Mary Wilson (March 6, 1944 – February 8, 2021) was an American singer. She gained worldwide recognition as a founding member of The Supremes, the most successful Motown act of the 1960s and the best-charting female group in U.S. chart history, as well as one of the best-selling girl groups of all-time. The trio reached number one on Billboard's Hot 100 with 12 of their singles,[a] ten of which feature Wilson on backing vocals.
Wilson remained with the group following the departures of original members Florence Ballard (in 1967) and Diana Ross (in 1970), though the trio disbanded following Wilson's own departure in 1977. Wilson later became a New York Times best-selling author in 1986 with the release of her first autobiography, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, which set records for sales in its genre, and later for the autobiography Supreme Faith: Someday We'll Be Together.
Continuing a successful career as a concert performer in Las Vegas, Wilson also worked in activism, fighting to pass Truth in Music Advertising bills and donating to various charities. Wilson was inducted along with Ross and Ballard (as members of the Supremes) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
Mary Wilson was born March 6, 1944, to Sam, a butcher, and Johnnie Mae Wilson in Greenville, Mississippi. She was the eldest of three children including a brother, Roosevelt, and a sister, Cathy. The Wilsons moved to Chicago, part of the Great Migration in which her father joined many African Americans seeking work in the North, but at age three, Mary Wilson was taken in by her aunt Ivory "I.V." and uncle John L. Pippin in Detroit. Her parents eventually separated and Wilson’s mother and siblings later joined them in Detroit, though by then Wilson had come to believe I.V. was her real mother. To make ends meet, Wilson's mother worked as a domestic worker. Wilson and her family had settled in the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, a housing project in Detroit where Wilson first met Florence Ballard. The duo became friends while singing in their school's talent show. In 1959, Ballard asked Wilson to audition for Milton Jenkins, who was forming a sister group to his male vocal trio, the Primes (two members of which were later in The Temptations). Wilson was soon accepted into the group known as The Primettes, with Diana Ross and Betty McGlown, who lived in the same housing project with Wilson and Ballard. In this period, Wilson also met Aretha, Erma and Carolyn Franklin, daughters of the pastor at her local Baptist church.
The Primettes signed to Motown Records in 1961, changing the group's name to The Supremes. In between that period, McGlown left to get married and was replaced by Barbara Martin. In 1962, the group was reduced to a trio after Martin's departure. The Supremes scored their first hit in 1963 with the song, "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes", and reached No. 1 on the pop charts for the first time with the hit, "Where Did Our Love Go", becoming their first of 12 No. 1 singles. (Though Wilson sang background on all of their hits before 1967, it was later revealed that Motown used in-house background singers, The Andantes, for the hits "Love Child" and "Someday We'll Be Together").
By 1964, the group had become international superstars. In 1967, Motown president Berry Gordy changed the name of the group to Diana Ross & The Supremes and, after a period of tension, Florence Ballard was removed from the Supremes that July. Cindy Birdsong was chosen to take her place. The new lineup continued to record hit singles, although several stalled outside the top 20 chart range. Ross left the group in early 1970, and at her farewell performance Jean Terrell was introduced as the replacement for Ross. According to Wilson in her memoirs, Berry Gordy told Wilson that he thought of having Syreeta Wright join the group in a last-minute change, after Terrell had already been introduced as lead singer, to which Wilson refused. With Terrell, the Supremes recorded seven top-40 hit singles in a three-year period. One "River Deep/Mountain High" was a collaboration with the Four Tops. Other recodings by the trio which charted include; "Up the Ladder to the Roof", "Stoned Love", "Nathan Jones", and "Floy Joy". Of these releases, only "Stoned Love" reached a No. 1 status (R&B Chart). Unlike the latter years with Ross, however, all but one of the hits, "Automatically Sunshine", succeeded in reaching the top 20 charts, with two breaking into the top 10. During this period, Wilson contributed lead or co-lead vocals to several Supremes songs, including the hits "Floy Joy" and "Automatically Sunshine", and the title track of the 1971 album Touch.
