Supremes founding member dies aged 76
For me Mary Wilson was the best singer in The Supremes (originally The Primettes) the band she founded with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard. It is unfortunate that she was sidelined and turned into a backing singer because of Ross’s relationship with Berry Gordy. But the real soul devotee’s understood a real soul/R&B singer when they heard one and she went on from 1977 to forge a solo career that gained cult status. Her leaving signalled the end of the Supremes, she famously said “I’m not friends with Diana Ross” in a Daily Telegraph interview in 2019.
Mary also had a social conscience she was an activist, fighting to pass Truth in Music Advertising bills and donating to various charities. The news of her death is even more shocking when you consider this she released this video 2 days before she died:
Today’s Guardian tribute: Mary Wilson, co-founder of the Supremes, dies aged 76
By Rob Burns
Mary Wilson, the co-founder of the Motown band the Supremes, has died age 76. Wilson’s publicist said she died suddenly at her Las Vegas home. No cause of death was given.
The Motown founder, Berry Gordy, said he was:
“extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family.
“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 No 1 hits, television and nightclub bookings, they opened doors for themselves, the other Motown acts, and many, many others.”
Musicians including Questlove and Kiss’s Paul Stanley paid tribute to Wilson. PaulStanley tweeted:
“I was just on a Zoom call with her Wednesday for about an hour and never could have imagined this. So full of life and great stories. Absolutely shocked. Rest in Supreme peace, Mary.”
Wilson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, on 6 March 1944. Her family moved to Chicago and later Detroit. At primary school in Detroit, Wilson met Florence Ballard while singing in a school talent show.
In 1958, Ballard recruited Wilson and Diana Ross to form the Primettes. The group performed covers at local events and made a name for themselves locally. Aspiring to sign to Motown, Ross asked her former neighbour, Smokey Robinson, to get them an audition with Gordy.
Undeterred by Gordy deeming them too young to sign, the trio made themselves a regular presence around his Hitsville USA studio until he allowed them to make guest appearances on records by other artists.
“It really was like walking into a Disneyland,” Wilson told the Observer in 2019 of the Motown studio. “All these creative people.”
In January 1961, Gordy signed the group under the proviso that they change their name. At first they failed to make an impression on the charts but in 1964 their version of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s Where Did Our Love Go topped the US charts and reached No 3 in the UK.
It was the beginning of an international chart streak that included Baby Love, Stop! In the Name of Love and You Can’t Hurry Love. The trio also became known for their glamorous attire, and in 1966, their album Supremes A’ Go-Go became the first record by an all-woman group to top the US album charts, knocking the Beatles’ Revolver off the No 1 spot.
The group broke down by the end of the decade as Gordy primed Ross for solo success and Ballard experienced depression and alcoholism: she died of a heart attack in 1976.
“What hurts me is that some people say: ‘One of the Supremes was an alcoholic.’ Flo drank to cover the pain,” Wilson told the Observer, referring to the sexual abuse that Ballard suffered as a child. “She only become an alcoholic because of that.
Wilson was the only consistent member of the group until their demise in 1977. After a legal battle with Motown, Wilson resigned with the label as a solo artist, to middling success. She found herself on top again in 1986 when her memoir, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, broke sales records. She also enjoyed success in musical theatre. Protracted business negotiations left Wilson out of a Supremes reunion planned for 2000, which was ultimately cancelled owing to low sales.
Wilson later became an inspirational speaker, an advocate for musicians’ rights, creator of a touring exhibition of the Supremes’ famous gowns, and in 2019 appeared on US series Dancing with the Stars.
She had been planning to release solo material, including her unreleased 1970s album Red Hot recorded with producer Gus Dudgeon. In a video uploaded to YouTube two days before her death, she expressed her wish that some of her recordings would be released by her birthday on 6th March.
Wilson married Pedro Ferrer in 1974. They were divorced in 1981. They had three children: their youngest, Rafael, died in a car accident in 1994, in which Wilson was injured.
“I think you’re lucky if you don’t get that kind of loss in your life,” she told the Observer. “You can lose a job, you can lose a love, but the loss of a child, and the loss of a dear friend, can be very detrimental. It helped me grow up and I don’t mean in a good way. It made me see that life can be very cruel to someone you love.”
She was also adoptive mother to her cousin, Willie.
Gordy said he 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.”
Truth in Music Advertising – Wikipedia
Mary Wilson of the Supremes: ‘Motown was like walking into Disneyland’ – Barbara Ellen interview in the Observer on 29th September 2019
Mary Wilson: the Supremes’ tenacious star who refused to accept defeat by Alexis Petridis Guardian 9th February 2021
Mary Wilson speaks with such empathy about her fellow Supreme, Flo Ballard.