“Where Did Our Love Go.” “Baby Love.” “Come See About Me.” “Stop! In the Name of Love.” All of The Supremes No. 1 hits featured Mary Wilson’s dulcet voice.
For decades, Mary Wilson embodied the legacy of the iconic female trio and helped to keep their signature sound and songs alive. Sadly, that voice is now silenced. Mary Wilson passed away at her home in Las Vegas.
“Mary Wilson, a founding member of the Supremes, died on Monday at her home in Las Vegas, Nevada. She was 76. Wilson’s publicist, Jay Schwartz, confirmed the singer’s death to Rolling Stone, but did not reveal a cause of death.”
Mary was a co-founder of the original Supremes, along with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard. The all-female group was part of Motown‘s stable of Hitsville USA artists, along with The Temptations, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and Marvin Gaye. Their trademark harmonies of Wilson’s resonant alto voice, Florence Ballard’s richer mezzo, blended with Ross’s lilting lead vocals produced 12 No. 1 hits between 1964 and 1969. But it wasn’t just the sound, it was the lady’s stage presence in elegant gowns, well-coiffed wigs, coupled with smoothly synchronized moves that created the quintessential image that would define musical elegance and excellence for decades.
Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement,
“I was extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family, Mary Wilson of the Supremes. 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.”
Fellow original Diana Ross tweeted this morning,
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 💕
— Ms. Ross (@DianaRoss) February 9, 2021
Wilson was born March 6, 1944, in Greenville, Mississippi. Her father, Sam, was a butcher, but his erratic life and her mother Johnnie Mae’s departure affected Wilson’s upbringing. The family moved from Greenville to St. Louis, and from St. Louis to Chicago when Wilson was very young. Ultimately, Wilson wound up living in Detroit, where she was raised by an aunt and uncle. Her mother joined them in Detroit, and the reconstructed family moved into the Brewer-Douglass housing projects. This set the trajectory of Wilson’s life.
At 14, Wilson met three other project residents: Florence Ballard, Betty Travis, and Diana Ross. The girls formed the Primettes, and the quartet began performing locally. Thanks to Ross’s friendship with Smokey Robinson, the Primettes landed an audition at Motown, where they sang the Drifters’ “There Goes My Baby” for Berry Gordy. Gordy did not sign the Primettes until they became legal adults in 1960. The Primettes then became Motown’s first female group.
Before their very first single, 1961’s “I Want a Guy,” was released, the group changed their name to “The Supremes”. Travis had been replaced early on by Barbara Martin. The group’s early singles were not chart-toppers, and eventually, Martin left the group. In 1964, the trio of Wilson, Diana Ross, and Florence Ballard recorded, “Where Did Our Love Go?”, which became their breakthrough single.
With the series of No. 1s, along with their glamorous presentation and artful dance moves, The Supremes shot to fame with regular television and nightclub appearances, and ultimately national and international concert tours. However, their meteoric rise to fame was not without its trauma.
In Wilson’s first memoir, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, she wrote that Gordy and Motown wanted to “emphasize Diana’s role and diminish Flo’s and mine.” Ballard also had her share of struggles. She battled with alcoholism, which ultimately affected her stage performance and commitment to the group. In 1967, the group’s name was changed to “Diana Ross and The Supremes”, and Ballard was fired and replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Ballard died in 1976 at the age of just 32.
Ross ultimately parlayed her star presence into a solo career and left the Supremes in 1969. Under Wilson’s leadership, The Supremes continued with Birdsong and the addition of Jean Terrell. The revamped group recorded “Stoned Love,” which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts. The Supremes 2.0 could not duplicate the success of the original, and eventually disbanded for good in 1977.
In 1983, The original Supremes of Wilson and Ross, along with Birdsong reunited for the “Motown 25” television special, and Wilson did solo work as an opening act for comedians, and wrote two narrative non-fiction books: Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme; and Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together. The memoirs were combined and re-released in paperback. In 2019, Wilson penned Supreme Glamour, a coffee-table book that showcased the gowns The Supremes were known for over the decades and gave more history and backstory of the legendary group.
Wilson spent her remaining years keeping the flame alive with her own one-woman shows sometimes called “The Supremes Starring Mary Wilson.” Wilson was also an activist. She 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 2019, Wilson appeared on Dancing With the Stars.
Wilson released a video on her YouTube channel two days ago, announcing that she was excited about Black History Month and some interviews she did discussing the movie Greenbook and the segregation The Supremes experienced, as well as some of The Supremes February milestones. Wilson also revealed she was at work with Universal Music to release more of her 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.
Sadly, she did not live to see it come to pass.
Here is the legendary Mary Wilson in a 2019 solo stage appearance performing Norah Jones’s, “I Don’t Know Why”.
Rest in Peace, Mary Wilson.