When Diana Ross would call Mary Wilson “the sexy one” back in the 1960s, she wasn’t kidding.
During her concert Saturday night at The Grand Opera House in Macon, Wilson played her flirtatious stage persona to the hilt, dedicating not one, but two songs to her “favorite things — men,” and teasing the audience with suggestive one-liners and stunning, form-fitting costumes. During the breathless ninety-minute show, Wilson also presented a surprisingly eclectic setlist, mixing the hits she enjoyed as a founding member of The Supremes with songs by artists ranging from Aretha Franklin to Sting to The Rolling Stones. “I’m a little Tina Turner,” she said at one point, and her frenetic presence and searing vocals went a long way toward proving that statement true.
The bulk of the show was comprised of Wilson’s Motown hits, and it was nice to hear full versions of songs ranging from “Love Child” to “My World Is Empty Without You” to “Reflections.” With her talented background singers (Parnell Marcano and Hollis Paysuer) and a fantastic four-piece band, Wilson easily evoked the crisp urgency of those Hitsville recordings, delivering each one with her own brand of drama. Wilson’s voice is different enough from that of Diana Ross that it’s easy to judge her performances on their own merits, and the still-considerable range and power of Wilson’s misty alto were extremely impressive. She particularly put her own stamp on “You Can’t Hurry Love,” during which she added riffs and ad-libs so strong and soulful, you kind of wish they were there on the original studio recordings.
Interestingly, Wilson’s best moments came during her interpretations of songs from outside the Motown fold. She sang a gorgeous version of Sting’s “Fields Of Gold,” during which she allowed Mr. Marcano to take some of the spotlight (and reminded audiences that she’s one of the best harmony singers in the business while backing him up), and turned in a lovely reading of the classic “You Are So Beautiful.” Wilson also performed her own 1992 single “Walk The Line,” which sounds better live than it ever did on record. Her final song of the night was an energetic rendition of Donna Summer’s “Last Dance,” which gave Wilson a chance to demonstrate some chill-inducing high notes. Donna would have been proud.
But the night’s ultimate performance was Wilson’s take on “I Am Changing” from Dreamgirls, with she dedicated to fellow Supreme Florence Ballard. Wilson introduced the song with a lengthy monologue concerning her conflicted feelings about the musical (“I didn’t get paid,” she repeated a few times to the chuckling audience), but it’s obvious that the song is close to her heart, and she absolutely tore it to shreds. Because Wilson was generally relegated to singing soft ballads during her time with The Supremes, and rarely got a chance to tackle really soulful material until the mid-1970s, it’s easy to forget what a superb soul singer she really is. But on “I Am Changing,” Wilson’s voice reached stratospheric heights, and the resulting ovation was well-deserved.
Mary Wilson’s ups and down have been well-documented, mainly in her own pair of autobiographies, Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme and Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together. But watching her perform in Macon, just weeks after her 72nd birthday, it seems as if the singer has finally settled into a comfortable groove. Wilson’s love of performing is obvious, and her voice is in far better shape than many of her contemporaries.
She might still be “the sexy one” — but she’s also proven to be much, much more.