Vocalist Mary Wilson, who co-founded the Supremes as a 15-year-old in a Detroit housing project and stayed with the hitmaking Motown Records trio until its break-up in 1977, has died suddenly in Las Vegas aged 76.
“I was extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family, Mary Wilson of the Supremes,” said record producer and Motown founder Berry Gordy in a statement on Monday night.
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 and other Motown acts.
“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,” Berry said.
With lead vocalist 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 memorialised 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.
The act’s image of glamour and offstage sisterhood that was carefully crafted by Motown was belied by Wilson’s scathing depiction of Ross in a bestselling 1986 memoir, “Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme,” the first tell-all tome by a member of the so-called “Motown Family.”
In the book, Ross 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.
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.
At Motown Wilson, Ballard and Ross began to hit pay dirt when the songwriting team of brothers Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier became their principal cleffers.
After reaching No. 2 on the R&B side with the writers’ “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” in late 1963, the Supremes simultaneously climbed to the pinnacle of both the pop and R&B lists with the foot-stomping “Where Did Our Love Go” during the summer of 1964.
With Ross now installed as the lead vocalist, the trio rivaled the Beatles for radio and chart ubiquity over the course of the next three years. Their pop No. 1’s of 1964-67 included “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Back in My Arms Again,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Keep Me Hanging On” and “Reflections.”
In mid-1967, the increasingly unreliable Flo Ballard, wracked by alcoholism, drug abuse and depression, was expelled from the Supremes and replaced by Birdsong.
Gordy – who already envisioned a career in Las Vegas, TV and films for Ross, with whom he was now involved romantically – established his paramour’s supremacy by rebranding the group as Diana Ross & the Supremes that year.
The writing was truly on the wall for the Supremes after Ross began recording as a soloist in 1968, and late the following year it was announced she would be departing the group.
With Jean Terrell taking the lead, the Supremes maintained some momentum: Beyond “Stoned Love,” they reached the R&B top 10 with “River Deep, Mountain High,” “Nathan Jones” and “Floy Joy.
But Wilson remained the lone constant in an ever-shifting lineup after 1972, and by the late ’70s the trio was mired in lightweight disco material – some of it supplied by the returning Holland-Dozier-Holland team.
The Supremes folded their tents with a London farewell show in June 1977.
Except for her appearance on the ’83 Motown special, Wilson was little heard from until her eyebrow-raising memoir was published.