaster left. He was close to 90.

So these guys who were the originals have been getting older and passing on, and you have these new people coming up and just taking the names and calling themselves by the groups’ names. So about 20 of us got together, and we said we were going to do something about it. We were spending our own money, legally, suing people … but we got new legislation passed called Truth in Music. This law says that you cannot use a name, let’s say it’s The Supremes, unless you recorded some of the music. If there is one member there who was on the original recording, then they ideally can do it. … Otherwise, what you have is a tribute act, and that’s what they should call themselves.

On the authenticity of the storyline used in “Dreamgirls”: Some say it is the story of The Supremes, but it is not. As I say, when people come to the show and I’m singing the song “I Am Changing,” which is from (“Dreamgirls”), and everyone wants to know, “Is this about The Supremes?” I say, “No, because I didn’t get paid (laughs).”

On spending a significant period of time in her career as a background singer, even though at the beginning, all three Supremes shared lead vocals: Business is business, and we hit upon a good formula. It was not good, perhaps, for Florence and I individually, because it put one person out front when originally we all started out together. But as for the formula for making us stars, it worked, so we couldn’t say anything. We were on top of the world, but we did lose a little of our individuality. It has taken me years to find out who I am as a singer. There are things in business, some of it is good, some of it is bad, but the overall picture has been great.

On how she accepted not being able to develop her vocal identity during her years with the group: If someone takes away something that you do beautifully, as a gift, and you can’t use it, yeah, it does hurt a bit. It just caused a lot of dissatisfaction … I was fortunate to have patience in my makeup as a human being. I’m a bonafide singer.

For Florence, it was more difficult. She was a singer very much like Aretha Franklin or Etta James, just a great voice. But she never was able to use that voice. For her, it really did hurt, tremendously. She ended up suffering a lot because of it (after struggling with a solo career, Ballard died in 1976 at age 32 from cardiac arrest brought on by a blood clot in one of her coronary arteries). Sometimes a person doesn’t have a chance to come back and make it. I have been very fortunate that I have been able to do that.

On why she still refers to Diana Ross by her original pre-fame name “Diane”: If someone is named Tom, but when they were young, you knew them as Tommy, that’s what you call them. It’s a term of endearment, the way I use it. People have thought it was something different, but it isn’t. That’s who I grew up with.

On The Supremes’ first engagement in Las Vegas: It was 1967, and we came in right after Pearl Bailey at the Flamingo. We were so thrilled. We performed the next night. So The Supremes ran to her door and knocked on it, and she yelled, “Who is it?!” And we said (softly), “The Supremes.” She said, “Well, don’t they know I gotta get dressed?! Tell them to wait!”

She taught us a big lesson, because people get all excited and run backstage, and they forget that you’re all sweaty and smelly. You need to get ready first. We opened the next night, and we got great reviews.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow "Kats With the Dish" at twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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