MARY WILSON

February 10, 2021

Ms. Wilson was born on March 6, 1944, in Greenville, Miss., to Sam and Johnnie Mae Wilson. She grew up in the Brewster-Douglass Projects in Detroit and began singing as a child. When Milton Jenkins, who in 1959 was the manager of the Primes, a male singing group (two of whose members would later be in the original lineup of the Temptations), decided to form a female version of the act, the original members were Betty McGlown, Ms. Ballard, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Ross.

To get Mr. Gordy’s attention, the group, then known as the Primettes, frequented Motown’s Hitsville USA recording studio after school. They were eventually signed, changed their name to the Supremes and became a trio in 1962.

The Supremes did not fare well early in their career, but they achieved success after they began working with the songwriting and producing team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland — and after Mr. Gordy made Ms. Ross the lead singer. (Before then, Ms. Wilson and Ms. Ballard had shared most of the lead vocals.)

The trio’s breakthrough single was “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” which peaked at No. 23 on the Billboard pop chart in 1963. Five consecutive No. 1 singles, all with Ms. Ross as the lead singer, followed in rapid succession in 1964 and 1965: “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again.”

The Supremes emerged as stars during an era of tension and upheaval in the United States: 1963, the year of their first hit, was also the year of the March on Washington at which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously spoke, and the year President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. If the nation was seemingly divided, the Supremes nonetheless found fans everywhere.

“They were extraordinarily popular with white audiences, Black audiences and everyone else,” said Dolores Barclay, an author and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, who collaborated with Ms. Ross on a memoir, “Secrets of a Sparrow” (1993).

“Appearing in white venues was breaking down racial barriers,” Ms. Barclay said. “But it’s a different type of disruption. It’s nonconfrontational. It’s having a platform and saying, ‘Yes, we’re here, we’re great, and we’re a part of American music.’”

The Supremes “transcend adolescence without repudiating it,” an article in The New York Times said in 1967, adding, “Their audience spans ages and taste barriers.”

By that year, the group had undergone another change: Ms. Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong, and the group was renamed Diana Ross and the Supremes. Ms. Ross left the group for a solo career in 1970 and was replaced as lead singer by Jean Terrell, leaving Ms. Wilson as the last remaining original member. The group went on to score several more hits, including “Up the Ladder to the Roof” and “Stoned Love.”

The Supremes were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

The Supremes broke up in 1977. Ms. Wilson released the album “Mary Wilson” in 1979 (it met with limited success) and had begun working on a second album when she was dropped by Motown in 1980. She did not release another album until “Walk the Line” in 1992, but she maintained a busy career as a singer.

Reviewing a cabaret performance in 2009, Stephen Holden of The Times praised her “sizable voice with its rough Tina Turner-like edges” and noted that, despite its emphasis on the Supremes’ catalog, her performance “suggested that Ms. Wilson would really like to get away from all that history to be a grander, more grown-up pop diva.”

For all the Supremes’ success, Ms. Wilson acknowledged in her 1986 autobiography, “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme,” that there had been friction in the group during Ms. Ross’s tenure. (The book took its name from the 1981 Broadway musical “Dreamgirls,” later made into a movie, which was widely regarded as being based on the Supremes’ history. Ms. Wilson was quoted as saying she liked the musical; Ms. Ross claimed not to have seen it.)

Diane always liked to be the center of attraction,” Ms. Wilson told People magazine in 1986, using Ms. Ross’s original first name. “If you happened to be in her way while she was going toward the center, that was your fault.”

The strains in their relationship appeared in public again in 2000, when Ms. Wilson and Ms. Birdsong did not join a Supremes reunion tour, saying they had been offered much less payment than Ms. Ross. For the tour — which did not do well and was canceled midway through its scheduled 29 dates — Ms. Ross was joined by Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne, who had joined the Supremes after she left.

