Supreme indeed: Mary Wilson passes at age 76

Jay Godwin / LBJ Library Mary Wilson

Mary Wilson of Supremes fame passed away Monday night at age 76, adding to the woes of a community already reeling from the loss of so many great personalities, entertainers, athletes, and leaders.

“I just woke up to this news; my condolences to you Mary’s family,” Diana Ross tweeted on Tuesday. “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.”

Publicist and longtime friend Jay Schwartz wrote, “Their [Supremes] influence not only carries on in contemporary R&B, soul and pop, they also helped pave the way for mainstream success by Black artists across all genres. Wilson’s legacy went beyond singing,” Schwartz noted. “She became a bestselling author, motivational speaker, businesswoman, and US Cultural Ambassador.

Wilson used her fame and flair to promote a diversity of humanitarian efforts including ending hunger, raising HIV/AIDS awareness, and encouraging world peace,” wrote the publicist.

Wilson who was born in Mississippi grew up in the Brewster-Douglas housing projects of Detroit, nowadays we would say she was from the hood. While in junior high she was recruited by a neighbor and best friend Florence Ballard to join a singing group. They later recruited Ross and Betty McGowan and named themselves the Primettes. They sang at school venues and talent shows.

The Primettes signed with Barry Gordy’s Motown in 1961 while still in high school. Wilson graduated high school in 1962. The group was reduced to a trio when McGlowan left to get married. Wilson and her cohorts struggled initially and were teased and sometimes referred to as the “no-hit” Supremes.

But the group had the last laugh as they broke through with the 1963 hit song, “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” and later recorded their first hit “Where Did Our Love Go.” The Supremes were indeed a big deal in the early 1960s. You could not listen to the radio without hearing one of their hits. Old schoolers can remember when they first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show —a sign in those days that your group had made it.

Wilson and the Supremes went on to record 12 number-one songs and became international stars and still are considered the most prolific female singing group of all time.

Wilson stayed with the Supremes as the group went through several changes over the years, beginning with her close friend Ballard being dropped from the trio in July 1967 and replaced by Cyndi Birdsong.

That year, the group became known as Diana Ross and the Supremes. Ross left the group in 1970 and was replaced by Jean Terrell. They were again known as The Supremes, and with Terrell, the group produced seven top 40 hits, most notably “Stoned Love.”

The star’s memoir “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme,” written in 1986, was a bestseller. She followed up with her second memoir in 1990: “Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together.”

 “To a female trailblazer and forever Sweetheart of Motown, who brought many timeless records for generations to come – Thank You,” tweeted Motown Records. “Your art and your legacy will forever live on in the Motown story. From our Motown family, rest in paradise.”

 “The world has lost one of its greatest legends, Mary Wilson original and founding member of the Supremes. Her voice captivated the world, and her infectious laughter and spirit delighted her fans,” tweeted Bruce Resnikoff, president, and CEO of Universal Music Enterprises.

“Many artists have Mary to thank as she was often the spokesperson for the music industry and known as a fierce advocate for artists’ rights and copyright protection. But it was her music first and foremost that helped bridge America’s cultural divide and continues to inspire a new generation,” Resnikoff continued.

“Mary Wilson was extremely special to me,” Barry Gordy stated through Variety. “She was a trailblazer, a diva, and will be deeply missed.”

In 2018, Billboard celebrated the 60th anniversary of Motown with a list of “The Hot 100’s Top Artists of All Time,” and listed The Supremes at number 16.

“I absolutely adored being a Supreme,” Wilson told Free Press. “If I die, I want to come back being Mary Wilson of the Supremes.”