Mary Wilson of the Supremes Makes the Café Carlyle "Ooh" and "Aah"
The veteran performer returns with an eclectic set list and a treasure trove of stories.
Mary Wilson forgot the words to the first verse of "My World Is Empty Without You." The legendary songstress and one-third of the original Supremes has been singing the number since 1965, but she will be the first to tell you that hitherto, she has mostly been responsible for the "oohs" and "aahs" and "baby baby babys." "You can laugh all you want," she offers. "I've been laughing all the way to the bank for 55 years." Now Diana Ross's smoky-voiced backup singer steps to the fore in her return engagement at the Café Carlyle. It's a delightfully nostalgic, occasionally surreal, and consistently entertaining night of song and story.
Wilson eases into her set with a slow jam on the Rodgers and Hart ditty "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," followed closely by a smooth jazz arrangement of Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke's "What's New?" The sultry intimacy of the set continues with a sexy rendition of the Burt Bacharach and Hal David number "The Look of Love." With a flick of her fan and a flash of her eyes, Wilson seems to take immense pleasure in the flirtation of live performance, seducing the audience through the highlighted tendrils of her hair.
So natural is Wilson's stage presence that her mannerisms often underline the vibe of a song, however inadvertently: In the middle of a bossa nova-inflected rendition of Johnny Mercer's "I Remember You," she took out a compact mirror and, without missing a beat, removed a false eyelash that was peeling off in the Amazonian heat of the New York May. This led right into Brazilian favorites "The Girl From Ipanema" and "Mas Que Nada," in which we all became her backup singers.
At age 75, Wilson is a living witness to the golden era of American pop music, and she peppers her banter with stories about flying around the world with her fellow Supremes. Three young black women with big voices and even bigger dreams, they were the act to beat in the 1960s (as noted in the recent Broadway musical Ain't Too Proud). Of the invading Brits whom they often displaced on the charts, she understates, "We gave them a run for their money."
One of the most moving numbers of the evening, "I Am Changing" from Dreamgirls, is dedicated to fellow Supreme Florence Ballard, whom Wilson compares with the central character of that musical, Effie White. Not that she's suggesting that Dreamgirls is based on the Supremes: "I wasn't paid for it," she wryly remarks before noting all the things writers Henry Krieger and Tom Eyen got right. Employing baroque riffs and conveying battle-hardened resolve, Wilson knocks the number out of the Café Carlyle and into Central Park.
But nothing compares in emotional heft with Wilson's soaring version of Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now." It's an unexpected choice for a pop singer like Wilson, but she admits that the folk ballad speaks to her on a deeply personal level. The final lyric, "I really don't know life at all," is sung as a confession.
Pianist Mark Zier provides muscular accompaniment throughout, gracefully switching gears when Wilson deviates from the order of the set list (which is often). The elegant brushwork of drummer Donzell Davis undergirds the jazzy feel of numbers like "Stormy Weather," while Eugene Perez's sturdy bass brings us into the era of disco and R&B (his contributions are particularly noteworthy in Wilson's encore performance of "Last Dance"). Guitarist Paul Livant bridges the divide between all genres in a show that is as eclectic as the entirety of American music.
That's to be expected: This is Wilson's 60th year in show business, and she has the presence of someone who has seen it all. She's also still going strong with a voice that holds up in both tone and expressive quality. All that considered, it's easy to forgive her when she drops a lyric or two.