Mary Wilson, founding member of the trailblazing Motown group The Supremes, has died at the age of 76.
According to her publicist, Wilson passed away suddenly on Monday evening (February 8th) at her home in Henderson, Nevada. A cause of death was not immediately disclosed.
In 1959, Wilson auditioned and was accepted into a singing group called The Primettes, pairing with three other then-unknown vocalists: Florence Ballard, Diana Ross, and Betty McGlown. By 1962, the group had downsized to a trio (McGlown left to get married), signed with Motown Records, and changed their name to The Supremes. Within a year, they scored their first No. 1 hit with “Where Did Our Love Go”
Between 1964 and 1969, The Supremes earned 12 No. 1 singles in total — a record for the most chart-topping songs among American groups. Among their most notable hits: “Baby Love”, “Come See About Me”, “Stop! In the Name of Love”, “Back in My Arms Again”, and “You Can’t Hurry Love”.
With Ross increasingly becoming the face of the group, in 1967 Motown Records president Berry Gordy decided to change the group’s name to Diana Ross and the Supremes, and removed Ballard from the lineup in favor of Cindy Birdsong. The reconfigured lineup failed to achieved the same success as the original Supremes, however, and by early 1970, Ross had departed the group to pursue a solo career. Wilson remained with The Supremes through 1977, making her the group’s longest-tenured member.
Wilson later wrote a best-selling novel about her time in the group called Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, and became a regular on the Las Vegas entertainment circuit. She also engaged in a series of legal battles with Motown over usage of The Supremes’ name, which ultimately led her to champion legislation that prohibited usage of a musical act’s name unless an original member of the group is involved, or the group is properly licensed by the last person to hold right of title to the name.
In 1988, Wilson, Ross, and Ballard (who died in 1976) were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 2000, Ross, Wilson, and Birdsong briefly flirted with a reunion tour, but negotiations fell through and Ross instead toured with secondary members of The Supremes. Wilson, meanwhile, continued to release music as a solo artist, wrote three more books, and was named a “culture-connect ambassador” for the U.S. State Department.
“I was extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family, Mary Wilson of The Supremes,” Motown Records founder Berry Gordy said in a statement. “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,” Gordy added. “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.”