To Mary Wilson, Lena Horne has always been supreme

Mary Wilson at the premiere of Smokey Robinson Presents: Human Nature at the Imperial Palace.
Photo: Erik Kabik/Retna/

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Criss Angel, Mary Wilson and Jeff Timmons
Mary Wilson, of The Supremes, performs with Human Nature at the Imperial Palace.

Mary Wilson, of The Supremes, performs with Human Nature at the Imperial Palace.

Every so often, you hear a classic hit performed by the Supremes. In Vegas, it can happen almost anywhere, and randomly: “I Hear a Symphony” while walking through a department store, “Where Did Our Love Go?” on an oldies radio station, even “Back in My Arms Again” piped through a sound system installed in a hotel-casino parking lot.

Mary Wilson hears those songs, too. And when she does, she stops.

“Sometimes I want to run around and say, ‘Hey! Listen! That’s me!’ ” Wilson says as she dips a spoon into a very supreme-sized bowl of oatmeal at Hash House a Go Go at M Resort, near her home in Anthem. “There was a time when nothing went through my mind. Now that I’m older, it has a different feeling for me. I kind of really understand how much a part of history we are, all the things you’ve dreamed about when you’re young, I’ve actually done it.”

A founding member of the legendary Motown vocal group, Wilson continues to develop her musical styles in a distinctively non-Supreme manner. This weekend, she’s shedding her Motown persona and venturing exclusively and heart first into the life and career of one of her dear friends and inspirations, Lena Horne.

On Friday and Saturday, Wilson is starring in “James Gavin: The Lena Horne Project” at Cabaret Jazz at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts. Friday’s show is at 8:30 p.m., Saturday’s at 7 p.m. Tickets are $45 and $65 and are available at the Smith Center website.

The stage show is a live, music-driven adaptation of Gavin’s book, “Stormy Weather,” chronicling Horne’s life as a civil-rights activist and legendary entertainment career. He will narrate the show, live, as Wilson dons gowns, accessories and the hairstyles popular in Horne’s early career (expressly, the 1930s) without embracing a full-scale impersonation of the multifaceted superstar, who starred on Broadway, television and as a pop and jazz artist.

“It will be a spoken-word show, with a lot of music,” Wilson says. “I see it as a live documentary about Lena Horne.”

Wilson is an apt figure to resurrect Horne’s career onstage, as the two met in 1968 at the famed London nightclub Talk of the Town. The Supremes’ appearance in February of that year was recorded for the album “Diana Ross and the Supremes Live at London’s Talk of the Town.”

“We were friends ever since then,” Wilson says. “Lena was a major star in our household and the black community. She was our queen. We didn’t have black people who were on TV who were glamorous to watch. So we grew up with her. She was always our star. “

Wilson later came to understand that Horne was at once a brilliant and troubled superstar.

“We never knew the problems she was having in her life, what she was dealing with,” Wilson says. “She had problems from the black community and the white community because she didn’t fit in anywhere. She had a very difficult life but never let you see it. Onstage and in pubic, she was always beautiful.”

Wilson’s involvement in the production came about almost by accident, when she met Gavin at a book signing in Palm Springs, Calif. Wilson introduced herself, and Gavin told the pop-music icon that he had developed a stage show based on the book, featuring mostly unknown singers with a three-piece band. He was eager to upgrade the production and asked Wilson if she might be interested in singing Horne’s songs live.

“I said, ‘Um, yeah!’ ” Wilson says. “I started singing jazz just recently, about five years ago professionally. I am a ballad singer, a blues singer. That’s what I do. This suits me perfectly, it’s what I do and do very well. It fits who I am, more than what we did with the Supremes even.”

Wilson is going to dip back into the Supremes’ hits in the fall when she performs a tour of Europe with former Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. The two have twice toured England, with the most recent 22-city tour Feb. 26-March 20, 2011, selling out every stop. Wilson has long realized that the Supremes have always been greatly beloved overseas.

“The Supremes were always bigger in Europe than we ever were in the States,” she says. “We’re going through Finland, Norway, all through Europe, beginning in September.”

Still stunning at age 68, Wilson is as active as she was when the Supremes first broke through in the early ’60s. She has long sought a regular headlining residency in Las Vegas but remains frustrated that she has not found a suitable partnership with any hotel-casino. Wilson’s greatest-hits, concert-fashioned show at Riviera last year did not sell well, even as she remains popular elsewhere.

Wilson says if something does not break soon, she’s off to England.

“My biggest desire now is to find something regular in Las Vegas,” she says, “and if I don’t find it, I might be moving to London. I’m 68 years old, right? I’m still so active, I am always moving forward, and I need to be somewhere where I can move forward.”

In a tribute to her longtime friend, Mary Wilson is doing that now.

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