Supremes co-founder Mary Wilson dies aged 76: ‘A titan who changed the game permanently’

Patrick Kelleher
·4-min read

Mary Wilson, co-founder of The Supremes, has died aged 76.

The acclaimed singer, actor and author died suddenly on Monday (8 February) just two days after she announced that she was planning on releasing new solo material through Universal Music Group.

While growing up in Detroit’s upstart housing project, Wilson met Florence Ballard. The pair went on to join The Primettes, a sister group to male vocal group the Primes, alongside Diana Ross and Betty McGlown.

The legendary group was signed by Motown Records in 1961 and their name was changed to The Supremes, eventually becoming a trio in 1962 after McGlown left to get married.

Throughout the 1960s, Wilson, Ballard and Ross released a string of hit singles including “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes”, “Where Did Our Love Go”, “Baby Love”, “Come See About Me”, “Stop! In the Name of Love” and many others.

The group’s string of almost unparalleled success began to bottom out in the late 1960s when Ballard was pushed out due to her addiction and mental health issues. Following her departure, the group was renamed as Diana Ross and the Supremes by Motown boss Berry Gordy as Ross’ profile continued to rise.

The following year, Ross began recording solo music and ultimately left the group in 1970, marking an end to The Supremes’ time atop the charts. The group continued recording and touring, with Ross replaced by Jean Terrell, but the group never captured the success of the ’60s again.

In the years that followed, The Supremes’ line-up repeatedly changed, but Wilson remained until the group disbanded in 1977. She went on to have a successful solo career, and published a tell-all memoir, DreamGirl: My Life as a Supreme, in 1986. The book became a bestseller and she went on to publish three further volumes about her time in The Supremes.

In 2019, Wilson appeared on season 28 of Dancing with the Stars, marking a return to the spotlight for the iconic vocalist.

Just two days before she died, Wilson posted a video on YouTube in which she said she was planning to release new solo material. She also promised fans a new interview about the Supremes’ experience with racial segregation in 1960s America to mark Black History Month.

The Supremes legend Mary Wilson praised as a ‘trailblazer’ following her death

There was an outpouring of sympathy from those who worked with Mary Wilson throughout her long career as news of her death broke on Monday.

Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown record label, said Mary Wilson was “a trailblazer” and a “diva” who will be missed.

“I was extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family, Mary Wilson of The Supremes,” he said.

“The Supremes were always known as the ‘sweethearts of Motown.’ Mary, 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, the other Motown acts, and many, many others.

“I was always proud of Mary. She was quiet 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.”

Others shared their appreciation for Wilson and the Supremes on Twitter.

Wilson’s family have said that the funeral will be private due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but they promised that a public memorial will take place later in the year.