By: DAVID BROWNE
A founding member of The Supremes has passed away. She was 76. Wilson’s publicist, Jay Schwartz, confirmed the singer’s death to Rolling Stone, but did not reveal a cause.
The original Supremes — which also included Diana Ross and Florence Ballard — were one of Motown’s biggest and most consistent hitmakers, scoring 12 Number One hits from 1964 to 1969. With Wilson’s warm alto blending in with Ross’ feathery lead vocals and Ballard’s grittier delivery, Supremes hits like “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” and “Stop! In the Name of Love” defined the Motown sound and the decade itself. With their gowns, wigs, and elegant dance moves, the Supremes also brought an elegance and sophistication to pop.
Although Ross left the Supremes in 1970, Wilson continued on with another version of the band until 1977. Although she struggled to find musical success on her own, she toured regularly and authored several books, including the bestselling Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, and her later, candid assessments of the Supremes and Motown’s history made her one of the most insightful of its performers.
“My condolences to Mary’s family,” Ross said in a statement. “I am reminded that each day is a gift. I have so many wonderful memories of our time together. ‘The Supremes’ will live on, in our hearts.”
“I was extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family, Mary Wilson of the Supremes,” Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement. “The Supremes were always known as the ‘sweethearts of Motown.’ Mary, along with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, came to Motown in the early 1960s. After an unprecedented string of Number One hits, television and nightclub bookings, they opened doors for themselves, the other Motown acts, and many, many others.… I was always proud of Mary. She was quite a star in her own right and over the years continued to work hard to boost the legacy of the Supremes. Mary Wilson was extremely special to me. She was a trailblazer, a diva, and will be deeply missed.”
Born in Greenville, Mississippi, on March 6th, 1944, Wilson moved with her family to St. Louis and then Chicago when she was young. Her father Sam, a butcher, lived an erratic life, and Mary wound up living in Detroit, where she was raised by an aunt and uncle amid middle-class trappings. Eventually, her mother, known as Johnnie Mae, returned, and the family wound up living in the Brewer-Douglass Projects in Detroit.
As challenging as life in the projects could be, the setting changed Wilson’s life. At 14, she met two other residents — first Ballard, with whom Wilson started a singing group, and eventually Ross. Together with another neighbor, Betty Travis, they formed the Primettes (an answer to the Primes, a local all-male band, featuring Eddie Kendricks and Paul Williams, later of the Temptations), and the quartet began performing locally. Thanks to Ross’ friendship with Smokey Robinson, the Primettes landed an audition at Motown, where they sang the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” for Gordy. Gordy considered signing the Primettes (which also included Barbara Martin, who replaced Travis) to Motown, but elected to wait until they were no longer underage. In 1960, the Primettes became Motown’s first girl group.
The name wouldn’t last long; just before their first single, 1961’s “I Want A Guy” was released, Gordy informed them that they needed a new name, and Ballard suggested they use “Supremes,” taken from a list of possibilities. The group’s first eight singles didn’t fare well on the charts, and eventually Martin left, reducing the Supremes to a trio. Finally, in 1964, “Where Did Our Love Go” broke through,
From their earliest days as the Primettes, the group had paid attention to wardrobe and dance moves, but as the Supremes, they became Motown’s most glamorous act; they also became regulars on television and the charts. Wilson would later claim that she would only make $5,000 from a million-selling Supremes hit. But by 1966, the group’s hits came to include “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “My World Is Empty Without You,” and “I Hear a Symphony.” They were rich and famous, and Wilson owned a 10-room duplex in Detroit.
But as Wilson would later write in her memoir Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, it became apparent that Gordy and Motown wanted to “emphasize Diana’s role and diminish Flo’s and mine.” In 1967, the group’s name was changed to Diana Ross and the Supremes, by which time Ballard (who died in 1976, years after being fired from the group) was replaced by Cindy Birdsong. A few of the later Supremes singles, like “Love Child” and “Someday We’ll Be Together,” did not even include Wilson.
Inevitably, Ross left the Supremes, who continued with Wilson, Birdsong, and new singer Jean Terrell. They charted a few singles of their own — 1970’s “Stoned Love” was a Number One R&B hit — but they never replicated their fame with Ross and broke up for good in 1977. “My heart was kind of broken,” Wilson said in 1990. “I realized that the biggest part of what would happen to me in life was over.” Wilson released an eponymous solo album in 1979 but soon parted ways with Motown. “The Supremes had 12 Number One hits,” she said later. “I’d love to just have one.”
In 1983, the original Supremes reunited for the “Motown 25” TV special, but it proved to be a one-off. Three years later, Wilson explored her previous life in the bestselling Dreamgirl. (The title was a nod to the hit Broadway show, based on the life of the group, which Wilson called “dead on.”) ”With hindsight,” she wrote of Ross’ eventual departure, “one can see that [Ross] had a plan,” and that Ross ”had Berry and never hesitated to hold that over the head of anyone who crossed her.”
The book and its sequel, Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together, firmed up Wilson’s place in history, but finding her voice as a solo artist provided elusive. She would frequently tour as an opening act for comedians like Joan Rivers and Howie Mandel, and a 1992 solo album sold poorly after the indie label that signed her went bankrupt. In 2000, an attempt at a Supremes reunion tour fizzled thanks to money; Wilson claimed she would only be paid $2 million, far less than Ross’ fee. Ross wound up touring with two later Supremes for the poorly received “Return to Love” tour.
“Mary Wilson was such a strong and beautiful spirit,” actress Anika Noni Rose, whose character in the film version of Dreamgirls was inspired by Wilson, says in a statement. “I met her at the Fairmont in San Francisco when I was there performing. I was stunned to find she knew exactly who I was, and she was so warm and kind; not just to me, but to my mother who grew up with her as an icon. I was excited, my mother was blown away, and Ms. Wilson was the epitome of grace and welcoming acceptance. She was a woman made of strong, strong stuff. A survivor who weathered many storms. She will truly be missed.”
In later years, Wilson hit the road with her own show, sometimes called “The Supremes Starring Mary Wilson.” She was also an activist, becoming involved in the fight against the misleading use of band names (after later members of the Supremes toured using that name), and she also helped lobby for the passage of the Music Modernization Act, which made it easier for music creators to be paid when their music streamed online. In 2015, she released an EDM-driven solo single, “Time To Move On” and remained in the public eye as late as 2019, appearing on Dancing With the Stars and publishing her fourth book, Supreme Glamour, focusing on the group’s famous wardrobe.
According to Variety, Wilson released a video on her YouTube channel two days prior to her death announcing that she was at work with Universal Music to release solo material, including the unreleased album Red Hot that she recorded in the Seventies with former Elton John producer Gus Dudgeon. “Hopefully, some of that will be out on my birthday, March 6th,” she said in the video.
According to Schwartz, funeral services will be private due to Covid-19 restrictions and protocols, but there will be a public memorial later this year.
“Most people only know me as a background singer, the oohs and aah,” Wilson said in 2000, “but before they leave my show, they see there’s a voice. I have a very warm, nice voice. I want people to go away knowing, ‘Wow, it wasn’t just one girl in the Supremes. Maybe it was three.’”