Singer Mary Wilson, who co-founded the legendary Motown group The Supremes, died suddenly Monday night at her home in Henderson, Nevada, according to her longtime publicist Jay Schwartz. She was 76.
“We are devastated,” Schwartz said in a statement to ETI. No cause of death was given.
At 15, Wilson was a founding member of the hit-making group that started as a quartet called The Primettes – formed with her Detroit housing project neighbor Diana Ross, Betty McGlown and Florence Ballard.
The Primettes lobbied Motown founder Berry Gordy to sign them to his record label. He finally agreed if the young group changed its name.
On January 15, 1961, the Primettes officially became The Supremes, and then became a trio in 1962 – with Ross, Ballard and Wilson.
“We had no clue what was coming,” Wilson told the Detroit Free Press in 2015. “Had never wanted to be a singer, never thought about being a singer. … 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. (But) as soon as we started singing in the Primettes, we became very aware that this is what we wanted to do the rest of our lives. At 13, I knew this is what I want to do for the rest of my life. We were hooked.”
The influential group’s first No. 1, million-selling song, “Where Did Our Love Go,” was released June 17, 1964. The Supremes were Motown’s most successful act of the 1960s, scoring 12 No. 1 singles, including “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Baby Love.”
Wilson reflected on the group’s success in 2015, noting the best part about being in The Supremes was “being able to make my dreams come true.”
She added: “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.”
Even as Ross went on to a successful solo career and Ballard died in 1976, Wilson stayed with the group until The Supremes officially disbanded in 1977.
“I will never regret being a member of the Supremes,” she added to the Free Press. “I absolutely adored being a Supreme. If I die, I want to come back being Mary Wilson of the Supremes.”
The singer, along with Ross and Ballard, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 by Little Richard who called the group “the greatest” and said “there’s never been anything like them and I don’t think there will ever be.”
Two days ago, Wilson posted a video on her YouTube channel commemorating Black History Month and the January 60th anniversary of The Supremes, announcing plans to release new recordings along with previously released music potentially for her 77th birthday on March 6.
“So much is happening,” said Wilson, who noted that February 8, the day she would pass, was the 46th anniversary of one the Supremes’ greatest hits, “Stop! In the Name of Love.”
The artist never gave up hope of getting the legendary band back together under the right circumstances.
“Well, let’s put it this way: It’s really up to Diana,” she told The Hollywood Reporter in January. “But I don’t think she does want to. So therefore I’m going on with my life. I look at it like this, especially with this pandemic: Who knows when the end may come. And at 76 and-a-half years old I’m not going to sit around waiting for something.”
Services will be private due to COVID-19 restrictions, according to the statement. A celebration of Mary Wilson’s life will take place later this year. The family asked in lieu of flowers, that friends and fans support UNCF.org and the Humpty Dumpty Institute.
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