Roberta Freeman has worked with everyone from Guns N’ Roses and Pink Floyd to Cinderella and Weezer during her long career as a backup singer, but she points to a five-year stint with Mary Wilson of the Supremes as one of her greatest accomplishments. They traveled the globe in that time and performed timeless hits like “Baby Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “My World Is Empty Without You” to adoring crowds every night. When Freeman heard about Wilson’s death, she sat down and wrote a tribute to her friend and mentor.
I am still in complete and utter shock.
I probably did over 1,000 shows in the five years I worked with Mary Wilson. She was an enormous part of my life during that time.
I knew Mary Wilson long before I met her, when she entered my life singing “Stop! In The Name Of Love” and “Baby Love”. She was a part of my life long before I knew I would be working with her AS A SUPREME!
I had the priceless privilege of being mentored by Mary, as she was mentored by Berry Gordy. She felt she had an obligation to do it for her ladies. I remember many limo rides with her telling me to sit up straight and cross my legs “like a lady.” She taught me how to beat my face in five minutes, although she could literally throw on some lip gloss and look absolutely ravishing. She taught me how to do the ever elegant Supremes walk in a heavy sequined gown. She taught me how to “work” wearing a cape. Oh, those damned capes which she refused to go on stage without! How many hours did I spend sewing feather boas onto and steaming those things? (And how many did I burn holes into by ironing on too high of a setting?)
She taught me that it was just as important to glam it up for the shows we did at country fairs for audiences of farmers as it was for the many audiences of the privileged and wealthy we performed for. She taught me the value of a fan, to whom she was always gracious, kind, and loyal.
Trust me, we had our girl moments on the road when it wasn’t all lollipops and rainbows. Times when her nutty Pisces side came out (along with her claws). One thing is for sure though, she always put her ladies first. In her mind, in many ways, we were as much of a Supreme as she was. And as much of a diva as she could sometimes be (rightfully so), she was right there with us and the band for those dark early-morning calls to get on a flight to wherever.
We performed at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame numerous times, where the Mary Wilson/Supremes Gown Collection has been on exhibit, and where we always got royal treatment. We played my hometown, New York City, at the iconic BB King’s for one of my most memorable shows with her. She was absolutely stellar that evening.
We performed many prestigious shows, but one that stands out in my memory is the time we traveled to Italy for an embassy show and stayed a little longer for a mini family vacation. We hung out like a family, fought like a family, and loved each other like a family, spending many holidays on the road. We spent many nights after the show partying in Mary’s hotel room. I think she felt like we were her children. I know she loved us. She was so patient with us (especially me)! We butted heads like mother and daughter, and sometimes she nagged me like a mom, but only because she cared. Mary was my show biz Mommy. As I look back on those times, I wish I could tell her how much I appreciate her now.
She was a true trailblazer who broke many racial barriers. She performed for royalty and was among one of the first black women who was viewed by mainstream (white) America as a sexy, desirable woman.
She was adamant about retaining and preserving the Supremes and Motown legacy, and played a big role in lobbying for the Truth in Music legislation which is designed to help protect the livelihood of legacy musical groups and artists by preventing imposter performers from improperly using the legacy act’s name.
She was a mother who loved her children and grandbabies. She deeply cared for all of the people she allowed into her life. My deepest condolences go to her family. Especially to her surviving children, Turkessa and Pedro Jr. At least she is now with her dear son, Rafael, whom she spoke of often. My heart also goes out to her dearest friends and the people she loyally kept closest to her…her band. During the years I spent with her, that was Karen Newman, Iris Parker, Bobby Horrace, Ray Pannell, Donzell Davis, Michael Lomas, Mark Zeir, Parnell Marcano, Don Harris, Judy Palma, Johnny Scarpullo, and Mart Avant. I should also include Tom and Barb Ingrassia. They started off as fans of Mary’s over 20 years ago, and later became trusted employees and dear friends. One thing about Mary…when she liked you, she kept you close. She had many people who loved her and showed it with their overwhelming loyalty to her.
The world has lost another Supreme. I thought she would outlive us all. Always vibrant. Always funny. Always beautiful. She welcomed me into her world and I will be forever grateful she made me a Supreme. She will definitely be missed and always hold a special place in my heart.
Rest In Power, Mary.