A founding member of one of the most successful and pioneering pop music acts of all time has passed away: Mary Wilson, who founded The Supremes along with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, has died at 76.
Her death was confirmed by her friend and publicist Jay Schwartz on Tuesday morning, and has inspired an outpouring of sympathy from music lovers and industry professionals everywhere.
Wilson was born March 6, 1944 in Greenville, Mississippi, and spent her teen years in a housing project in Detroit, where she began a love for singing and became friends with Florence Ballard.
In the late ’50s the two formed singing group The Primettes with Diana Ross. The group signed to the legendary Motown Record label in the early ’60s, and became known as The Supremes.
The went on to become Motown’s best-selling group, one of the most successful acts of the 1960s and one of the biggest girl groups ever. They had 12 number-one singles on the Billboard charts, still among the most of any musical act.
Their classic songs include “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Baby Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” and “Stop! In the Name of Love.”
With Diana Ross as the lead singer, Mary Wilson sang backup on most of their biggest hits.
With their top-notch vocals and glamorous style, The Supremes became worldwide sensations and icons of the 1960s.
They helped pave the way for other Motown artists and African-American soul singers in the midst of the civil rights movement.
“They were extraordinarily popular with white audiences, Black audiences and everyone else,” Dolores Barclay, an author and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, told the New York Times.
“Appearing in white venues was breaking down racial barriers… It’s having a platform and saying, ‘Yes, we’re here, we’re great and we’re a part of American music.’”
Off stage, though, there was friction, as Ross became the title star of the renamed “Diana Ross and the Supremes” and Florence Ballard was removed from the group in 1967.
When Ross left The Supremes to be a solo artist, Wilson remained in the act with other artists, becoming the longest-tenured Supreme and the only founding member to sing in every iteration.
The Supremes, after several more hits, disbanded in 1977, and Mary Wilson continued as a solo artist, recording two solo albums and frequently performing in Las Vegas.
Along with Ross and Ballard, Wilson was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 as part of The Supremes, among the first acts to be inducted.
She also authored several tell-all books about her times in The Supremes, including Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, one of the best-selling rock-and-roll autobiographies ever.
Wilson was married and had three kids, ten grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
According to GMA, Wilson was also dedicated to advocacy and humanitarian outreach, helping raise awareness of the AIDS crisis.
In 2019, she was a contestant on the 28th season of Dancing with the Stars.
After news of Wilson’s death broke, her former bandmate expressed her condolences.
“I am reminded that each day is a gift,” Diana Ross wrote on Twitter. The superstar is now the last surviving original member of the group. “I have so many wonderful memories of our time together. The Supremes will live on, in our hearts.”
Berry Gordy, the Motown founder who signed the act all those decades ago, also praised Wilson.
“I was extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family, Mary Wilson of the Supremes,” Gordy said in a statement, according to Rolling Stone. “The Supremes were always known as the ‘sweethearts of Motown.’”
“I was always proud of Mary. 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.”
Some high-profile fans also expressed their sympathies on Twitter:
Rest in peace to Mary Wilson, a crucial part of one of the most beloved and important pop groups of all time.
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