Diana? Nope, it’s ‘Proud Mary’ Wilson of the Supremes

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Bet you didn’t know that Mary Wilson, singer supreme, was also a gambling fiend at one time. And, a prolific one at that.

Lena Horne would be proud.

In those days, entertainers were all friendly, Wilson said as she made the rounds promoting a tribute to the legendary Lena coming up Friday (8:30 p.m.) and Saturday (7 and 9:30 p.m.) at The Smith Center. I would hang out in casinos, mostly playing blackjack and baccarat. I’d win $50,000, lose $70,000. I remember once playing with George Hamilton and winning enough for a Rolls Royce that night.

But this isn’t a gambling story as such, though show business is most definitely one of high risk. Wilson still has the passion that made her part of the Supremes – one of the defining groups in music history – and helped put Motown in the 1960’s on everyone’s map.

“Singing for me is just like waking up. I just love it,” Wilson said. I remember my favorite days with the Supremes when we did command performances for the Queen at the London Palladium. The late Dick Clark was nice enough to have us on his tour in 1964. He was a great guy. From that tour came a No. 1 record, Where Did Our Love Go. I was having a ball.

Wilson is forever linked with the great Diana Ross although their strained relationship through the years is, well, “my business.

“We are definitely sisters, she said. It didn’t hold my career back, but I acknowledge I was not prepared at the time as a vocalist to move forward. Now I definitely am. I am where I should have been 20 years ago.”

Wilson was a natural for the Horne tribute, the two having first met in 1964 and developing a lasting friendship.

“I first met Lena at Talk of the Town in England,” she said. “My family loved her. She was a beautiful lady and we stayed close. James Gavin was putting together a show based on the book Stormy Weather (a signature Horne classic). He called me to do the show.”

Wilson became a Vegas resident in 1989, moving from West Hollywood so her kids could grow up in a safer environment.

“When I lived in the West Hollywood/Griffith Park area, they were finding bodies,” Wilson said. “I wanted a better home life. The property values then were great in Vegas so we moved.”

Wilson caught the tail end of the “lounge days” and wishes those times were still around.

“It’s a whole new animal today,” she recalled. “Don Rickles and Shecky Greene were huge lounge acts. I hung out with Sammy Davis and Johnny Carson. Las Vegas was a friendlier town then. Don’t know who was running it, but they were running it very well.”

If you ask Mary who her favorite singers were, the answer comes quickly – Nancy Wilson, Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis.

“All jazz singers” she smiled. “Gladys Knight is a pretty good friend, though I’m closer with her brother Bubba. I will never stop performing. It’s my passion, though you’ll find most entertainers don’t sing in the shower.”

Wilson is delighted for the opportunity to perform at Smith Center, but the performance is just the weekend. She longs for a steady billing in Vegas and may leave town for L.A. or London if one doesn’t come up.

“Vegas is good for certain people,” she said. “But it has changed so much for me that there is nothing left. If I had my own show on the Strip, I would be happy. Who are the ones in charge? Where are those lounge shows or places where you could go to eat after 11 p.m. It’s like Detroit now.”

As a member of the Supremes, Wilson remembers one of her biggest career moments – playing the famed Copacabana in New York City at the age of 21.

“The Supremes as a pop group opened up doors,” she said. “If the Supremes came up today, I still think we could make it. But, it is a different date. The mindset of the entertainment industry is totally different. In my day we sat on the steps to be discovered. Not like that today. You didn’t have a corporation backing you then.” Wilson, now 68, still feels Motown is relevant in music.

“We were unique and sellable,” she said. “I think we would still be on top.”

This lady’s style and energy defies growing up shy.

“I really was very shy as a kid, but now I talk a lot as you can tell,” she said. “I am who I am and always happy with that. People think I am arrogant, but that’s not so. I have been misunderstood for a long time.”

Part of that misunderstanding, Wilson admits, is of her own making.

“Later in life, I’m starting to understand,” she said. “I am a perfectionist. I never really knew why I had problems making friends. Then, I remember someone telling me it was because I was cute. I never really knew what that meant, but I am starting to now.”

As for the gambling, Wilson, unlike many, was able to stop it cold turkey.

“I was single and young with nothing to lose,” she said. “I loved gambling. Like smoking cigarettes, gambling is one of the hardest habits to break. I knew that with children I could lose a lot and it could affect them. I stopped right then.”

Singing, well that’s another matter.

“I’ll never retire,” she said. “I want a gig in Vegas in the worst way. Then, I’ll stay awhile.”

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