Mary Wilson will always be known as a founding member of The Supremes, but that’s not the only title she carries.
The legendary songbird is also a bestselling author, musicians’ rights activist, lecturer, spokeswoman, cultural ambassador, humanitarian and a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee.
“I do many, many different things,” Wilson says. “What’s that old saying? A jack of all trades and a master of none? And it’s all wonderful. It’s all just a part of being an entertainer.
Her latest title could be interpreter.
Wilson will bring to life the songs of another African-American icon in a special multimedia concert that combines story, images and nightclub-era songs of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.
The Chandler Center for the Arts is presenting “Stormy Weather: The Story of Lena Horne Starring Mary Wilson” on Saturday, March 25. Tickets are $48, $42 and $32.
The evening features storytelling, interviews, rare audio and video, and visual images as well as a live performance of several of Horne’s songs, sung by Wilson and accompanied by a jazz quartet. Songs will include, “Stormy Weather,” “Yesterday When I Was Young” and “Honeysuckle Rose.”
The Brooklyn-born singer, dancer, actress and activist, died May 9, 2010, at the age of 92.
Wilson met Horne during her days as a Supreme and cited her as one of her musical inspirations as well as an ideal role model.
“Back then we didn’t have a whole lot of role models but Ms. Horne was certainly someone who was relatable and someone we could call a role model,” Wilson says. “We became aware of her through our parents and she was one of the few black women you saw on television and film. The Supremes looked at her and certainly emulated her in terms of glamor.”
She noted The Supremes met Horne sometime in the 1960s at a nightclub in London.
“Ms. Horne was closing the club the night we arrived and saw her show,” Wilson says. “Afterward, we went to her dressing room and she was everything you’d expect her to be. Refined and elegant and gave us encouragement as well as champagne. We had a ball.”
Wilson said that friendship continued for several years when the two lived in New York City, where Horne made a triumphant return to Broadway in 1981 with her one-woman show, “Lena Horne: The Lady and Her Music.” The show ran on Broadway for 14 months, toured the United States and abroad, and won a Tony and two Grammy Awards for its soundtrack.
When Wilson was approached in 2010 by author James Gavin, who wrote a biography on Horne and turned it into a live show, she said yes.
The show highlights Horne’s personal and professional ups and downs, and was once the highest-paid black entertainer in show business. That is, until she became an outspoken member of a leftist political group and found herself blacklisted when McCarthyism swept through Hollywood in the late 1940s.
The ban eased in the mid-1950s and Horne mended her career with a mixture of films, television appearances and best-selling albums.
The following decade Horne became deeply involved in the civil rights movement, performing many rallies around the country, including the 1963 March on Washington led by Martin Luther King Jr., whom The Supremes encountered several times.
“He came to many of our shows and we definitely felt honored to be in his presence,” Wilson says. “When you met him, you knew the cause. He helped a lot of people on all sides and of all colors. He helped America.”
The same could be said for Horne, who brought passion and dignity to every aspect of her life at a time when African-American women had no voice or opportunity of expression.
“We became very close and Ms. Horne was a great lady,” Wilson says. “I’m honored and blessed to have known her.”
“Stormy Weather: The Story of Lena Horne Starring Mary Wilson,” Chandler Center for the Arts, 250 N. Arizona Avenue, Chandler, 480.782.2680, chandlercenter.org, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 25, $32-$48.