She was a Motown legend, bestselling author, music activist, former U.S. cultural ambassador and co-founding member of The Supremes—of which she was dubbed “the sexy one.” Entertainer Mary Wilson, best known as the longest-running member of the group she made famous alongside Diana Ross and Florence Ballard (and later, Cindy Birdsong) died on Monday night at her home in Henderson, Nev. She was 76.
According to a statement by longtime friend and publicist Jay Schwartz provided to The Root by Universal Music, Wilson died suddenly. No cause of death has been given.
The statement further read:
As an original/founding member of The Supremes, she changed the face of pop music to become a trendsetter who broke down social, racial, and gender barriers, which all started with the wild success of their first number one song. Formed in Detroit as The Primettes in 1959, The Supremes were Motown’s most successful act of the 1960s, scoring 12 No. 1 singles. They also continue to reign as America’s most successful vocal group to date. Their influence not only carries on in contemporary R&B, soul and pop, they also helped pave the way for mainstream success by Black artists across all genres.
Mary achieved an unprecedented 12 #1 hits with 5 of them being consecutive from 1964-1965. Those songs are “Where Did Our Love Go”, “Baby Love”, “Come See About Me”, “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again” according to Billboard Magazine. In 2018, Billboard celebrated the 60th anniversary of Motown with a list of “The Hot 100’s Top Artists of All Time”, where The Supremes ranked at #16 and still remain the #1 female recording group of all time. January 21, 2021 marked the 60th anniversary of the day The Supremes signed with Motown in 1961. This year, Mary kicked off the celebration of the 60th anniversary of The Supremes.
Commemorating that milestone in January during an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Wilson reflected on her history with the legendary group, which signed to Motown on January 21, 1961. But the singer’s story began on March 6, 1944, in Greenville, Miss., where she was the eldest of three children born to Sam and Johnnie Mae Wilson. The family would relocate to Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Projects in the ’50s, where Wilson first met future fellow Supreme, Ballard, in elementary school. The two would eventually join forces with Ross and high school friend Betty McGlown to form the singing group The Primettes, so named for the male singing group then led by Eddie Kendricks named the Primes.
Barbara Martin replaced McGlown in 1960, and the quartet became focused on getting signed by the then-upstart label Motown. They were initially turned down by Berry Gordy, an anecdote Wilson recounted when sharing the story of the group’s eventual signing.
“It was 1961, January, and we were The Primettes. We were not The Supremes yet. We had gone for an audition at Motown prior to that signing. And Mr. Berry Gordy turned us down. We were quite young, about 15 and a half,” she recalled.
“But pretty soon we realized that Motown Records was the record company that we wanted to join. And we were still in high school. We were hearing Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marv Johnson, Mary Wells on the radio, and we said, ‘That’s where we want to be,’” Wilson continued. “So we sat on the grounds of Motown, outside Hitsville, every day until pretty soon one of the producers came out and said, ‘We need to have some background handclaps.’ That’s how we got into Motown. And Mr. Berry Gordy decided to go ahead and sign us because he said that we were really serious. We were still 16 years old, and our parents had to actually sign the contract because we were underage. We didn’t have any legal representation, because we were just so happy to be there.”
Rebranded as The Supremes, the group released several singles in the next few years, but with little success, becoming known as the “no-hit Supremes” at Motown. Martin would ultimately leave the group to begin a family in early 1962, just before the remaining trio would be paired with the hit-making songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland (Lamont Dozier and brothers Brian and Eddie Holland), who helped Wilson, Ballard and Ross score their first chart hit in late 1963 with “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” which peaked at 23 on the Billboard pop chart.
The following year brought The Supremes their first No.1 with the now-classic “Where Did Our Love Go,” released in August 1964. As THR notes, the hit would also bring the trio international fame, as it reached No.3 in the U.K. The hit would prove a breakthrough, as a string of No. 1s followed, including “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Back in My Arms Again,” followed, cementing The Supremes’ stardom with five consecutive No.1s on the Billboard charts— the first group in history to do so.
“The Civil Rights Act was passed around then. We became divas and citizens in the same year,” Wilson recalled.
It would be the first of many records broken by the original trio, who, with 12 number one hits on the Billboard Hot 100, still hold the record for the most No. 1s among American groups, including hits like “I Hear a Symphony,” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” The consistent triumphs would make The Supremes one of the best-selling girl groups of all time.
The success was stratospheric, but as Wilson shared in her bestselling 1986 memoir, it was also bittersweet. As Ross was increasingly positioned as the face of the group—which would soon once again be renamed Diana Ross and the Supremes—tensions grew. Adding to this was Ballard’s disenchantment and depression, which would lead her to leave the group in 1967 (by some accounts, forced out), to be replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Unsuccessful in launching a solo career, Ballard would tragically die in 1976 in relative poverty at the age of 32. At the time of her death, Wilson was reportedly working to secure a U.S. postage stamp in Ballard’s honor.
