Mary Wilson, a founding member of The Supremes, has died. The singer’s longtime friend and publicist, Jay Schwartz, notified multiple outlets that Wilson died suddenly at her home in Las Vegas at the age of 76.
A native of Greenville, Mississippi, Wilson was raised in Detroit. While still in elementary school, she met Florence Ballard and the two became a singing duo. In 1959, while still in high school, the two friends auditioned to become part of a sister group to The Primes, ultimately being grouped with fellow recruits Diana Ross and Betty McGlown to form the Primettes. Two years later, the Primettes—with Barbara Martin briefly replacing McGlown before the group became a trio —were signed to Motown Records and their name was changed to the Supremes. Wilson, Ballard, and Ross enjoyed their first hit, “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” in 1963, and reached No. 1 on the Billboard pop charts for the first time with 1964's “Where Did Our Love Go.”
As the group found global fame, their image evolved and their name changed to Diana Ross & The Supremes—and Ballard departed, replaced by Cindy Birdsong. Ross left the group in early 1970 and was replaced by Jean Terrell. The Supremes continued to have success, with Wilson graduating from backup vocalist to co-lead on their hits “Floy Joy” and “Automatically Sunshine,” as well as the title track of the 1971 album Touch. But in 1972, Terrell left the group and the Supremes went through a period of a seemingly revolving roster. Through it all Wilson remained a constant, further solidifying herself as a lead vocalist, as an one of their rare hits in the later ’70s, the 1975 disco track “Early Morning Love.” The group finally dissolved in 1977, with Wilson ultimately being the only one of the ten Primettes/Supremes to remain a constant through the years.
Wilson went on to release two solo albums, an eponymous offering in 1979 and Walk The Line in 1992, but neither garnered her Billboard success like she had as a Supreme. The singer also released four autobiographies over the years—the most recent being 2019's Supreme Glamour, a history of the Supremes and their fashion—and enjoyed a lucrative touring career and stage musical opportunities. In late 1999, there was an attempt to reunite all living former Supremes members for a tour, but negotiations fell apart when Diana Ross and SFX (now Live Nation Entertainment) refused to allow Birdsong (somewhat of an honorary founding member after the death of Ballard in 1972) and Wilson creative input on the production. Ultimately the production went forward with Ross and Scherrie Payne and Lynda Lawrence—both of whom joined the Supremes years after Ross’ departure—but was canceled mid-tour due to low ticket sales.
Wilson became an activist for music artists, lobbying for two different legislation pushes, protecting music group members from their group names and likenesses being used without their permission. In 2002, Secretary of State Colin Powell appointed her a “culture-connect ambassador” for the U.S. State Department. In 2015, Wilson broke a record to become the artist with the longest gap between hits in the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart, as “Red Hot” debuted on October 6, 1979 and “Time To Move On” debuted on November 21, 2015. Two years ago, Wilson competed on season 28 of Dancing With The Stars, though she and partner Brandon Armstrong were the first couple eliminated. And just two days prior to her death, the singer announced on YouTube that she was working on releasing solo material, including the unreleased “Red Hot” album she recorded in the 1970s. “Hopefully some of that will be out on my birthday, March 6,” she said.
“The Supremes were always known as the ‘sweethearts of Motown,’” Motown Records mastermind Berry Gordy said in a statement to Variety Monday night. “They opened doors for themselves, the other Motown acts, and many, many others. … 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.”