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Mary Wilson and Wanda Jackson dish on fans, philanthropy, and rock 'n' roll

Created date

September 22nd, 2009

There's something about the music business that keeps people young in spirit despite the grind involved with touring, recording, and promotion. It seems to be especially tough on women; many come off the road to have children, while others struggle to maintain a balance of being there for their families and keeping their careers alive. ' So what keeps some rock n rollers going, even after many of their peers retired long ago? Two of the legendary women of rock agree: it's the fans. ' Putting on a show ' "I love it because I get a chance to meet people who our music has touched, and so it s like a one on one; they re not just faceless people," says Mary Wilson, one of the founding members of The Supremes. Over the last few months she's been touring supper clubs around the country, doing a lounge-singing act that incorporates songs from The Supremes and others that reflect the events of her life. But over her lengthy career she's played in front of crowds big and small, and she feels the love from all of them, albeit in different ways. ' "In a big arena you re putting on a huge show, and you re performing for the people, and you re doing this show, she says. To me the jazz show is a different thing altogether. I love them both." In fact, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Motown, Wilson will tour the United Kingdom and Europe and display the gowns worn by her and her fellow Supremes. ' No Backstage Johnny ' Wanda Jackson, the queen of rockabilly and a fellow Rock n Roll Hall of Famer, can relate to the fact that fans give her strength. She's been touring internationally almost constantly since the late 1950s, pausing only to give birth to her children. Everywhere she goes, she plays to a set of fans that seems to get younger every year. ' "The letters and comments I get are, 'I hadn t heard of you, but I was going through some of my parents' records,'" she says. "They put the record on and listen to it and just say, Where have I been all these years? Where is she now? They start checking, and they become fans that way." ' During her show, she'll play her best known songs, like "Let's Have a Party" and "Fujiyama Mama" and flirt with the assembled crowd. All the while, she's telling the long story of her recording career, from being discovered as a teenager to the present day. ' One of the keys to success that Jackson, who was inducted to the Rock Hall this past April after being endorsed by superstars such as Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello, cites is that her husband of 48 years, Wendell, tours with her. Soon after they married, he left his burgeoning career at IBM to help manage her s, because, as Jackson says, "He wasn t going to be just a Backstage Johnny, you know, hanging around." ' While the Jacksons have recently toured countries as far-flung as Australia, they always come back to her Oklahoma City base where their children live. "We were apart long enough," she says. "We wanted to be together all the time, so that was possible that way." ' Still chasing dreams ' Wilson, who's been in the Rock Hall since 1988, co-founded the Supremes (first known as the Primettes) with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard [IS1] ' in 1959, and she was the only member who remained when the group finally disbanded in 1977. ' Since then, she has been able to flex her philanthropic muscles. She was once a cultural ambassador for the State Department, and, more recently, she's been a spokesman for the Humpty Dumpty Institute (HDI) and its effort to reduce the use of land mines in developing countries. ' "I really enjoyed that because it s bigger than me, and it gives me something to do," she says of her involvement with HDI. "I don t have to think and be selfish, you know? I can be a help to somebody else." ' After years of living in New York she got an associates degree from NYU after a 1994 auto accident claimed the life of her 14-year-old son, Raphael, and left her severely injured she moved to Las Vegas to live with her daughter, Turkessa, and her family. "Let me tell you, being a star is a lonely thing anyway, so you need the family around you," she says. ' Both women think that at some point they'll slow down both cite the difficulty in air travel as a big reason why but they share a similar philosophy about keeping things going, even as they get older. "Like I say, if I had to stop right now, I am sure I would just depend upon the Lord to bring something into my life that would interest me enough to keep me happy and fulfilled," says Jackson. "There s always things to do." ' Wilson takes it one step further than Jackson, though; she thinks of her life and the 50 years she's been in the business as "one long day." To her, age "ain't nothing but a number. It took me forever to be 21, but after 21 it just flew by. ' "I look at it like there s so many people, some beautiful human beings whose lives were cut short for one reason or another, so I m just happy that I m still here," she says. "I can pursue my dreams. I can still get better."