Martha Reeves was just about to go to bed on Monday evening when she got the horrible news that her dear friend Mary Wilson had died. The two Motown stars had known each other since the earliest days of their careers more than 60 years ago, and they’d traveled the world countless times in various revue shows, playing timeless Sixties hits like “Baby Love,” “Heat Wave,” and “Stop! In The Name of Love.” In the past few years, Reeves and Wilson toured together as the Legendary Ladies of Motown, and their lifelong bond grew even closer.
“I could hardly believe it when I heard the news,” an emotional Reeves tells Rolling Stone. “My phone has been ringing off the hook since 6 a.m. I’m holding on and trying to stay strong for everyone that wants to speak with me. A lot of them wanted to know if we were competitors. We were not. We were lifelong friends.” Here is the lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas in her own words, as she looks back at her friendship with Wilson and the incredible legacy of Motown.
I went to the same high school as Mary Wilson [Detroit’s Northeastern High School]. We had the same music teacher. Abraham Silver taught Mary Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Sylvester Potts of the Contours. I’m three years older than Mary, but I knew of her when I arrived at Hitsville USA.
I was there singing and being a secretary, because I had taken a commercial course in high school. I could type. I could take dictation. I could look in thesauruses and dictionaries and rhyme words and help producers make songs. I could take those songs that men wrote — it was almost all men — and make them feminine. They were songs about falling in love, and that’s what Motown music made you do. We were all ambassadors of love.
I got to meet Mary when she was one of the young ladies sitting in the lobby of Hitsville USA waiting on Berry Gordy to discover them. He had made up his mind not to do anything with the Supremes until they were 21, because they were still in high school. But they were determined, and they stayed there long enough for Berry to acknowledge them, along with [the songwriting team] Holland-Dozier-Holland.
As you know, Berry and Diana Ross were also wedlocked. They had a child. I got to see Mary when they would come in there. She was very sweet and kind, and she remained sweet and kind all her life.
Mary and I were never competitors. We were sisters. We were trained by the same instructors at the Motown Finishing School. We had instructors that taught us music theory, dance steps, and how to be ladies and be socially accepted.
Berry Gordy knew what he was doing when he put all his acts on the Motown Revue and sent us out into the world. It was three months of touring and making our music famous. When we got back to Detroit, everyone’s record had charted, mainly because Berry Gordy was clever enough to have some on Motown, some on Gordy, some on Tamla, some on Rare Earth. He had enough labels so that our music could be distributed through the charts, and we dominated the charts after that tour.
The Marvelettes were the first girl group to become famous. [Martha and the Vandellas] were the second. The Supremes took a little longer, but they were third. A lot of their early songs weren’t hits. They would make a joke sometimes to us and say, “Yeah, we were here early, but we were the No Hit Supremes until Holland-Dozier-Holland got famous with your songs, ‘Come and Get These Memories’ and ‘Heat Wave.'”
Then they started writing for the Supremes under the direction of Berry Gordy. Berry assigned them to the Supremes, and they came up with ten Number Ones in a row, almost the same rhythm, almost the same beat. It was success. They knew what they were doing.
Mary Wilson, Diana Ross, and Florence Ballard shone like pure gold. They were the biggest stars of girl groups in the world. I was very proud to be a part of it.
Many years later, Mary and I toured England with Edwin Starr and a Motown Revue. That lasted for six months. After that, Mary and I worked together for years and years. Recently, we were the Legendary Ladies. That’s a duo show with our backup singers and our band that played all over the United States for the past six years.
We were always in touch with each other. We sent each other gifts and flowers. I have a beautiful porcelain vase right here that Mary gave me. It’s a beautiful profile of a woman, and it’s something I’ll always cherish. Now, who would think we’d exchange gifts like that? A lot of people assumed we were competitors, but Mary has always been a true friend of mine.
She was the beauty and the sunshine of the Supremes. She was beautiful and she was fair. Everybody’s heart is broken by her death.
We have worked side by side nearly all of our lives. She was always a sweet, darling, professional, beautiful woman. And she held her own. Oh yes, she did. And I was right there with her. Together, we helped keep the legacy of Motown alive.
Mary will live with me forever. I hate to even say that it’s a loss. She just made her transition. God is good. He gave us a beautiful gift with Mary Wilson, and we’ll always cherish it.