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'Even now I wonder how I got so lucky... I have to pinch myself every day'

Mary Wilson revisits The Supremes' transformation from girls next door to global superstars in documentary film Hitsville: The Making of Motown. Even after all these years, she still can't take it all in, she tells Gemma Dunn

Trailblazers: The Supremes (from left) Cindy Birdsong, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson
Trailblazers: The Supremes (from left) Cindy Birdsong, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson

Mary Wilson only ever wanted to perform. The co-founder of The Supremes, and the only member to survive its many incarnations, had known from a young age she was born to sing, rebuffing her mother's college wishes in pursuit of a glittering stage career.

But America's most successful ever vocal group? A landmark in black consciousness? Not even Wilson could have predicted reaching such dizzying heights.

"I walk down (memory lane) every day," says the 75-year-old star. "Every day I wake up, I'm pinching myself."

Elements of the singing group's rise to fame do read like a fairytale.

Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross met in their teens while growing up in Detroit's Brewster-Douglass housing projects.

Sharing a love of music, the trio, along with Betty McGlown, formed the Primettes, a spin-off from male vocalists, The Primes.

It was their signing to upstart label Motown Records in 1961 that changed their path.

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Founder Berry Gordy's deal-breaker was that they rename the group. It was then that The Supremes was born.

It's a fascinating story that, along with those of various other performers, is being celebrated in new documentary film Hitsville: The Making of Motown.

With more than 180 number one hits and one of the most impressive artist rosters the world has seen, the biopic details how this trailblazing hit factory was built and the impact its music had as it crossed the racial divide during the civil rights era.

It was an amazing movement to be a part of, admits Wilson.

"The company hadn't reached the same trajectory as now. Everyone was still trying to get hits, but the talent was there," she says of Motown's early days.

"When we first went there, it was 1961. I'd graduated high school, so I was 17 years old, and it was like, 'Whoa, all these handsome guys!'.

"The other thing was all the wonderful music. The creativity was something that, even now, makes me wonder how I got so lucky.

"People like Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells, Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops, the Temptations... we were right there."

The film - the first and only cinematic feature documentary to be authorised by Gordy - offers unparalleled access to the man himself and his personal archive, plus a trip back to the tiny Detroit headquarters - Hitsville - where the label was built with close collaborator Smokey Robinson.

While Wilson and other big period names contribute, so do some of the prolific stars of today for whom the Motown icons paved the way, including Dr Dre and John Legend.

But it's still the writers and producers who are the real stars, claims Wilson.

"They were always at the top. We artists were lower until we got a hit record," she jokes, The Supremes having failed to infiltrate the charts between 1961 and 1963.

"Then you start moving on up, but even today the producers - I have remained friends with Holland-Dozier-Holland - are still, in their minds, bigger because they created the music that made you a star."

Wilson recalls just how desperate the girls were to make it.

"We went to Mr Gordy and we said, 'We really want a hit record. We've released about six or seven and nothing has become a hit'," she remembers.

"That's when he put us with (songwriters) Holland-Dozier-Holland. The first one (they gave us) was When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through his Eyes, which went into the charts, but the next one didn't hit the charts at all, so I called us the 'no-hit Supremes' at that point.

"That's when the Hollands brought us the song Where Did Our Love Go."

However, the group didn't care for it at all, she admits.

"But that was our first major hit," she says of the track, which reached number one on the US pop charts and number three in the UK after its 1964 release.

"Martha and The Vandellas had Dancing in the Streets, The Marvelettes had Please Mr Postman. We wanted something more R&B but they bring us, 'Baby, Baby, where did all the love go?'" she sings note-perfect, fingers clicking.

"I still really don't care for it. I just don't like to sing it because for me it's a little boring. But it's not, I realise that. It made us."

It more than just made them. The Supremes' star rocketed, with the group becoming the first black female music act to appear on television, on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Four consecutive US number ones followed in the shape of Baby Love, Come See About Me, Stop! In The Name of Love and Back In My Arms Again.

Wilson remained with the group following the departures of Ballard in 1967 and Ross in 1970.

She finally took to the stage for a farewell concert in 1977.

"The love made it work for a long time," she says of the earlier days. "We shared the same desire about singing. That's what I loved about Diana and Flo."

Wilson continued her career as a solo artist and has since released three solo albums, five singles and two best-selling autobiographies. But it's not all been plain sailing for the concert performer.

"I mean, life is like that," she says. "The thing is to learn - I've spent 75 years trying to get it right - is whatever the challenge was, whatever the hurt was, wherever the loss was, to find a way beyond it."

"I've seen a lot of my friends encounter the same things I have, like the loss of a child - I lost my child in the 90s," says the mother of four, in reference to her 14-year-old son Rafael, who died following a car accident in 1994. "It totally stopped their life."

"I understand how it could," she's quick to add. "But even if I had wanted to, I couldn't have stopped my life."

What about The Supremes, would she reunite?

"The fans would like that and it would be great, but it may not ever happen," says Wilson. "People don't have the same desires. All of us have to have that at the same time to do it."

Would she like to? "I don't mind doing it," she says tentatively, "but I don't sit around waiting.

"If it happened, I'd be thrilled. If it doesn't, I'm thrilled too because I got a life.

"I've got options, that's the way I look at it."

Hitsville: The Making of Motown is in cinemas for one night only on Monday, September 30. For more information, visit Motown.film.

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