Remembering The Supremes’ Mary Wilson
Today (February 8th) marks the one year anniversary of the death of Supremes co-founder Mary Wilson. Wilson died suddenly on February 8th, 2021 at the age of 76 at her home in Henderson, Nevada. Wilson is survived by her daughter, son, grandchildren, a sister and brother.
Wilson is the second of the original Supremes to die. February 22nd will mark the 46th anniversary of co-founder Florence Ballard‘s death at age of 32. The singer died of coronary thrombosis — a blood clot in one of her coronary arteries. The surviving Supremes are legendary frontwoman Diana Ross, who’s now 77, and Ballard’s replacement, 82-year-old Cindy Birdsong.
Mary Wilson co-founded the Supremes in 1959, with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard. The group, then known as the Primettes, was signed to Motown in 1960 by founder Berry Gordy, Jr. and went on to become the most successful female act of the 1960’s, including a string of five Number One hits in less than a year, and 12 Number Ones overall. Wilson, who held the distinction of being the only member of the Supremes to never quit or be fired, disbanded the group in 1976. She wrote two books on her life and career — the 1986 bestseller Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme, and 1990’s Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together. In 2019 Wilson appeared as a contestant on ABC’s Dancing With The Stars.
86-year-old Duke Fakir, the sole surviving original member of the Four Tops, spoke to us about his dear friend and one-time finacee, Mary Wilson: “I was speakin’ to her just the other day and she said she was feelin’ great. She was so full of life, she was so joyful — a strong woman, too. ‘Cause she had been through a lot (and) tried many things. Even, just the other day, I know she was working on some new project on stage. She was probably one of the dearest friends I’ve ever had and one of the sweetest people I’ve ever known, honestly.”
Upon Mary Wilson’s death, members of the Motown family remembered her:
Diana Ross tweeted: “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.”
Berry Gordy, Jr. said: “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-Sixties. 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.”
Lamont Dozier spoke about Wilson: “I got the call this morning early about Mary Wilson. It shocked me, of course. Mary has always been one of those types working and thriving; she’s always up and going at ’em, looking for the next hill to climb. . . She was the glue that kept the Supremes together when we had problems in the studio. We had times we used to argue about the songs or whatever parts we should sing. She would always look at the big picture and try to get everyone to settle down and do the job; thinking about our careers more than all this noise you’re making. She was good at that, getting everyone together. And she had a good-sounding voice; a sound of her own. She was the sexy one of the group, you might say. I recorded her voice on a couple of songs. She was in the background, holding her own; holding up whatever background we came up with. . . 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.”
Motown labelmate Martha Reeves said of Mary Wilson: “She was the beauty and the sunshine of the Supremes. She was beautiful and she was fair. Everybody’s heart is broken by her death. We have worked side by side nearly all of our lives. She was always a sweet, darling, professional, beautiful woman. And she held her own. Oh yes, she did. And I was right there with her. Together, we helped keep the legacy of Motown alive. Mary will live with me forever. I hate to even say that it’s a loss. She just made her transition. God is good. He gave us a beautiful gift with Mary Wilson, and we’ll always cherish it.”
Mary Wilson’s relationship with Diana Ross — or lack thereof — has fascinated the public for 50 years. Wilson said that it’s always been perceived as though she is constantly talking about Ross to the press, but she claims that she actually prefers to keep whatever relationship the two share between themselves: “Y’know, if there’s gonna be a reunion or if we’re just gonna be back embracing each other, y’know, we’ve gotta stop talking about it. And whenever people talk about it, it’s always thought that I’m bringing it up and that I wanna talk about it. I don’t talk about it, people ask me.”
Over the years Wilson has tried her hand in various off-Broadway productions, and at the age of 57 fulfilled a life-long dream of earning a college education, when she graduated from New York University with a degree in liberal arts. She has also worked tirelessly to raise money for AIDS awareness and prevention, and in 2003 she was named a Cultural Ambassador for the U.S. State Department.
Mary Wilson told us that she thrives on the challenges of doing good will work for the nation: “I’ve been made an ambassador to the United States, I’m one of nine ambassadors to the state department here, a cultural ambassador. And it’s been just a tremendous experience for me. So I’m doing a lot of lectures, master classes, and that’s really been wonderful.”
In 2006, Wilson underwent elective open-heart surgery. She was back onstage performing within a month of the operation.
In a poll by VH1, Wilson was ranked 16th on the channel’s list of “Greatest Women Of Rock And Roll.”
Mary Wilson made it her mission to establishing a federal law — banning copycat groups from using the name and likeness of established acts on the road. She appeared at the Illinois State Capitol before the House Consumer Protection Committee, urging lawmakers to side with musicians who are being robbed of their history and livelihood.
Mary Wilson told us that the thrill of performing never diminished over her long and historic career: “When I met Florence (Ballard), Diane (Ross), and Betty McGlown — who was a fourth member — when we were 14-years-old, I remember saying that when I met them, I felt this feeling that they completed me, that I felt that this is where I belonged in life. And I still have that feeling. I still absolutely adore it. I really do.”
Mary Wilson agreed that the Supremes were such a low priority at Motown in the early days that their material was entirely decided by label chief Berry Gordy Jr. and the songwriters. Wilson recalled how anxious the Supremes were to have a hit: “Y’know, we were still very young and we wanted hit records like Martha & the Vandellas and the Marvelettes because they were the ones having the hits. And I must add that we were the Supremes — we’re the first female group there — so by these other girl groups coming in and getting hits, y’know, we were really desperate in terms of wanting one.”
Wilson admitted that the group’s first impression of “Where Did Our Love Go” was that it was a stiff: “We hated the record, okay? So we didn’t know very much about what made a hit. All we knew was we had had ten records out prior to that, most of them written by Smokey Robinson — which were adorable songs — but when Berry Gordy put us with the writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, that’s when our hits started.”
Shortly before his 2018 death, Dennis Edwards, the former lead singer of the Temptations, says that during the Supremes’ ’60s heyday, Mary Wilson’s talent as unfairly overshadowed by Diana Ross’ rising star: “Mary was the backbone of the Supremes. I don’t think she got the credit she deserved — but she’s getting it now because she’s carrying the torch now. Mary was… I think at the time, back in the day, Mary was a bit too quiet. She was sorta like me, we sorta sat back and was hoping for change. Y’know?”
Mary Wilson told us she never tried to conceal her age because it never seemed to be an issue for her: “Oh, I don’t have no problem with telling my age. I don’t think in age. I’ve always had this baby face — it might have something to do with it, and I was carded until I was, like, in my late-30’s. That’s very embarrassing, OK, and I had children and, and I guess I’m lucky that way.”