Passing of Mary Wilson | Founding Member of The Supremes

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Mary Wilson, founding and original member of The Supremes, passed away suddenly this evening according to a statement from her longtime friend and publicist, Jay Schwartz. She was at her home in Henderson, NV. She was 76.

She is survived by: her daughter Turkessa and grandchildren (Mia, Marcanthony, Marina); her son, Pedro Antonio Jr and grandchildren (Isaiah, Ilah, Alexander, Alexandria); her sister Kathryn; her brother, Roosevelt; her adopted son/cousin William and grandchildren (Erica (great granddaughter, Lori), Vanessa, Angela). Services will be private due to Covid restrictions. A celebration of Mary Wilson’s life will take place later this year. The family asks in lieu of flowers, that friends and fans support UNCF.org and the Humpty Dumpty Institute .

A singer, best-selling author, motivational speaker, businesswoman, former U.S. Cultural Ambassador, mother, and grandmother, the legendary Mary Wilson made great strides on her inevitable journey to greatness.

As an original/founding member of The Supremes, she changed the face of pop music to become a trendsetter who broke down social, racial, and gender barriers, which all started with the wild success of their first number one song. Formed in Detroit as The Primettes in 1959, The Supremes were Motown’s most successful act of the 1960s, scoring 12 No. 1 singles. They also continue to reign as America’s most successful vocal group to date. Their influence not only carries on in contemporary R&B, soul and pop, they also helped pave the way for mainstream success by Black artists across all genres.

Mary achieved an unprecedented 12 #1 hits with 5 of them being consecutive from 1964-1965. Those songs are “Where Did Our Love Go”, “Baby Love”, “Come See About Me”, “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again” according to Billboard Magazine. In 2018, Billboard celebrated the 60th anniversary of Motown with a list of “The Hot 100’s Top Artists of All Time”, where The Supremes ranked at #16 and still remain the #1 female recording group of all time. January 21, 2021 marked the 60th anniversary of the day The Supremes signed with Motown in 1961. This year, Mary kicked off the celebration of the 60th anniversary of The Supremes.

With the same passion as she did singing with the original Supremes as well as with her solo career, the world renowned performer was an advocate for social and economic challenges in the United States and abroad. Ms. Wilson used her fame and flair to promote a diversity of humanitarian efforts including ending hunger, raising HIV/AIDS awareness and encouraging world peace. Mary was working on getting a U.S. postage stamp of her fellow band mate and original Supreme Florence Ballard who passed away in 1976.

2019 marked an exciting time for Mary. On top of releasing her new book, she stretched her dancing muscles when she joined the cast of the 28th season of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars”. With no sign of slowing down Ms. Wilson published her fourth book “Supreme Glamour. This highly anticipated coffee-table book showcased the gowns The Supremes were known for over the decades and delved into more history of the most successful female recording group of all time. She was honored at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills celebrating her work in music and her influence on young African Americans and entertainment. Her conversation with Janice Littlejohn left the audience laughing with her unmatched humor and standing with applause displaying her graceful composure throughout the night. Showing the same love she has shown to all her fans, Mary gladly met and personally thanked every attendee that night for their support throughout her career.

Mary’s influence reached beyond music. In 2018, Mary’s longtime fight in the passage of the Music Modernization Act (MMA) came to fruition when the United States legislation signed the act into law on October 11, 2018. The act aims to modernize copyright-related issues for new music and audio recordings due to new forms of technology like digital streaming which did not protect music recorded before February 15, 1972. Her tireless advocacy for this legislation included trips to Washington D.C. to meet with members of Congress personally to advocate for legacy artists gaining fair compensation when their songs are played on digital radio stations.

Mary’s last solo recording, her song “Time to Move On” reached #23 on the Billboard Dance charts, which marked her first time on the charts with a solo recording, since The Supremes. She was working on new projects for 2021 including an album she recently teased on her YouTube channel. Her primary love of preserving the legacy of The Supremes and introducing her music to new generations.

