On Tuesday, February 9th the news broke that legendary Mary Wilson, one of the founding members of Motown’s iconic singing group, The Supremes, died at her home in Henderson, Nevada. She was 76. Wilson’s longtime publicist, Jay Schwartz, confirmed the news to CNN.
At 15, Wilson, along with Diana Ross, Florence Ballard, and Betty McGlown ,came together in 1959 originally as the Primettes in Detroit before evolving into the Supremes with just Ross and Ballard. “We had no clue what was coming,” Wilson told the Detroit Free Press in 2015. “We were just doing this as fun. It was not something like, ‘Oh, we’re going to become singers,’ like today where everyone wants to be a star.”
Motown founder, Berry Gordy, signed the Supremes in 1961. The trio went on to have 12 No. 1 singles, 5 consecutively (including “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” and “Stop! In The Name Of Love“) from 1964 to 1965, making history as one of Motown’s most successful music groups — and setting the standard for what was possible for women in the recording industry.
Together, Wilson, Ross, and Ballard redefined what performers looked like, wearing costume jewelry and voluminous false eyelashes with their coordinating (often, sequin) cocktail dresses. “The aim, radical in its day, was to inject a little sophistication into the raw world of rhythm and blues,” Wilson told the New York Times in 2006. “That standard of sophistication was defined by white society.”
“We definitely started that trend of glamour, of girl groups getting dressed up,” Wilson said in the same interview. “Just like in the ‘Dreamgirls’ movie, when they were trying to make us into a classier kind of group that could play the clubs,” she said. “We did that.”
The Supremes have been, and will always remain, the blueprint for not only the classic “girl group,” but for Black women becoming pop stars, explains Naima Cockrane, music + culture editor. “Their style, their poise, and their polished presentation helped inform an era of music, but also impacted groups to come — case in point, another of the bestselling female groups of all time, Destiny’s Child. The Supremes’ story is almost a full playbook — from signing through evolution to stardom — of artist development and the dynamics of a hit pop group.”
Although Diana Ross is usually The Supremes member singled out, Mary Wilson “was the bedrock of the group as the longest consistent original member through all the various personnel changes over the years,” Cockrane continues.
“Diana was the superstar diva, but Mary was the accessible girl-next-door pop star. She was the heart of the group; warm, funny, friendly, with a smile and laugh that charmed all. The Supremes formula worked not just because of music and aesthetic, but because of personality. A group full of Dianas doesn’t work — you need the balance of a Mary. Like DC wouldn’t work if Béyonce didn’t have Kelly.”
In 1988, Little Richard inducted Wilson, Ross, and Ballard into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, calling them the greatest, saying “there’s never been anything like them and I don’t think there will ever be.”
When the Detroit Free Press asked Wilson what was her favorite thing about being a Supreme, she said it was being able to make her dreams come true. “I coined the phrase BLAPS: ‘Black American princesses.’ We were Cinderellas. We truly made our dreams come true. We were real Cinderellas at a time when Black wasn’t beautiful yet.”
She is survived by her daughter, son, several grandchildren, a sister and brother. Services will be private due to Covid-19 restrictions and a celebration of Wilson’s life will take place later this year, her publicist tells CNN.