It was Valentine’s Day of 2018 in Washington, D.C., and Mary Wilson was on a mission. Then 74 years old, the Supremes singer, outfitted in a glamorous red dress and very high heels, needed to convince the nation’s representatives and senators to vote yes on the CLASSICS Act, a proposed piece of legislation to support legacy artists. She wouldn’t take no for an answer.
“We walked the back halls of the Rayburn Building, we stopped members of Congress,” Mitch Glazier, chairman and CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America, recalls. “She’d go into members’ offices and sing ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ and remind them how important that music was to their lives. Members would say it was the song they played at their wedding and how much they loved the Supremes. Afterwards, she’d grab them by the lapels and say, ‘Listen, don’t you think that’s worth protecting?’”
The Motown singer, who died Tuesday at age 76, was above all an artist, a founding member of one of pop music’s biggest and most influential girl groups. Less well-known to the general public is the role she played behind the scenes of the music business in later decades. Music’s public policy experts and lobbyists remember Wilson as a staunch advocate for her fellow artists — someone who could command attention even among powerful political leaders, and one whose relentless effort wouldn’t yield until she won them all over.
That Valentine’s Day event marked one of several visits Wilson made to the capital city to advocate for the Compensating Legacy Artists for their Songs, Service, and Important Contributions to Society (CLASSICS) Act, which was designed to bring fairer royalties to artists and songwriters for songs recorded before 1972. That bill ultimately merged with the broader Music Modernization act, a sweeping piece of music legislation to bring copyright policy up to date for the digital age, which was signed into law in October 2018. The first meeting Wilson had that day was with West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, whom Wilson knew. Amy Isbell, Universal Music Group’s senior vice president of public policy and government affairs, expected the typical photo op and quick handshake; instead, she says, Manchin emerged from his office, gave Wilson a bear hug, and spoke with her for 20 minutes before expressing his support for Wilson and the legislation.
“It was that moment I knew I wasn’t just in the presence of music royalty, but a true gifted advocate,” Isbell says. “We saw Cory Booker that day, Chris Coons. I took her to the House side and we saw Maxine Waters, Jerry Nadler, Ted Lieu. No matter where she went, by the time she left, we had a new supporter. Every legacy artist should be grateful to her, because but for her efforts, they may not have the rights they have secured under federal law today.”
Isbell describes Wilson as a savvy political conversationalist. She talked about civil rights with Booker and sang for Coons, but no matter what, she found ways to relate the conversation back to the importance of signing the CLASSICS Act. “She would take where they started the conversation and bring it on home to why what she did as an artist had value, and why she needed their support now,” Isbell says. “She’d look you in the eyes, and your only response was ‘Yes ma’am.’”
Glazier calls Wilson the leading artist advocate for the bill, and can recall few other artists he’s worked with who were as active as the Supreme.
“There are a few artists who get to a point when they understand that if you’re going to leave something behind, you have to be willing to be an advocate for it,” he says. “Just like with everyone else, politics seems like this far-away thing done in Washington by a professional class. It seems inaccessible. Mary was one of those folks who said, ‘It’s not inaccessible to me.”
Wilson’s advocacy expanded to protect the legacies of catalog artists in other ways. Last year, she started a campaign to get a commemorative postage stamp for her fellow Supremes founding member Florence Ballard; the USPS was reportedly considering that proposal. And for nearly 20 years, Wilson was very active in pushing forward the Truth in Music Advertising Act, legislation that cracks down on imposters posing as legacy artists and groups for performances. While that legislation has never reached the federal floor, to date, 35 states have passed their own bills on the issue, most recently including Hawaii in 2020.
“One of the reasons why RIAA has worked so hard in the states on the Truth in Music bills is because of Mary. She came to us and said she needed us to help her do this,” Glazier says. “She was there for us, so we were going to be there for her. I think there are five or six more states with those bills this year. I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a lot of Mary Wilson Truth in Music Advertising bills passed in the states ahead.”
Wilson reached out to executives to talk about policy frequently. As Future of Music Coalition director Kevin Erickson recalled in a tweet following Wilson’s death, she contacted him following the MMA’s passing to learn more about which policies she should focus on next. “It’s a special kind of artist who proactively gets involved, and it’s rare to see an artist of her size as involved as she was,” he says.
Every few weeks, she’d email or call Joel Flatow, RIAA’s senior vice president of artist and industry relations, to see what she could get involved with, and as Universal Music Enterprises president and CEO Bruce Resnikoff says, she’d bring up policy efforts in most of their conversations after they finished talking about music plans.
Wilson’s advocacy wasn’t very publicized. Every source who spoke with Rolling Stone on her policy work says she was singularly focused on getting her job done and helping get policies over the finish line to support legacy artists. Those she knew her say that her experience as a star performer during the Civil Rights era gave her a sense of how important it was to use her voice and platform for change.
“She felt very deeply the role the Supremes were put in,” Flatow says. “There were these three glamorous, gorgeous, intelligent women on TV, and it was seismic. She was with the Supremes during Martin Luther King Jr.’s era. As she’d put it, they were singing about love and he was talking about love. They were loved, but they faced discrimination and the juxtaposition was very stark. I think that made her take using her platform for the government very seriously.”
Resnikoff says Wilson was very involved in policy and music action with UME. “She didn’t carve out a time in her life where she was only on legislation — she never stopped working on anything,” he says. “She’d go to Sacramento at the State Capitol, then go do a show in Arizona or across the country. She reached out to many of her Motown compatriots and so many other artists. She educated them and mentored them to join the process to help get these acts passed. Her energy level and commitment were second to none.”
After the MMA succeeded in 2018, Glazier met with Wilson at a restaurant in Los Angeles, and with tears in her eyes, she accepted an RIAA commemorative platinum record marking the law’s passing, and a copy of the first royalty check SoundExchange would give for pre-1972 recordings. Resnikoff recalls a similarly ecstatic reaction after Hawaii passed its Truth in Music Advertising bill last year. Those achievements, he says, were ones she held in as high regard as her musical awards.
“You think of all that’s happened in the last year with artists coming forward as advocates,” Isbell says. “She did it her entire life in a tireless way where she didn’t get much press or media attention. She did it way before it was cool.”