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 (local time).
Wilson, 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,” Gordy said.
Despite what later became a troubled relationship with Wilson, Ross was among the first to pay tribute when news of her former co-singer’s death emerged.
“My condolences to you Mary’s family,” she wrote on Twitter.
“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.”
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 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, became its tragic figure, Wilson was its steady, omnipresent and outspoken driving force – though many view her as little more than a supplier of the back-up 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 crafted by Motown was belied by Wilson’s scathing depiction of Ross in a bestselling 1986 memoir, Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme.
The book portrayed Ross as an attention-seeking and backstabbing diva who used her relationship with Gordy to get what she wanted professionally and personally.
Wilson, who released two solo albums and toured with a solo act that combined cabaret with renditions of her old Supremes hits, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 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 in the summer of 1964.
With Ross installed as the lead vocalist, the trio rivalled the Beatles for radio and chart ubiquity over the course of the next three years. Their pop No.1s 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 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. 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 line-up 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.