MOTOWN – THE SOUND THAT CHANGED AMERICA

As an irresistible force of social and cultural change, Berry Gordy’s legendary Motown Records made its mark not just on the music industry, but society at large, with a sound that has become one of the most significant musical accomplishments and stunning success stories of the 20th century. The Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and later Stevie Wonder and the Temptations, Michael Jackson & the Jackson 5 and Lionel Richie & the Commodores, their music communicated and brought together a racially divided country and segregated society, around the world, touching all people of all ages and race.

After breaking down barriers and having pop radio embrace Motown artists, Berry Gordy set his sights on television. He booked his artists on popular shows such as American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. After captivating national audiences with near-weekly performances on The Ed Sullivan Show, making history as among the first African-American artists on the show, and The Supremes were the first R&B act to play the country’s most prestigious night club, New York’s Copacabana, which paved the way for other R&B acts into the top cabaret circuits around the world.

LITERARY ACHIEVEMENTS

Ms. Wilson’s “Dare to Dream” lecture, which she gives to young people, emphasizes the need for personal perseverance to achieve their goals, despite obstacles and adversities in their lives. The topic is the foundation of her best-selling autobiography “Dreamgirl – My Life as a Supreme.” Ms. Wilson later authored its sequel, “Supreme Faith – Someday We’ll Be Together.” In 2000, these two books, along with updated chapters, were combined to complete her third book. Her fourth book, “Supreme Glamour,” is a coffee table hardcover featuring the gowns, history and legacy of the Supremes.

“THE STORY OF the Supremes FROM THE MARY WILSON Gown COLLECTION”

“The Story of the Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection” spotlights more than 50 gowns exposing the international community to the impact their fashion had on social issues in the United States. The exhibit traces their career from the early days when they were known as The Primettes to the glamorous height of their fame in the 70s. Their success story helped change racial perceptions during the time of the American Civil Rights movement and to appeal to the people of all ethnic backgrounds. A magnificent collection of dresses worn by Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard for live performances, television performances, including the Butterfly dress worn on their television special in 1968, and on album covers are featured alongside contemporary photographs and magazine spreads.

The exquisite gowns were curated by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland for Ms. Wilson and later exhibited at the Detroit Historical Museum, the New York State Museum in Albany and the Long Island Museum. Several gowns have also been displayed at The Museum of Metropolitan Art in New York as part of the Rock and Roll of Fame Museum exhibit.

The gowns worn by Ms. Wilson and the original Supremes – Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, as well as the 1970s Supremes – were on exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, then showcased in the United Kingdom before starting a tour for two more years in Europe.

MS. WILSON: THE “GOODWILL AMBASSADOR”

Ms. Wilson has toured the globe not only as a performer, but as advocate on behalf of social and civic issues. As a Supreme, she performed for Britain’s Queen Mother and the future King of Sweden and other international audiences. However, Ms. Wilson’s global stature grew after former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell named her one of nine cultural ambassadors in 2003.

As an official “goodwill” ambassador, Ms. Wilson visited poverty-stricken areas in Bangladesh, where she witnessed children as young as five years old having to break bricks to earn money for their families. In Pakistan, she spoke at Fatima Jinnah Woman University about pursuing their goals and “Daring to Dream.” In Mozambique and Botswana, Ms. Wilson addressed young people about the dangers of HIV and AIDS and her quest for world peace.

In November 2004, she was one of the featured performers to headline the United Nations’ “World AIDS Day” concert at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City. She later returned to the United Nations Building to lecture about the poverty, hunger and destruction she witnessed during her trips.

SPEAKING AGAINST LANDMINES

In 2007, Ms. Wilson was elated to be named spokeswoman for the Humpty Dumpty Institute (HDI), a non-government organization that establishes partnerships to raise money and awareness for landmine clearance projects across the globe, including Sri Lanka, Laos and Vietnam. When it was announced, Ralph L. Cwerman, president of the Humpty Dumpty Institute, called her “an original American icon” whose involvement will heighten attention to removal of these unexploded ordnances.

