The Supremes were a huge part of my childhood having older siblings that were already “Hip & Groovy,” I learned to love the music of the Detroit Sound Machine named, “Motown!” Back then during the late 60s, and early 70s, I remember very well the great music that came out of Detroit and the Supremes were right at the top of the charts. My memories of this fabulous girl group was what I saw on television, getting a hair brush pretending it was a microphone while trying to dance and sing like them, but also watching my sisters perform their unique dance moves while staying in rhythm with the music. Those times, I will never forget!
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 group released twelve number-one hit singles on the Billboard Hot 100 which set the record at the time, ten of which Wilson sang backing vocals on.
Wilson remained with the group following the departures of other original members, Florence Ballard in 1967 and Diana Ross in 1970, though the group 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.
Early life –
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.
Wilson graduated from Detroit’s Northeastern High School in January 1962. Despite her mother’s urging that she goes to college, Wilson instead focused on her music career.
Wilson at the LBJ Presidential Library in 2019
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 recordings 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.
Wilson in 2019 –
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 the 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.
In 1994, The Supremes were recognized with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7060 Hollywood Blvd.
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 the 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 the 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’s 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 group’s 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.
For more on Mary Wilson, please click on the link below: