Mary Wilson, original and longest-running member of legendary Motown girl group the Supremes, died Monday night at her home in Las Vegas, according to her longtime publicist, Jay Schwartz. No cause of death was revealed at press time, with Schwartz only stating that the singer, author, activist, and former U.S. Cultural Ambassador “passed away suddenly.” Wilson was 76 years old.
“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 Records 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 No. 1 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.”
Wilson was born on March 6, 1944, in Greenville, Miss., relocating with her family as a child to Detroit's Brewster housing project, where she met her best friend, Florence Ballard. Ballard recruited Wilson at age 15 for a vocal quartet called the Primettes, which also included Diana Ross. After recording one unsuccessful single for the Lupine label in 1960, slimming down to a trio following the exit of singer Barbara Martin, and changing their name to the Supremes, the group signed to Motown Records in 1961.
The Supremes were not an overnight success story; it took them two more years to have their first top 40 hit, “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes.” Wilson even joked in a 2012 interview with Yahoo Entertainment, “We were called the ‘No-Hit Supremes’ at Motown.” However, the Supremes eventually became Motown’s most successful signing, one of the biggest groups of the 1960s (at some points only rivaled by the Beatles), and the most successful American vocal group of all time. The Supremes scored a dozen No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 in the ‘60s — including “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” and “Love Child” — that paved the way for mainstream success by Black artists across all genres, and inspired girl groups like the Pointer Sisters, En Vogue, TLC, Destiny's Child, SWV, Sugababes, and Xscape.
By the end of the ‘60s, Ballard had been replaced by Cindy Birdsong, and Ross officially left the group in 1970 to pursue a solo career. The Supremes continued to enjoy some success in the '70s with other rotating singers (Jean Terrell, Lynda Lawrence, Scherrie Payne, and Susaye Greene), and with Wilson taking over lead vocal duties on many songs, including the top 10 disco hit “Early Morning Love.” Wilson’s resignation from the Supremes in 1977 effectively ended the group. The Supremes’ classic lineup of Ross, Ballard (who died in 1976), and Wilson was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 1998, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1994. A reunion tour with all former living Supremes, including Ross, was proposed in 2000, but negotiations ultimately unraveled.
After the Supremes, Wilson had a sporadic recording career, focusing more on theater, live touring, motivational speaking, and activism for various causes including ending hunger and raising HIV/AIDS awareness. She also penned three books: the best-selling memoir Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, its 1970s-focused sequel Supreme Faith: Someday We'll Be Together, and Supreme Glamour, a glossy coffee table tome about Supremes fashion. Wilson scored her last Billboard hit 2015 with “Time to Move On,” which peaked at No. 17 on the Dance Club Songs chart; with that feat, she set a record for the longest gap between hits on that chart, 36 years after her disco single “Red Hot” had debuted in 1979. In 2019, Wilson was introduced to a new audience when she competed on Dancing With the Stars.
Just two days before her death, Wilson had excitedly announced via her YouTube channel that she was working on various projects to celebrate Black History Month and this year’s 60th anniversary of the Supremes, and that she had been negotiating with Universal to put out “new recordings,” four “wonderful songs that were never released,” and her shelved '70s solo album Red Hot. “Hopefully some of that will be out on my birthday, March 6. I got my fingers crossed here,” she said.
Wilson is survived by her three children, two siblings, 10 grandchildren, and one great-grandchild. Funeral services will be private due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to Schwartz, but a public memorial will be held later this year. Her family asks that in lieu of flowers, friends and fans support UNCF.org and the Humpty Dumpty Institute.
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