In 1972, Cindy Birdsong left the group following marriage and pregnancy and was replaced by Lynda Lawrence. The group's popularity and place on record charts dropped significantly. For the first time in a decade, two singles in a row failed to break into the top 40, including the Stevie Wonder penned-and-produced "Bad Weather". Discouraged, Jean Terrell and Lynda Lawrence both departed in late 1973. Scherrie Payne was recruited from a group called The Glass House. They were signed to the Invictus label, owned by the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting-production team (who composed 10 of the Supremes No. 1 1960s singles). Cindy Birdsong also returned. Beginning with this lineup change, Wilson began doing almost half of the group's lead vocal duties, as she was considered the group's main attraction and reason for continuing. In 1975, Wilson sang lead on the Top 10 disco hit "Early Morning Love". In 1976, the group scored its final hit single with "I'm Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking", written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland Group and included on the H-D-H produced album High Energy. Birdsong again departed, just before the album's release, and was replaced by the group's final official member, Susaye Greene, whose voice was dubbed over two songs. High Energy produced a flurry of positive reviews and sales, but a follow-up H-D-H effort in 1977 failed to ignite much interest. In late 1977, Wilson left The Supremes, following a performance at London's Drury Lane Theatre. After Payne and Greene unsuccessfully lobbied to get a replacement for Wilson, the Supremes officially disbanded.
Wilson became involved in a protracted legal battle with Motown over management of the Supremes. After an out-of-court settlement, Wilson signed with Motown for solo work, releasing a disco-heavy self-titled album in 1979. A single from the album, "Red Hot", had a modest showing of No. 90 on the pop charts. Midway through production of a second solo album in 1980, Motown dropped her from its roster. Throughout the mid-1980s, Wilson focused on performances in musical theater productions, including Beehive, Dancing in the Streets, and Supreme Soul.
Wilson found major success once more with her memoir: Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme in 1986. The book remained on the national best-seller list for months and established a sales record for the genre. The book focused on the early career of the Supremes and its success during the 1960s. Four years later, in 1990, Wilson released her second memoir: Supreme Faith: Someday We'll Be Together, also a best seller, which focused on the Supremes in the 1970s. In between this period, Wilson became a frequent guest on several television programs and talk shows and began regularly performing in Las Vegas casinos and resorts. Wilson then recorded a cover version of "Ooh Child" for the Motorcity label in 1990. A year later, she signed with CEO Records and released the album, Walk the Line, in 1992. The label filed for bankruptcy the day after its national release. Wilson maintained that she was deceived about the financial status of the label. The available copies of the album quickly sold out, however, and Wilson continued her success as a concert performer.
Wilson fought two court cases with former employees over usage of the Supremes name; Supremes' replacement singers Lynda Lawrence and Scherrie Payne and a former backing vocalist from her 1980s concert work, Kaaren Ragland. In both cases the courts found for the employees. This prompted Wilson to take a high-profile role in lobbying for "Truth in Music" legislation, which prohibits usage of musical acts names, unless an original member of the group is in the act or the group is properly licensed by the last person to hold right of title to the name. Her efforts succeeded in more than 28 U.S. states. In 1995, Wilson released a song, ".U", for Contract Recording Company. A year later, Wilson released the song, "Turn Around" for Da Bridge Records.
In late 1999, a proposal to unite all former living Supremes for a summer 2000 tour, was negotiated by Ross and SFX. After securing SFX's interest, Ross had the promoter contact the other former members, refusing to directly negotiate with the other members, in order to spare any hurt feelings among the women. Talks and plans for the tour were well underway before Wilson was contacted by Ross in December 1999. Wilson, upset she had been contacted so late, wanted to speak with Ross directly before beginning negotiations. Ross felt they should speak after negotiations took place. Following Ross' initial contact, she removed herself from the negotiations leaving them between the women, their representatives, and the promoters. Both Wilson and Ross knew that the real heart of The Supremes was the trio that included the very creator of the group, Florence Ballard. Despite the hard knowledge of show business realities, without Ballard negotiations could only be half-hearted in such a return to the groups past formulations. Still, pushing on, TNA/SFX initially offered Wilson $1 million. Birdsong was reported to have been offered less than $1 million. Wilson and Birdsong were also informed they would not have any creative input into the show. Wilson rejected the initial offer feeling she, Ross, and Birdsong should be paid equally and have equal input into the show. Promoters increased Wilson's offer up to $2 million after the initial rejection. Ross then agreed to offer Wilson another $2 million from her personal finances added to the $2 million TNA/SFX proposed for a total of $4 million. Wilson and Birdsong's request for creative input into the show was again rejected. Ross stipulated that all of the other artists' fees were guaranteed, meaning that they'd receive the full amount of their contracts, regardless of how many performances actually took place. Wilson erroneously stated publicly that Ross was to receive between $15 to $20 million. Ross, as the tour's co-producer, was receiving $500,000 per night from TNA/SFX to cover the tour's expenses. When the expenses exceeded the allotment, Ross covered the overages.
