Vocalist Mary Wilson, who co-founded the Supremes as a 15-year-old in a Detroit housing project and stayed with the fabled, hitmaking Motown Records trio until its dissolution in 1977, died on Monday night at her home in Las Vegas.
She was 76.
Wilson’s longtime publicist, Jay Schwartz, reported that she died suddenly. The circumstances of her death were not immediately revealed. Funeral services will be private because of COVID, he said, but there will be a public memorial later this year.
“I was extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family, Mary Wilson of the Supreme,” said Berry Gordy in a statement Monday night.
“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.”
Just two days prior to her death, Wilson put up a video on her YouTube channel announcing that she was working with Universal Music on releasing solo material, including the unreleased album “Red Hot” she recorded in the 1970s with producer Gus Dudgeon.
“Hopefully some of that will be out on my birthday, March 6,” she said in the video. She also promised upcoming interviews she had done about the Supremes’ experiences with segregation that she said were forthcoming in honor of Black History Month.
Wilson had been highly visible in 2019, when she appeared on the 28th season of “Dancing With the Stars” and released “Supreme Glamour,” her fourth book.
Wilson had been preparing to spend some of the year joining in celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the Supremes, still the most iconic female singing trio of all time.
With lead vocalist Diana Ross and founding member Florence Ballard (and with Ballard’s replacement Cindy Birdsong), Wilson appeared on all 12 of the Supremes’ No. 1 pop hits from 1964-69; during that period, the act – the biggest of Motown’s vocal groups thanks to their silken sound – charted a total of 16 top-10 pop singles and 19 top-10 R&B 45s (six of them chart-toppers).
If Ross became renowned as the group’s international superstar and Ballard, who died prematurely at the age of 32 in 1976, came to be memorialized as its tragic figure, Wilson was its steady, omnipresent and outspoken driving force — though many view her as little more than a supplier of the backup hooks that supported Ross’ lead work.
“They think I’m just an ‘ooh girl,’” Wilson said in a 1986 San Francisco Chronicle interview.
After Ross departed the group in 1970 for solo stardom, Wilson remained its linchpin, and dutifully backed up a succession of front women. Though the Supremes never recaptured their dominance of the ‘60s, they still managed to collect a 1970 R&B No. 1, “Stoned Love,” and returned to the pop top 20 five times.
The act’s image of glamour and offstage sisterhood that was carefully crafted by Motown was belied by Wilson’s scathing depiction of band mate Ross in a bestselling 1986 memoir, “Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme,” the first tell-all time by a member of the so-called “Motown Family.”
In the book, Ross – referred to pointedly throughout by her birth name of Diane – was portrayed as an attention-seeking and backstabbing diva who used her relationship with Motown founder-chairman Berry Gordy to get what she wanted professionally and personally.
Opening the book with an episode in which Ross literally shoved her aside onstage during a taping of the 1983 taping of the NBC anniversary special “Motown 25,” Wilson wrote, with some mixed emotion, “She has done many things to hurt, humiliate, and upset me, but, strangely enough, I still over her and am proud of her.”
Wilson, who released two solo albums and toured successfully with a solo act that combined cabaret with renditions of her old Supremes hits, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a member of the group in 1988. – Variety