I feel like I have been a Supreme all of my life because I grew up with very little and dared to dream of a better tomorrow. I wanted to experience success. I wanted to see my picture in magazines and interviews on television. I learned about the ups and downs of show business by watching the Supremes go through personnel changes. And you, in particular, inspired me. You faced your fears, went out on stage alone, and fought for recognition. You survived an abusive relationship and helped others trapped in similar situations. You went back to school as an adult and triumphed. You brought honor to being a performer "in the background."
I understand what you have gone through. You've paid your dues singing background with the Supremes. As a struggling actor, I have also paid my dues doing background work, also known as "extra" or "atmosphere" work. Just as background vocalists support the lead singer, background actors support lead talent.
When I moved to L.A., I was ambivalent about doing background work. I had been a well-known T.V. host, albeit in the world of home shopping, but the job had required the same skills as any other acting gig. I had also just come off a successful four-month run of FREEda Slave, my one-person show. I had gotten good reviews and was even cast in a pilot. Then the money ran out and the bills needed to be paid. My agents were not getting a forty-something black actor enough "featured role" auditions, so survival overrode pride, and I went back to being an "extra."
Mary, I remember seeing you do a hilarious tribute to background singers in your live shows. You would perform a medley of Supremes hits, singing only the background vocals. You would joke, "Honey, my 'ooooh baby, baby(s)' took me laughing all the way to the bank!" For you, there was no shame in it. Even though I didn't always like background work, there was no shame in what I had to do either.
Mary, I, too, survived numerous affairs and a few abusive ones. I went back to school later in life as you did so proudly. You graduated from college at 57. I graduated from college at 50.
When I started writing my memoir "Dreamboy: My Life as a QVC Host & Other Greatest Hits," it was an homage to your book, "Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme." I reached out to my dear friend Parnell Damone Marciano, who sings background for you, to share the cover art's first concept. My head is replacing your head in that iconic image. He shared with me your initial reaction, "Why does everyone want to takeout the girl in the middle? He assured me you said it in a joking manner. I was relieved. Then the day came when you called me and told me you would be happy to read my book. I was hoping for a written forward to add to the book, but you couldn't promise to meet my deadline. I kept my fingers crossed, but your schedule got super busy. You finally read the book after it came out, sent me a beautiful postcard, and invited me to meet you at Mark Bego's book release party at The Abbey, a West Hollywood nightclub.
It was a night I'll never forget; we took pictures, and you allowed me a mini-interview. The moment that I will always treasure was when you placed a red lipstick kiss inside the cover of my book as your stamp of approval to my memoir. You explained that was something you used to do on your Dreamgirl book tour.
You listed my book on your website as Mary's recommended readings, and then you publicly gave me a shout-out during a performance at the Catalina Jazz Club, telling the audience about my book and calling me Dreamboy.
I saw you as often as you made public appearances in Los Angeles. We touched base when your dance song was a hit at Amoeba record store and again at the opening of the Supremes Gown Collection at The Grammy Museum. The last time I saw you perform live was at the 25th Annual Divas Simply Singing. We grabbed a quick hug backstage, and I got to hear you do "Stormy Weather" and "Reach Out and Touch Somebody's Hand."
Sheryl Lee Ralph said it best, "I dared to dream while watching 'The Ed Sullivan Show' that one day I would meet and know her."
Mary, when I woke up to the news on February 8th that you were no longer here on this earth but had booked a performance in heaven, I was devastated as calls and texts filled my phone from friends and family who checked in on me as if a family member had passed. I walked through my Supremes decorated home, looking at each image and memory, remembering what you said at the funeral of Florence Ballard,
"Chile, we is terrific."
You are such a motivational speaker. (I still refuse to speak of you in the past tense) Your "dare to dream" message keeps me going each day.
“Sometimes people just have to keep dreaming”
That’s what I’m doing Mary, dreaming.
Dale Guy Madison is an actor, author, and performance artist who incorporates the life lessons he learned from the music of the Supremes into his work. His upcoming television project "My Life In 3 Easy Payments" is dedicated to the memory of Mary Wilson.