Wilson's final offer of $4 million and Birdsong's offer of $1 million came with a deadline of early 2000 (in order to begin production of the sets, costume fittings, hiring of staff, etc., and an on-schedule commencement of the tour). Wilson did accept the final offer, but her acceptance was rejected by TNA/SFX citing "the train has left the station." The promoter ceased negotiations with Wilson and Birdsong. Without Wilson or Birdsong, Ross began to question whether to continue to stage the tour. Berry Gordy Jr. had called TNA/SFX during the negotiation process requesting that Wilson and Birdsong receive better pay and have creative input into the show. Ross contacted Gordy for advice about the tour and he reportedly told her to continue "if it's something she'd have fun doing;" however, he warned her about continuing without Wilson and Birdsong. Ross decided to continue.
The tour, Return to Love, instead went forward with former 1970s Supremes Scherrie Payne and Lynda Lawrence (Susaye Green and Jean Terrell refused to participate because the promoter requested that they audition for the tour, as they had not heard the women sing in over 20 years), but, was canceled mid-tour due low ticket sales (despite selling out New York City's Madison Square Garden ), following complaints of high ticket prices in a down touring market, a spate of high scrutiny by some members of the public, and press regarding the absence of some performers (i.e. Wilson and Birdsong), and the dispute between versions of events. That year, Wilson released an updated version of her autobiographies as a single combined book. That same year, an album, I Am Changing, was released by Mary Wilson Enterprises, produced through her and her then-management, Duryea Entertainment.
In 2001, Wilson starred in the national tour of Leader of the Pack – The Ellie Greenwich Story. A year later, Wilson was appointed by Secretary of State Colin Powell as a "culture-connect ambassador" for the U.S. State Department, appearing at international events arranged by that agency. In 2006, a live concert DVD, Mary Wilson Live at the Sands, was released. Four years later, another DVD, Mary Wilson: Live from San Francisco... Up Close, was released. During this period, Wilson became a musical activist, having been part of the Truth in Music Bill, a law proposed to stop impostor groups performing under the names of the 1950s and 1960s rock and roll groups, including Motown groups The Marvelettes and The Supremes. The law was passed in 27 states. Wilson also toured and lectured internationally, as well as across the United States, speaking to multiple groups worldwide. Her lecture series, "Dare to Dream", focuses on reaching goals and triumph over adversity. Wilson's charity work included the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, the American Cancer Society, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, the Easter Seals Foundation, UNICEF, The NAACP, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the All-Star Network, and Figure Skaters of Harlem, a youth organization devoted to helping children towards entering the Olympics. Most recently, Wilson became the Mine Action spokesperson for the Humpty Dumpty Institute.
In April 2008, Wilson made a special appearance on 20/20 to participate in a social experiment involving pedestrians reacting to a young woman singing "Stop! In the Name of Love" with intentional amateurishness. Wilson approached the woman and gave her constructive criticism toward her style, in contrast to the pedestrians whose reactions were positive, yet dishonest. On March 5, 2009, she made a special appearance on The Paul O'Grady Show, which ended in a special performance with her, O'Grady, and Graham Norton. Wilson created the "Mary Wilson/Supremes Gown Collection", and had the collection tour in an exhibition of the Supremes' stage wear. The collection has been on exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio and on May 12, 2008, commenced its UK tour, starting at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. More than 50 sets of gowns are shown in rotation, starting with early formal wear from the early 1960s, and including famous gowns worn on television specials and nightclub appearances by the group in the 1960s and 1970s.
Wilson released two singles on iTunes, "Life's Been Good To Me" and "Darling Mother (Johnnie Mae)", in 2011 and 2013, respectively. In 2015, Wilson released a new single, "Time To Move On", produced by Sweet Feet Music; the song reached the Top 20 on the Billboard Dance charts, peaking at No. 17 as of December 26. At 36 years and seven weeks, Mary Wilson holds the record for 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.
In 2016, an Indiegogo campaign was launched to help raise $35,000 to fund a gay-themed romantic comedy movie, "Please Don't Eat the Pansies". The cast includes actor/writer Ronnie Kerr, Andrew Lauer, singer/actor Tom Goss, and Wilson.
On August 15, 2019, Wilson published her fourth book, Supreme Glamour with co-author Mark Bego, dedicated to the history of the Supremes and their fashion with a detailed section dedicated to the Supremes gowns in her collection. Six days later, Wilson was announced as one of the celebrities who would compete on season 28 of Dancing with the Stars.
