What a day was yesterday!
First a surprise performance by Jennifer Hudson, just super, who won her Oscar for “Dreamgirls,” the sort based on story of the Supremes.
Then, cross town to the Cafe Carlyle where the real Supreme, Mary Wilson, opened a two week stint to a sold out room. And she even mentioned Jennifer Hudson.
Wilson is 75 years old, and will forever be of the original Supremes, the girl group that have the Beatles a run for their money from 1964-70. Mary had a lead singer’s voice but she relegated to being Diana Ross’s back up singer thanks to Berry Gordy’s infatuation with the latter.
It’s only been in recent years that Wilson has been able to shine on her own. Now all of her hard work, gigging around the world, singing pop and jazz and learning to be the lead, has paid off. Her opening show at the Carlyle was a resounding success.
First of all, she remains gorgeous and vital despite set backs in her personal life over the years. I’ve never known anyone who’s persevered the way Mary Wilson has. Nothing knocks her down for long. She picks right up and gets back to business.
Second, her voice has become deeper and more agile over the years. I think it took her a while to find that voice not, as she says, doing oohs and aahs, but singing the words. She’s not a drinker, but Mary’s voice sounds like a fine brandy. It’s not raspy. but textured. She is full of surprises as she takes on the American songbook old and new, from “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” to Norah Jones’s “I Don’t Know Why.” She makes Lena Horne’s “Stormy Weather” swing disarmingly.
Of course, there’s an irony when it comes to singing Supremes songs. She stopped a quarter of the way into “My World Is Empty Without You” as she forgot the first verse. The background parts are ingrained in her memory. But when she picked it up, and made a medley with “Fever,” there was a sensuousness that Diana Ross could not convey. She had the audience eating out of her hand. When she sings the “Dreamgirls” song, “I Am Changing,” you get chills as she dedicates it to the Supremes’ Florence Ballard. Mary nails it, a meta memory.
I think Mary Wilson’s run at Cafe Carlyle is going to be something people will talk about a for a long time. Her authenticity also sells the show. Here is a woman who’s been through it all and lived to sing about it. The honesty clicked with the audience in a big way. I heard a lot of the first nighter making plans to come back again next week. They will not be alone.