Its’s one of those picture-perfect Palm Springs days, as the sun pours through dramatic walls of glass at a modernist home with a panoramic view of the sprawling valley. The sun-kissed pool deck rushes photographer Julie Brothers into action. “It’s like a soft box of light outside,” she says in an almost reverent tone. Meanwhile, Mary Wilson quietly enters the room and slips into the comfortable cocoon of an Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair. For a moment, the photo crew feels suddenly transported to the late 1950s, when Wilson, the iconic singer, and this classic chair burst almost simultaneously into American culture. And both appeared every bit as fantastic as they did back then. “Let’s see those legs,” someone exclaims as Wilson settles into the chair, crosses her still curvaceous gams, and plays to the clicking of the camera shutter.
Flashback to 1959: Wilson, Betty McGlown, Florence Ballard, and Diane Ross (later known as Diana) had formed a quartet known as the Primettes. When Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. signed them in 1961, he thought they needed a better name, and the Supremes were born. The trio (McGlown left the group after their first album) would record 12 No. 1 hits between 1964 and 1969.
Wilson, who launched a solo career in 1977, will give fans a fresh opportunity to see her perform at this month’s Red Hot Heart Ball Gala at Westin Mission Hills Resort & Spa in Rancho Mirage. The event benefits the American Heart Association. Wilson, who suffered a heart attack and underwent bypass surgery in 2006, has lent her support to the organization in the past.
In addition to performing hits from the Supremes repertoire, Wilson will treat the audience to the title song from her upcoming release, Life’s Been Good To Me. “The CD is a bit philosophical,” she says. “It’s my thoughts about life in general, and each song touches on a different time, so one is about the Supremes. It’s a really cool song that just says how I felt and how much I loved the three of us.”
Wilson frequently visits Palm Springs. Her best friend, MaunaLoa Avery, has had a home here for years. Soon after Avery’s husband, a gynecologist, introduced the two, Avery began traveling with the Supremes as Wilson’s hairstylist. “He took care of the inside, and I took care of the outside,” Avery says with a laugh and a wink, suggesting that she has told this anecdote before.
In 2010, Wilson was in town for several months, performing a run at The Fabulous Palm Springs Follies. “I loved every minute of it, and I got to know the area more and meet a lot of friends,” she says. “It really became almost like a second home.”
Wilson still loves performing, but philanthropy has become an important part of her life. “When I’m on stage, I’m the happiest I can ever be. I was just very fortunate that, at the age of 13, I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life — to sing and perform — and that’s come true. But now my life has become much more than that.”
She headlined Evening Under the Stars, the AIDS Assistance Program annual fundraiser, in 2007 and 2009. And she has been deeply involved with the Humpty Dumpty Institute’s outreach program for clearing land mines. “Being a celebrity, a lot of what I do is for my career, so it’s great to be involved with something like HDI, where I get a chance to hopefully help the universe and help people in other countries survive,” Wilson says.
The legendary singer has also been at the forefront of a movement that led to the Truth in Music legislation, which seeks to protect recording artists from identity theft. “There are a lot of ’50s and ’60s groups that are reaching an age where they can’t work anymore, and people who go out and start their own groups take advantage of the use of the names of these famous people,” she says. She adds that most states have enacted laws to protect artists, and the goal is to pass federal legislation to safeguard their names and intellectual property.
Music, of course, remains a huge part of Wilson’s life. Her latest undertaking, Stormy Weather: The Lena Horne Project, has a local connection. Wilson was at a restaurant in Palm Springs when a woman walked by with the book Stormy Weather. “Oh my God, I love Lena Horne. She is one of my favorite people,” Wilson shouted at the startled patron. Wilson ran into the book’s author, James Gavin, the next day, and he asked her if she wanted to be part of a show he was producing. “And I’m like, ‘yeeees,’” she says with great excitement.
“We’ve done three tours now. James reads excerpts from the book, and they show clips of Miss Horne throughout her career. In between, I come out and sing a couple of songs — about 10 in total. I change costumes, and we really capture the mood of the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s. It’s been a wonderful hit show, and we would love to bring it to Palm Springs.”