Wilson married Dominican businessman Pedro Ferrer, whom she had chosen as The Supremes manager, in Las Vegas, Nevada on May 11, 1974. They had three children, Turkessa, Pedro Antonio Jr., and Rafael. Wilson and Ferrer divorced in 1981. She was also the adoptive mother of her cousin, Willie. In January 1994, Wilson and her 16-year-old son Rafael were involved in an accident on Interstate 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas when their Jeep Cherokee veered off the highway and overturned. Wilson sustained moderate injuries; Rafael's injuries were fatal. Wilson had 10 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
In 2020, Wilson received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Newspaper Publishers Association. Wilson was also, along with The Supremes, inducted into National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame class of 2013. Wilson also served as the master of ceremonies for the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame from 2016 to 2019 and served as a board member.
On February 8, 2021, Wilson died in her sleep from hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease at her home in Henderson, Nevada, at the age of 76. Two days before her death, she had announced on YouTube that she was planning to release new solo material with Universal Music Group, and hoped it would come out before March 6, her birthday.
Motown founder Berry Gordy said he was "extremely shocked and saddened" by the news of her death and said Wilson was "quite a star in her own right and over the years continued to work hard to boost the legacy of the Supremes."
- The Supremes
- 1960: "Tears of Sorrow" (The Primettes)
- 1961: "I Want a Guy"
- 1961: "Buttered Popcorn"
- 1962: "Your Heart Belongs to Me"
- 1962: "Let Me Go the Right Way"
- 1963: "My Heart Can't Take It No More"
- 1963: "A Breathtaking Guy"
- 1963: "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes"
- 1964: "Run, Run, Run"
- 1964: "Where Did Our Love Go"
- 1964: "Baby Love"
- 1964: "Come See About Me"
- 1965: "Stop! In the Name of Love"
- 1965: "Back in My Arms Again"
- 1965: "Nothing but Heartaches"
- 1965: "I Hear a Symphony"
- 1965: "My World Is Empty Without You"
- 1966: "Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart"
- 1966: "You Can't Hurry Love"
- 1966: "You Keep Me Hangin' On"
- 1967: "Love Is Here and Now You're Gone"
- 1967: "The Happening"
- Diana Ross & the Supremes
- 1967: "Reflections"
- 1967: "In and Out of Love"
- 1968: "I'm Gonna Make You Love Me"
- 1969: "I'll Try Something New"
- 1969: "The Weight"
- 1969: "I Second That Emotion"
- 1970: "Why (Must We Fall in Love)"
- The Supremes
- 1970: "Up the Ladder to the Roof"
- 1970: "Everybody's Got the Right to Love"
- 1970: "Stoned Love"
- 1970: "River Deep – Mountain High"
- 1971: "Nathan Jones"
- 1971: "You Gotta Have Love in Your Heart"
- 1971: "Touch"
- 1971: "Floy Joy"
- 1972: "Automatically Sunshine"
- 1972: "Without the One You Love"
- 1972: "Your Wonderful, Sweet Sweet Love"
- 1972: "I Guess I'll Miss the Man"
- 1972: "Reach Out and Touch (Somebody's Hand)"
- 1973: "Bad Weather"
- 1973: "Tossin' and Turnin'"
- 1975: "He's My Man"
- 1975: "Where Do I Go from Here"
- 1975: "Early Morning Love"
- 1976: "I'm Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking"
- 1976: "High Energy"
- 1976: "You're My Driving Wheel"
- 1977: "Let Yourself Go"
- 1977: "Love, I Never Knew You Could Feel So Good"
Note: Wilson did not appear on all fourteen 1967–1970 Diana Ross & the Supremes singles, only the seven listed above. The seven singles she did not appear on are listed below:
Note: Wilson sang lead on 14 songs recorded by The Supremes during the group's career and shared lead on 12 songs. Some of Wilson's unreleased lead vocals appeared on the box set Let Yourself Go. The fourteen recordings where she had lead vocals are listed below:
- 1962: "Baby Don't Go" (from Meet The Supremes)
- 1966: "Come and Get These Memories" (from The Supremes A' Go-Go)
- 1967/1970: “Falling in Love with Love” (co-lead from The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart; live solo version from Farewell)
- 1969/1973: "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" (from Together; The Supremes Live! In Japan)
- 1972: "A Heart Like Mine" (from Floy Joy)