As reported by the Hollywood Reporter:
The acrimonious departure of Ballard, and her death in 1976, weighed especially heavily on Wilson and she revealed to THR that her childhood friend had suffered abused as a 14-year-old which had “totally destroyed her.” “She was like one of those great Black women who was proud and really strong and beautiful and all that stuff, but that totally destroyed her. When we became famous I thought that she would get over it, because you know, people think, “Well, when you become rich and famous and all that stuff, all your problems are gone.” Well, that’s not true. And she was never given any help because people didn’t try to help her,” she said.
Ross would leave the group just a few years after Ballard, performing a final show with the Supremes on Jan. 14, 1970, in Las Vegas before embarking on a successful solo career. Wilson recalled Ross’ departure as “really sad...My two best friends would no longer be there.” Birdsong and new member Jean Terrell continued the Supremes’ legacy as the “New Supremes,” a lineup that would again prove transient save Wilson as its foundational member. She eventually left the group in 1977 in pursuit of her own solo career.
“I think a lot of us in the ’70s were going through that period of not knowing what was going to happen,” Wilson told THR in January. “It was one of those periods where the world was changing. Then disco started coming in, everything changed. So, I was clinging on to what I loved doing. And I still love performing and singing. So, I was clinging to that trying to save myself.”
Tellingly, Wilson’s work to preserve The Supremes’ legacy would help in the enactment of the Truth in Music bill, which has so far been enacted in 35 states, and seeks “to protect the trademarks of famous groups by insisting that the name of a group could not be used unless that group includes at least one original member,” via a statement which additionally noted:
Mary’s influence reached beyond music. In 2018, Mary’s longtime fight in the passage of the Music Modernization Act (MMA) came to fruition when the United States legislation signed the act into law on October 11, 2018. The act aims to modernize copyright-related issues for new music and audio recordings due to new forms of technology like digital streaming which did not protect music recorded before February 15, 1972. Her tireless advocacy for this legislation included trips to Washington D.C. to meet with members of Congress personally to advocate for legacy artists gaining fair compensation when their songs are played on digital radio stations.
Wilson was also a former U.S. cultural ambassador, but her best known post-Supremes success would come via the bestselling Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, the first of several books she co-authored. The memoir not only gave insights into the rise of The Supremes and the departure and subsequent death of Ballard, but dropped bombshell revelations about the acrimony within the famed group, explaining what many perceived to be a long estrangement between Wilson and Ross—though Wilson teased her willingness to reunite as recently at January, telling THR: “Let’s put it this way: It’s really up to Diana.” Dreamgirl was followed by the memoir Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together (1990), and 2019's Supreme Glamour, a book about the group’s style.
In 2019, Wilson also briefly appeared as a contestant on Dancing With the Stars. As of 2021, she was still teasing new projects via her YouTube channel.
As the world awakens to the news of Wilson’s passing, tributes are pouring in. Motown Records founder Berry Gordy was among the first to recognize one of his label’s biggest success stories, issuing the following statement Monday night:
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 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.
Motown Museum Chairwoman and CEO Robin Terry had this to say about Wilson’s passing, via a statement provided to The Root:
In this moment of extreme sadness, the world has lost one of the brightest stars in our Motown family. Mary Wilson was an icon. She broke barriers and records as an original member of the Supremes, one of the greatest music acts of all time. She was a legend who was not only extremely talented, but equally beautiful. We join Mary’s fervent fan base in remembering her life and profound cultural impact. Motown Museum will continue to honor, appreciate and celebrate her legacy for fans around the world and for generations to come.
Wilson, who had three children with ex-husband and former Supremes road manager Pedro Ferrer, was preceded in death by their son Rafael, who died in 1994 of injuries sustained when a car Wilson was driving veered off a highway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. The late singer is survived by her daughter Turkessa and grandchildren (Mia, Marcanthony, Marina); her son, Pedro Antonio Jr. and grandchildren (Isaiah, Ilah, Alexander, Alexandria); her sister Kathryn; her brother, Roosevelt; her adopted son/cousin William and grandchildren (Erica (great-granddaughter, Lori), Vanessa, Angela).
Due to COVID restrictions, services for Wilson will be private, but a celebration of her life is planned for later this year. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that friends and fans support UNCF.org and the Humpty Dumpty Institute. Motown fans are encouraged to share their love and memories for Mary on Motown Museum’s website and social media (Facebook; Instagram; Twitter)
Updated: Tuesday, February 9, 2021, at 1:44 p.m. ET: Upon learning the news, Diana Ross issued a statement via Twitter Tuesday morning that read:
“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.”
Updated: Tuesday, February 10, 2021, at 9:06 a.m. ET: Legendary songwriter Lamont Dozier added his voice to the chorus of tributes to Wilson, penning a heartfelt and reminiscent op-ed for Rolling Stone on Tuesday. Dozier not only recalled Wilson as “the sexy one of the group,” but considered her “the glue that kept the Supremes together” as they worked out their sound in the studio; a role that would prove true throughout the group’s career. “She was good at that, getting everyone together. And she had a good-sounding voice; a sound of her own,” Dozier wrote, sharing several anecdotes about the group’s rise to fame and concluding:
Everybody loved Mary, and everybody appreciated her optimism and her drive. If you had a problem, she would talk you out of it, make you feel like you should hold your head high and stop feeling sorry for yourself. That was why it was such a shock for me that she would go so soon. I thought she would live to be 100.