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RIP Mary Wilson of the Supremes

Legendary vocalist Mary Wilson, one of the founding members of the groundbreaking R&B group The Supremes passed away on Monday evening in her home in Las Vegas at the age of 76. She helped form the group in the 60s when she was just 15-years-old while living in a Detroit housing project with her mother. She stuck with the Motown hit-making trio until the band’s dissolution in 1977.

Jay Schwartz, Wilson’s longtime publicist, announced the singer’s sudden death but did not reveal any additional information about the cause or circumstances surrounding her demise. It has been speculated however that she died of natural causes in her sleep.

Funeral services are expected to be private due to the COVID-19 pandemic but there will likely be a public memorial celebrating her life sometime later this year.

Berry Gordy Jr, founder of the Motown record label, issued a statement expressing his grief and shock to hear of Mary Wilson’s passing. He called her one of the ‘sweethearts of Motown’ and reiterated that the industry wouldn’t be the same without her.

In his statement, Gordy continued to share how Mary, alongside Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, after a string of number one hits and television appearances opened doors for themselves and many other Motown acts.

‘Mary Wilson was extremely special to me. She was a trailblazer, a diva and will be deeply missed.’ Gordy wrote in his heartfelt farewell.

She Had Plans For The Near-Future

Just a couple of days before her sudden passing, Wilson uploaded a YouTube video on her channel announcing that she was working on solo material that she was planning on releasing with Universal Music.

She planned on finally publishing the previously unreleased album ‘Red Hot’ that she recorded back in the 70s with producer Gus Dudgeon. She posted that she hoped that some of the material would be out on or before her birthday, March 6.

She also vowed to post interviews that she had taken part in that dealt with The Supremes’ experiences with segregation in honor of Black History Month.

Wilson had high visibility in 2019 when she appeared on ‘Dancing With The Stars’. That was also the year that she published her fourth book ‘Supreme Glamour”.

Wilson had fully intended to spend some of this year celebrating the 60th anniversary of The Supremes – which might we add is one of the most iconic all-female singing trios of all time – but sadly she won’t get that opportunity

Celebrates Share Their Condolences

Questlove sent a shout-out to Mary just hours after her passing.

Paul Stanley of Kiss shared via Twitter that he was shocked to hear about her passing.

“I was just on a Zoom call with her Wednesday… Rest In Supreme Peace Mary” the rocker wrote.

Along with lead vocalist Diana Ross and Florence Ballard – and later Cindy Birdsong – Wilson contributed to all 12 Supremes number 1 pop hits from 1964 to 1969. During that time period, the group charted a grand total of 16 top-10 pop singles and 19 top-10 R&B singles – six of which went to number 1.

Ross might have been the trio’s international superstar and Ballard, who passed away at the young age of 32, might be remembered as the group’s tragic figure, but Wilson was the consistent, steady, outspoken force that stuck with the project from beginning to end.

Some might view her as providing nothing more than backup vocals and support for Ross’s lead work, but that’s not exactly a fair assessment. She is a legend in her own right.

When Ross left the group in 1970 to focus on her solo career, Wilson remained its cornerstone as she humbly backed up a series of frontwomen for the next few years Although The Supremes never reached the same heights that they did back in the 60s, they still put a number 1 R&B hit in 1970 called ‘Stoned Love’ and charted five songs on the pop top-20 chart.

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And make sure you watch the rest of this video to find out what Mary Wilson has been up to in recent years.

Behind-The-Scenes Drama

The group was depicted as being a tight-knit sisterhood but that was an image that was carefully concocted by Motown to sell albums. And it was called into question when Wilson gave a rather damning depiction of Diana Ross in her memoir Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme published in 1986.

That book is especially notable because it was the first tell-all testament written by a member of the so-called ‘Motown Family’.

Ross was depicted in the book as being an excessively attention-seeking, backstabbing diva who manipulated Berry Gordy through her sex appeal to get what she wanted on both a personal and professional level.

The book opens up with a tale about a time when Ross shoved Wilson aside while on stage during a filming of a ‘Motown 25’ anniversary special for NBC in 1983. Despite the various things that Ross had done to hurt, humiliate, and upset her over the years, Wilson wrote that she still loved her and was proud of her.

Wilson has also released two albums of solo material and has toured quite successfully as a solo act combining elements of cabaret with her old Supremes hits. She was inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of fame in 1988.