- 1972: "I Keep It Hid" (from The Supremes Produced and Arranged by Jimmy Webb)
- 1975: "Early Morning Love" (from The Supremes)
- 1975: "Where Is It I Belong" (from The Supremes)
- 1975: "You Turn Me Around" (from The Supremes)
- 1976: "Don't Let My Teardrops Bother You" (from High Energy)
- 1976: "Til The Boat Sails Away" (from High Energy)
- 1976: "I Don't Want To Lose You" (from High Energy)
- 1976: "We Should Be Closer Together" (from Mary, Scherrie & Susaye)
- 1976: "You Are The Heart of Me" (from Mary, Scherrie & Susaye)
- 2000: I Am Changing
Album guest appearances
- with Neil Sedaka on Come See About Me (one song) – "Come See About Me"
- with Paul Jabara on De La Noche Sisters (one song) – "This Girl's Back"
- on the album Sing For The Cure (one song) – "Come to Me Mother"
- with the Four Tops on From the Heart (2006) (one song) – "River Deep – Mountain High"
- with Human Nature on Get Ready (2007) (two songs) – "River Deep – Mountain High" and "It Takes Two"
- Motown releases
- 1979: "Red Hot" / "Midnight Dancer"
- 1980: "Pick Up the Pieces" / "You're the Light That Guides My Way" (UK only)
- Nightmare/Motorcity releases
- 1987: "Don't Get Mad, Get Even" – Nightmare Records
- 1989: "Oooh Child" – Nightmare Records
- CEO releases
- 1992: "One Night With You"
- 1992: "Walk the Line"
- Other releases
- 1995: "U" R&B Mix with Groov-E – Contract Recording Company
- 1996: "Turn Around" – Da Bridge Records
- 2000: "Got to Keep Movin'"
- 2011: "Life's Been Good to Me" - Motor City Works
- 2013: "Darling Mother (Johnnie Mae)" - Motor City Works
- 2015: "Time to Move On"
- 1980: Gus Dudgeon produced master tracks for Motown – "Love Talk", "Save Me", "You Danced My Heart Around the Stars", "Green River"
- 1986: "My Lovelife is a Disaster" (unreleased demo)
- 1987: "Sleeping in Separate Rooms" - Atlantic Records
- 1987: "Stronger in a Broken Part" - Atlantic Records
- 1987: "The One I Love" - Atlantic Records
- "Can We Talk About It"
- "Show Me"
- "Love Child" (out-take from Walk the Line album)
- Wilson, Mary with Patricia Romanowski and Ahrgus Juilliard (1986). Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme. New York: St. Martin's Press.
- Wilson, Mary and Romanowski, Patricia (1990). Supreme Faith: Someday We'll Be Together. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-016290-2
- Wilson, Mary (1999). Dreamgirl & Supreme Faith: My Life as a Supreme. New York: Cooper Square Press. ISBN 0-8154-1000-X.
- Wilson, Mary with Mark Bego (2019). Supreme Glamour. New York: Thames & Hudson. ISBN 978-0500022009
- T.A.M.I. Show – performer, with the Supremes (1964)
- Beach Ball – performer, with the Supremes (1965)
- Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever – performer, with the Supremes (1983)
- Girl Groups: The Story of a Sound – herself (1994)
- Jeff Barry & Friends - Chapel of Love (2000)
- Jackie's Back (movie) – Vesta Crotchley (2002)
- Rhythm, Love and Soul – herself (2003)
- Tiger Town (movie) – National Anthem singer (2004)
- Only the Strong Survive – performer (2004)
- From the Heart: The Four Tops – 50th Anniversary Concert – performer (2005)
- Mary Wilson Live at the Sands – herself (2006)
- Greatest Hits: Live in Amsterdam – performer, with the Supremes (2006)
- Reflections: The Definitive Performances (1964–1969) – singer (2006)
- Mary Wilson; Up Close: Live from San Francisco (2010)
Other notable appearances
- Brenda Russell: "Walkin' in New York" – cameo in music video
- Motown 40: The Music is Forever – herself (1998)
- Motown 45 – performer (2004)
- Motown: The Early Years: PBS Special (2005)
- My Music: Motown Memories: PBS Special – hostess (2009)
- Unsung: Florence Ballard – interviewee (2009)
- Unsung: The Marvelettes - interviewee (2012)
- Tavis Smiley – interviewee (2012)
- Unsung: Eddie Kendricks – interviewee (2013)
- 60's Girl Grooves: PBS Special - hostess (2013)
- Dancing with the Stars – contestant on season 28 (2019)
- "Where Did Our Love Go", "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 Hangin' On", "Love is Here and Now You're Gone", "The Happening", "Love Child", and "Someday We'll Be Together". Wilson however did not sing background on "Love Child" or "Someday We'll Be Together".
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