August 19th, 2009 | Interviews

carolyn pennypacker riggs

Mary Wilson was one of the founding members of the Supremes and the only member who stayed through all the group’s incarnations. Her book Dreamgirls inspired the Beyonce movie that made your mom cry. While Mary may no longer wear thirty pounds of bejeweled dresses at every performance, she continues singing and supporting worldly causes. This interview by Daiana Feuer.

You’re an artist who has turned her work towards social justice—how can art serve as a force to mediate peace?

Music has always had a place as far as being an ambassador-type of influence for bringing joy and love to people. So I totally think that music has a place bringing overall healing for individuals as well as the world.
How can music be so personal for people and yet can reach so many different people at once?
I know that music throughout the ages has been used to entertain people, and people use music when they’re in pain—when they’re suffering, when they’ve lost a loved one, when they’re getting married, when they’re happy, when they’re sad. Music has been sort of a pacifier, let’s say, to people because on a personal level, it kind of gives a person comfort like a mother. Music is like a mother—it comforts you. That’s why I think personally it’s so important. It’s also important that music is in our school systems. There was a time when music kept children in school to study their academic subjects. They’re starting to take art out of the school system which I think is not good—if this is what keeps children there.
Growing up, how was music presented to you? Good? Bad? Frivolous?
When I was growing up, music was one of those new phenomena for us as teenagers because rock ‘n’ roll was very new. It was kind of like the new—like today they have the computers and the iPods, it was the new phenomena. I would compare it to what’s going on today with the technical advantages that we’re having with the computers and cyber world. It was something that young people could embrace and it certainly moved humanity into a different direction. Music like Motown from the beginning—it’s still around from 50 years ago. Everyone from that generation has now grown up with that music. It’s been the soundtrack to our lives.
If you did karaoke, what song would you choose?
I wouldn’t do karaoke! No. It’s not something I do or would like to do. I would never do it. I sing on stage to my music but I’m not one of those who just get up there and sing. I mean—I don’t even sing in the shower!
What was a sock hop like?
A sock hop was a dance in the early ‘60s—maybe later ‘50s and early ‘60s. It was basically a dance with 45 music playing rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s basically what it was. Kind of like a disco today, but everyone was wearing poodle skirts and oxford shoes. They were doing the twist and the chicken and dances like that. We performed at those type of dances. Basically they were dances put on by the radio stations and the DJs played the most current records and then they would bring out some of the current recording artists of the time.
What was your most treasured record from that period?

I really liked the Coasters, Chubby Checker, Bobby Freeman who did the song [sings], “Do you wanna dance?…” Those were some of them but I have many, many, many. I mean, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson—they were all my favorites.
How’s it feel to have witnessed almost the entire history of American music?
It’s been a great time, let me tell you.
What prompted you to become a public speaker? Do you get the same gratification from speaking as singing?
The common denominator between both is that people are important. If you’re a singer you got to have an audience—if you’re a speaker you’ve got to have an audience. That’s the common denominator but I wouldn’t compare the two. My singing is something that I absolutely just adore. Speaking is something I’ve had to learn to be comfortable with. I would always sing but as a young child I would never really talk a lot. I was brought up in a generation and time where children ought to be seen and not heard. So I had to grow into liking to be a motivational speaker but I do enjoy it now. I really do enjoy it now.
What unlocks the voice and lets it inspire people?
Experience. You can speak from a learned position in terms of one’s school and learning the facts. You can speak from that and it’s very informative. But if you’re speaking from experience, then that’s heartfelt and it comes out in that way. To me, people connect with that. That’s the way I speak. That is my way of speaking and connecting with people—through my experience. Because that’s something I know for certain. I didn’t learn it. I actually experienced it. It’s coming from the truth of my experience.
Do we make our own destinies?
That’s a good question. I think in terms of destiny, we do make our own destiny but I do also feel that our fate is something that’s already hit—we just experience it. So when we make our destiny that means the certain choices we make lead us towards that destiny. But sometimes the choices we make lead us away from it. Destiny, to me, is not always what was written.
What do you think you’ve spent the most time pondering in your life?
If I know what I know! Searching for wisdom and clarity.
Who is more attractive in person, Tom Jones or Steve McQueen?
I would never compare the two! They are both gorgeous! The most attractive man I ever laid my eyes on—oh boy, I don’t know. Probably my ex-husband Pedro Ferrer.
What smell makes you nostalgic?
That could be a couple of things. The smell of cornmeal—like corn bread? That makes me think of growing up.
Do you think your future is laid out or could you still be surprised?
I think at this stage in my life I’m planning for my future. I have not always done that. When I was younger, I lived for the now. And now I think I’m planning for my future, and I still want to be surprised.
What’s the last thing that you saw that you thought was beautiful?
My grandchildren.