From The Projects To Riches

Wilson was born on March 6, 1944, in Greenville, Mississippi. She moved quite a bit when she was still very young. At first, her family lived in St. Louis but then they moved to Chicago. When she was just three, she was sent to Detroit, Michigan to live with her aunt and uncle. In fact, she grew up thinking that she was actually their daughter. She didn’t discover who her real parents were until she was six when her mom came to Detroit to live with the family.

She moved several times before settling into the Brewster-Douglas Housing Project with her mother at the age of 12.

Before she was approached by Flo Ballard with the opportunity to join the Trio, Wilson had previously sung in a group fronted by Aretha Franklin’s sister Carolyn. Ballard also lived in the Brewster projects and she had quite the reputation of being rather eccentric. She had an idea for a group that would essentially serve as a ‘sister act’ to the all-male R&B quintet The Primes.

That group included the likes of Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks. Both men would go on to co-found another little Motown outfit known as The Temptations.

Ballard and Wilson were soon joined by Diana Ross and a fourth member by the name of Betty McGlown – and later by her replacement Barbara Martin – to form The Primettes. They would change their name to the Supremes in 1961.

The quartet first auditioned – albeit unsuccessfully – with Motown in 1961. They ended up cutting a couple of tracks with another label, LuPine, instead. Wilson even sang lead on the B-Side track ‘Pretty Baby’, but just like Ballard, she was pushed to the back by Ross.

After finally signing with Motown, the group struggled for quite some time to find their niche. At first, they recorded covers of songs from artists like Smokey Robinson and others but these early singles either failed to chart or collected dust in the vault. In 1963, Barbara Martin left the group.

The trio finally started finding some success when songwriters Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier joined the team to become their primary songwriters. They reached number 2 on the R&B charts in 1963 with their track ‘When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes’. They followed that up with another chart-topping hit called “Where Did Our Love Go?” in the summer of 1964.

They Rivaled The Beatles

With Diana Ross in the driving seat, the trio gave The Beatles a run for their money in terms of radio play and chart presence. Between 1964 and 1967, they reached number 1 on the pop charts 8 times. You couldn’t go anywhere without hearing their hit songs like ‘Stop! In the Name of Love’ and ‘Baby Love’.

Flo Ballard was kicked out of the group in 1967. She had become increasingly unreliable and alcoholism and substance abuse were seriously impeding her ability to be a contributing member of the unit. She was replaced by Cindy Birdsong.

Gordy, who was romantically involved with Diana Ross at the time, reestablished his lover’s dominance over the group when he renamed their name to Diana Ross & The Supremes later that year.

It was clear that The Supremes’ days were indeed numbered when Diana Ross began her solo career in 1968. She officially announced her departure from the group in 1969. The trios parting hit ‘Some Day We’ll Be Together’ dominated the R&B charts in December 1969. It proved to be the act’s last chart-topping hit in the U.S.

Ross made her overly-choreographed exit from the group with an elaborate farewell show at Las Vegas’ Frontier Hotel in January 1970.

The Supremes subsequently reformed as a Vegas act bringing in Jean Terrell, sister of heavyweight boxer Ernie Terrell, into the group as the new lead vocalists. Right off the bat, Berry Gordy actually tried to replace Terrell out with Syreeta Wright, Stevie Wonder’s wife, but Wilson put a stop to that plan.

For the next 7 years, The Supremes put out a number of singles and albums but never managed to reach the same heights that they did back when Diana Ross was in their ranks. They pulled the plug on the project in 1977 after a tearful farewell show in London.

Wilson released her self-titled solo LP that year but it’s only single only managed to peak at number 95. Wilson tried to reunite with Ross and the other surviving members of the Supremes back in 2000 but unfortunately, that plan didn’t pan out either.

Wilson released another album, Walk the Line, in 1992, and published two live DVDs in 2006 and 2009. She released her last single ‘Time to Move On’ in 2015 which ended up charting at number 23 on the Billboard dance chart.

Well, here we are at the end of another facts-filled video. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed paying your respects to Mary Wilson with us. It really is kind of heart-breaking that she didn’t get the opportunity to release that new material as she had planned. No doubt it will be published posthumously but it’s a shame that she won’t have the chance to personally present it to the world.

Anyway, we’d actually really appreciate hearing from you. Which Supremes song do you enjoy more 1966s ‘You Keep Me Hangin’ On’ or 1968s ‘Love Child’? Cast your vote in the comments section below.

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