Mary Wilson, a founding member of the Supremes whom Motown founder Berry Gordy called “the glue” that kept the legacy of the legendary group alive, has died. She was 76.
Wilson died suddenly at her home in Henderson, Nev., on Monday, her publicist Jay Schwartz said. A statement confirming her death did not give a cause.
Wilson, a singer and best-selling author, helped form the Primettes in Detroit in 1959, alongside Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Betty McGlown. McGlown eventually left the group before they signed a record deal.
“We were obsessed [with] music, but we also talked about boys and school and all our dreams,” Wilson wrote in one of two autobiographies she would write, Dreamgirl and Supreme Faith: My Life As a Supreme.
“We never could have guessed just how many of them would come true.”
Wilson, Ross and Ballard went on to enjoy huge success as the trio the Supremes. Under the Motown Records label, the group scored 12 No. 1 hits with their blend of R&B, pop and soul. Hit songs such as Baby Love, Come See About Me, Back In My Arms Again, You Can’t Hurry Love and Stop! In the Name of Love remain influential decades later.
“I have so many wonderful memories of our time together,” Ross said on Twitter.
I just woke up to this news , my condolences to you Mary’s family ,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 💕
The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Dreamgirls, a play that in part took inspiration from the group, ran for nearly four years on Broadway in the 1980s and was made into a 2006 motion picture starring Eddie Murphy and singers Beyoncé and Jennifer Hudson.
Gordy in his 1994 autobiography, To Be Loved: The Music, the Magic, the Memories of Motown, called Wilson the “heart of the soul of Supremes. She had been the glue that kept the group and their legacy alive.”
“I was always proud of Mary,” he said in a statement following her death. “She was quite a star in her own right and over the years, continued to work hard to boost the legacy of the Supremes.… She was a trailblazer, a diva and will be deeply missed.”
Wilson was born in Greenville, Miss., on March 6, 1944, making her way with family members north to Detroit by her teen years.
Wilson, Ross and Ballard would audition for Motown in 1960, making a connection to the label through Smokey Robinson. They weren’t signed right away, with Gordy thinking they were too young and green and encouraging them to go to college.
“By the time we got to Motown, I didn’t want to go to college. I wanted to make a record,” said Wilson in the 2019 documentary Hitsville: The Making of Motown.
Early stumbles, massive success
Eventually they were signed, with a name change chosen by Ballard. The group was developed with help from Motown’s in-house choreographer and etiquette coach, but early songs written by Gordy and Robinson met with mixed success.
The Supremes finally clicked on Where Did Our Love Go, the beginning of a string of hits written by the powerhouse Holland-Dozier-Holland production team (Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier). The song began a run of five straight singles to reach No. 1 on the Billboard charts.
“We were no longer the no-hit Supremes,” said Wilson in Hitsville.
To a female trailblazer and forever Sweetheart of Motown, who brought many timeless records for generations to come – Thank You. <br><br>Your art and your legacy will forever live on in the Motown story. From our Motown family, rest in paradise <a href=”https://twitter.com/MWilsonSupreme?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@MWilsonSupreme</a> 🕊 <a href=”https://t.co/YwsZM41g9v”>pic.twitter.com/YwsZM41g9v</a>
They became mainstays on the widely watched The Ed Sullivan Show, appearing over a dozen times beginning with a Dec. 27, 1964, appearance in which they performed Come See About Me.
“It was a moment that changed my life,” Oprah Winfrey said on her syndicated daytime talk show of their debut appearance. “I had never seen Black women on television … or anywhere for what matter, who conveyed such glamour and such grace.”
While tours in the U.S. were still undertaken under the shadow of segregation, they were treated like royalty on their first visit to England, Wilson writes in her memoir.
“We were having the time of our lives,” said Wilson in Dreamgirl. “Back in Detroit, we were still living with our families in the Projects; here we were guests in a hundred-room mansion, dining amid antique china and crystal.”
Wilson in her memoir detailed the whirlwind of their success — she was able to buy houses in Detroit and Hollywood and was involved in a relationship with Four Tops singer Duke Fakir — but also the friction that would often ensue with Ross, who would become the undisputed star of the group by the late 1960s. Further complications arose when Ross and Gordy became romantically involved for several years.
Ballard would leave the group in 1968, replaced by Cindy Birdsong, while Ross left in 1970, bound for success as a solo artist and as an actress.
Ballard, who led a troubled life away from the stage, died at 32 in 1976. To Wilson’s annoyance, she wrote in her memoir, Ballard’s funeral ended with The Supremes’ Someday We’ll Be Together, a 1969 recording sung by Ross which neither Ballard nor Wilson appeared on.
Wilson stayed on with the Supremes even after other original members left and new ones joined the lineup. The group split in 1977 and she pursued a solo career, releasing 1979’s Mary Wilson and 1992’s Walk The Line. She was also involved in a host of charitable endeavours.
Becase of COVID-19 restrictions, a funeral service for Wilson will be private, the statement said. A celebration of her life is expected later in the year.