“HDI is privileged to have her as its new spokesperson,” Mr. Cwerman said. “Mine clearance and landmine awareness around the world will benefit greatly as Mary begins to speak out against these cruel weapons of war.”

In November 2007, Ms. Wilson traveled to Sri Lanka, where as many as 15 people are injured or killed every month by landmines. Her tour focused on clearing mines in northern Sri Lanka and regenerating the area’s dairy industry. Along with her seven-member band, Ms. Wilson gave a 90-minute concert, where she performed a medley of the Supremes’ greatest hits drawing diplomats, government officials and the news media to the dance floor. The proceeds from the concert were contributed to Sri Lankan charities assisting victims of landmines.

Ms. Wilson also has visited Laos, which received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve the quality of life of children who were not attending school because they were hungry or in danger of unexploded ordnances. While in Muangkhai Village, Laos, Ms. Wilson personally pushed the button to detonate more than two tons of explosives found in and around villages and schools. In late 2008, her plans include travel to Vietnam, Cambodia and Okinawa, as well as returning to Laos, to clear landmines still active from the Vietnam War, which ended more than three decades ago.

HUMANITARIAN ACHIEVEMENTS

Over the years, Ms. Wilson has been highly recognized as the consummate humanitarian. She continues to devote her time and talent to assisting a diverse group of non-profit organizations, including the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the American Cancer Society, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The Po Leung Kuk schools of Hong Kung, UNICEF, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and Figure Skaters in Harlem, a youth organization committed to helping children realize their dreams to compete in the Olympics. She has been active with Child Research, supporting a child around the world for the past 20 years.

In 2003, the National Foundation for Women Legislators bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award on Ms. Wilson and invited her to a delegation of women legislators who traveled to Bahrain. She participated in a Trade and Civil Life Conference hosted by the Prince and Prime Minister of Bahrain and is proud to have played a role in helping pass the Freedom Trade Bill between the U.S. and Bahrain.

At the 37th Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference in 2007, she received the Floyd Washington Auto Safety Advocacy Award for her commitment to auto safety.

DREAMGIRLS/ THE PLAY/THE MOVIE

Interest in the Supremes’ legacy was renewed after the release of the award-winning film “Dreamgirls,” in 2006. While the film created a wonderful piece of work using the likeness of the Supremes, as well as their history, Ms. Wilson said it did not depict their true story.

SPEAKING OF WOMEN’S HEALTH

Ms. Wilson has also served as the national celebrity spokesperson for Universal Sisters; a division of the National Speaking of Women’s Health Foundation that helps women makes informed decisions about their health care, well-being and personal safety.

THE PRIMETTES

Growing up in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Projects, Mary Wilson had enjoyed a passion for singing. Performing at an elementary school talent showcase, she met soon-to-be long-time friend and future group mate, Florence Ballard. They made a pledge to remember each other if they ever joined a singing group.

Ironically, in 1959, Milton Jenkins, manager of male singing group, the Primes, decided to create a spin-off girls’ group. A friend of the Primes, Betty McGlown, was first asked to join, and then Florence Ballard, who invited Ms. Wilson to join. At the same time, Ms. Wilson’s then neighbor, Diane Ross, was asked by a member of the Primes, and completed the quartet the Primettes. After performing various gigs around Detroit, covering songs by popular artist, such as Ray Charles and the Drifters, the Primettes decide to audition for the up and coming Motown record company. Unfortunately, due to their young age, Motown President, Berry Gordy, Jr. turned them down and suggested they come back after they graduated high school.

Determined to leave an impression on Motown President, Berry Gordy, Jr – the young Primettes thinking that he didn’t like them – and join the stable of rising Motown stars, the Primettes frequented the Hitsville USA recording studio every day after school. Much to their surprise, ‘Prime’ members Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks joined with Otis Williams & the Distants and formed new male singing group The Temptations. Eventually, The Primettes themselves convinced Mr. Gordy to sign them to his label. Gordy agreed to sign them to his label, under the condition that they change their group’s name. With a collection of names from friends and family, Florence had chosen a name and on January 15th 1961 the Primettes officially became The Supremes. At this time Betty had left the group and was replaced with Barbara Martin.

