Mary Wilson got her first real break when the group she was in with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, the Primettes, got signed to the fledgling Motown label in the early '60s.
The group was soon renamed. You know them as the Supremes.
While the experience of singing in the legendary pop-soul trio was a thrill for Wilson, she says it was the time spent in the company of producers and fellow artists at Motown like Smokey Robinson and the Temptations that really inspired her. She now likens her time at Motown to carefree hours passed in an amusement park.
"To be in the lobby there and hang out with the Four Tops, the Temptations or say Stevie Wonder in his early days, Mary Wells, the producers Holland/Dozier/Holland, there were so many wonderful people," the 54-year-old Wilson said of the label that is celebrating 40 years of music with a recently released compilation album of its greatest hits.
"To be in that environment, it was like being in Disneyland or Disney World, the only thing about it was that we were the rides and we enjoyed each other," she added.
Berry Gordy Jr. got into the record business in the late '50s, first penning hits for Jackie Wilson, before starting his own labels, Tamla and Motown, at the turn of the decade. During the '60s as the former prize fighter built his labels into an international musical force, the name Motown became synonymous with contemporary soul music. In addition to the Supremes, Motown launched the careers of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Jackson 5. Gordy sold Motown in the early '90s.
The label has just released Motown 40 Forever, a 40- song compilation that traces its history, from the early days (the Marvelettes, who earned Motown its first #1 single with "Please Mr. Postman" (RealAudio excerpt)) to the present (Boyz II Men).
Also included on the collection is a "Puffy" Combs remix of the Jackson 5 classic "I Want You Back" (RealAudio excerpt), as well as a pair of the Supremes' chart-toppers, "Stop! In The Name Of Love" and "Someday We'll Be Together" (RealAudio excerpt).
The Supremes real heyday was during the mid-'60s. Original Supremes member Florence Ballard left the group in 1967, and Diana Ross, at Gordy's urging, went solo at the beginning of 1970. The Supremes (with new members) continued on for some years, scoring only a few semi-hits.
Wilson said that even today, when she tours, fans still get their groove on to old Supremes classics. "At a recent show in Dallas, Texas, there were people up on the tables, dancing on the balconies, men doing the hand motions to 'Stop! In The Name Of Love,' and they were gray-haired," Wilson said.
Motown established itself in the music business by focusing on artist development, teaching the artists grooming and etiquette and then teaming them with all-star producers to create the definitive Motown sound.
Dorsey James, general manager of LaFace Records -- which has launched big- time acts such as Toni Braxton and TLC -- said his label, started by super- producers Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds and Antonio "L.A." Reid, has used elements of the Motown formula in developing its own artists.
"The two of them made a conscious effort to model LaFace after Motown in some ways, specifically by building superstars instead of just hit records," James said. "We do preliminary photo shoots to see how artists look on film. We do vocal training before putting them out live. We do interview training. We've taken a page from the Motown book in that respect."
Rapper Mack 10, who recently started his own Hoobangin' label, said he hoped to draw from the well of Motown knowledge as inspiration for his own music. "I think everybody in the music business has been influenced by Motown to a certain extent," said the rapper, who would not reveal his birth name.
"I need Berry Gordy's business mind, and if I can just have a little of the talent he had over there, I'll be all right," Mack 10 added.
These days, Wilson has only fond memories of her life as a Supreme; she described her time in the trio as being right out of a fairy tale. "The new word that I invented is called BLAPS, Black American Princesses.
"We were like real, live Cinderellas," Wilson said. "We were like the American Dream come true. We worked hard, we learned our craft, went to the right record company for us, and they believed in us, pushed us, and we became a success."