The Supremes in an undated publicity photo. From left, Diana Ross, Ms. Wilson and Cindy Birdsong.
The Supremes in an undated publicity photo. From left, Diana Ross, Ms. Wilson and Cindy Birdsong.Credit…Charlie Gillett/Redferns, via Getty

Reviewing a cabaret performance in 2009, Stephen Holden of The Times praised her “sizable voice with its rough Tina Turner-like edges” and noted that, despite its emphasis on the Supremes’ catalog, her performance “suggested that Ms. Wilson would really like to get away from all that history to be a grander, more grown-up pop diva.”

For all the Supremes’ success, Ms. Wilson acknowledged in her 1986 autobiography, “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme,” that there had been friction in the group during Ms. Ross’s tenure. (The book took its name from the 1981 Broadway musical “Dreamgirls,” later made into a movie, which was widely regarded as being based on the Supremes’ history. Ms. Wilson was quoted as saying she liked the musical; Ms. Ross claimed not to have seen it.)

“Diane always liked to be the center of attraction,” Ms. Wilson told People magazine in 1986, using Ms. Ross’s original first name. “If you happened to be in her way while she was going toward the center, that was your fault.”

The strains in their relationship appeared in public again in 2000, when Ms. Wilson and Ms. Birdsong did not join a Supremes reunion tour, saying they had been offered much less payment than Ms. Ross. For the tour — which did not do well and was canceled midway through its scheduled 29 dates — Ms. Ross was joined by Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne, who had joined the Supremes after she left.

“My biggest desire and dream is that Diane and I are together again,” Ms. Wilson said on CBS that year. “First of all, it’s a friendship thing for me.”

Ms. Ross said on Twitter on Tuesday that she had “wonderful” memories of her time with Ms. Wilson and that “the Supremes will live on in our hearts.”

My biggest desire and dream is that Diane and I are together again,” Ms. Wilson said on CBS that year. “First of all, it’s a friendship thing for me.”

Ms. Ross said on Twitter on Tuesday that she had “wonderful” memories of her time with Ms. Wilson and that “the Supremes will live on in our hearts.”

Ms. Wilson is survived by her daughter, Turkessa; her sons, Pedro Antonio Jr. and William; her sister, Kathryn; her brother, Roosevelt; 10 grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter. Her marriage to Pedro Ferrer ended in divorce.

She remained in the spotlight in recent years. In 2019 she competed on “Dancing With the Stars” and released the book “Supreme Glamour,” a collection of pictures of the Supremes’ most dazzling gowns. “Our glamour changed things,” she said at the time. “What we wore mattered.”

The influence the Supremes had on Black girls and women across America in the 1960s was undeniable. “You never saw anything like it in the 1960s — three women of color who were totally empowered, creative, imaginative,” Oprah Winfrey was quoted as saying in “Diana Ross: A Biography” (2007), by J. Randy Taraborrelli.

The Supremes have also influenced countless musical acts, among them Destiny’s Child and En Vogue.

“We, the Supremes, can’t take all the credit,” Ms. Wilson told The Guardian in 2019. “The writers and producers at Motown gave us the music and sound that people loved. And then there was the glamour. My whole life is like a dream. I tell you — if I were not a Supreme, I would want to be a Supreme.”

Mary Wilson, a founding member of the Supremes, the trailblazing vocal group that had a dozen No. 1 singles on the pop charts in the 1960s and was a key to the success of Motown Records, died on Monday 8 February 2021 at her home in Henderson, Nev. She was 76. 

The death was confirmed by her publicist, Jay Schwartz. No cause was given.

Formed in Detroit as the Primettes in 1959, the Supremes, whose other two original members were Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, made their mark with hits like “Baby Love” and “Stop! In the Name of Love” whose smooth blend of R&B and pop helped define the Motown sound.

Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, said in a statement that the Supremes had opened doors for other Motown acts. “I was always proud of Mary,” he said. “She was quite a star in her own right, and over the years continued to work hard to boost the legacy of the Supremes.”

Recent posts
LEARIE CONSTANTINE
After his retirement from professional cricket Constantine began working in a lawyer’s office, a career he had previously pursued before his years of professional cricket.
CAMARA LAYE
During his stay in France, Laye came into contact with other African students and scholars, exposing him to such ideas as the Pan-Negro and Negritude which later influenced his writings.

    Leave a comment