‘THE SUPREMES’

In the spring of 1962, after recording a few songs for their first album, Barbara Martin left the group to marry her childhood sweetheart. Now the newly named Supremes: Florence Ballad, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson became a trio; which to this day remains one of their greatest trademark signatures.

From 1961 to 1963, the Supremes recorded many songs and released eight singles, which did not garner much attention and jokingly earned them the title “no-hit Supremes” at Motown. But their fate changed dramatically in late 1963 when the song “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, was released and peaked at number 23 on the Billboard pop chart. Although released in June, it was in August of 1964 that their single “Where Did Our Love Go,” reached number one on the U.S. pop charts and number three in the United Kingdom. Four more number one hits soon followed, including: “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Back in My Arms Again,” making the Supremes the only group to have five consecutive number one hits.

The Supremes success attracted many promotional opportunities allowing them to become one of the first pop groups of the 1960’s to do commercial endorsements, to include Coca-Cola, Arrid deodorant, and even their own “Supreme” white bread and wig brands.

The Temptations and the Supremes taped two of the first TV Specials by any Pop stars. The TCB and GIT Specials were TV trends that are still popular today.

‘DIANA ROSS AND THE SUPREMES’

The year 1967 was pivotal for the group. Ms. Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong, Mr. Gordy renamed them “Diana Ross and the Supremes.” In January 1970, Diana Ross performed for the last time with the Supremes before pursuing a solo career. With Ross’ departure, Ms. Wilson was left as the only original member of the Supremes. Ms. Wilson continued performing with Cindy Birdsong and Jean Terrell as the “New” Supremes, better known today as the “70’s Supremes.”

The “New” Supremes scored a number of hits including “Up the Ladder to the Roof” (US number 10, UK number 6), “Stoned Love” (US number 7, UK number 3) and “Nathan Jones” (US number 16, UK number 5). These three singles were also R&B Top Ten hits, with “Stoned Love” becoming their last number one hit in December of 1970. Songwriting/production team Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson produced another Top 20 hit for the group, a Supremes/Four Tops version of Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep – Mountain High.”

In 1972, the Supremes had their last Top 20 hit single release, “Floy Joy,” written and produced by Smokey Robinson, followed by the final US Top 40 hit, “Automatically Sunshine” with Ms. Wilson on lead vocals, (US number 37, UK number 10).

While Ms. Wilson is best known as a founding member of the world’s most famous female trio, the legendary singer’s career did not stop there. The 70’s found Mrs. Wilson getting married and starting a family. Then in June of 1977, Ms. Wilson embarked on her own solo career and toured Europe and Asia while raising three new babies. Ms. Wilson has recorded two solo albums, including her self-titled debut in 1979 with the single “Red Hot,” and her 1990 release “Walk the Line.”

In 1988, Mary Wilson accepted the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of the Supremes when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1994, the Supremes received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1998, they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. In 2001, Ms. Wilson was the recipient of an Associate’s Degree from New York University and an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Paine College in Augusta, Georgia.

Dreams Do Come True

Since a young age, Ms. Wilson’s many accomplishments are vast. Her many feats as a Supreme include her endorsement of Vice President Hubert Humphrey and the opportunity to sing at Command Performances for the Royal family in England and Sweden. Appearing as “Mary Wilson of the Original Supremes,” she was sought after to entertain all over the world; to include a performance for President Bill Clinton in the East Room of the White House at the Millennium Celebration. Even now as a mother and a grandmother, Ms. Wilson was fulfilling her personal desires to be involved in worthy causes around the world that improve the lives of individuals, families and all humanity. Ms. Wilson’s experience as a Supreme and cultural ambassador had greatly broadened her horizons and afforded her the pleasurable opportunity to present her talents, compassion and strength to the world.

Jay D. Schwartz

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