March 8, 2021

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Supremes co-founder Mary Wilson dies aged 76

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Mary Wilson reigns as longest-serving original Supreme, a landmark women’s singing group of the 1960s.

Mary Wilson, the longest-reigning original Supreme, has died at 76.

The highly successful music group of three Black women rose to fame in the 1960s as the United States grappled with segregation and civil rights and helped change the way many thought about race.

Wilson died on Monday night at her home in Las Vegas and the cause was not immediately clear, said publicist Jay Schwartz.

Wilson, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard made up the first successful configuration of The Supremes, originally called The Primettes. Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong in 1967, and Wilson stayed with The Supremes until it was officially disbanded by the US record label Motown in 1977. Wilson then pursued a solo career.

Of the early days of performing in the 1950s and 60s, “it was rough”, Wilson said in a June 2020 interview with Stars in the House, a live-streamed series benefiting US actors. “I’m Black. I remember having to drink out of the water fountains where it said ‘for coloured people’ and then there were ones ‘for white people’. We toured the South and we couldn’t stay at any of the hotels or motels.”

The group’s first number one, million-selling song – Where Did Our Love Go – was released on June 17, 1964. Touring at the time, Wilson said there was a moment when she realised they had a hit song.

“I remember that instead of going home on the bus, we flew,” she told The Associated Press news agency in 2014. “That was our first plane ride. We flew home. We had really hit big.”

Mary Wilson arrives at the 2020 Elton John AIDS Foundation Oscar Viewing Party on Sunday, February 9, 2020, in West Hollywood, California [File: Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP Photo]

It would be the first of five consecutive number ones, with Baby Love, Come See About Me, Stop! In the Name of Love and Back in My Arms Again following in quick succession. The Supremes also recorded the hit songs You Can’t Hurry Love, Up the Ladder to the Roof, and Love Child.

“I just woke up to this news,” Ross tweeted on Tuesday, offering her condolences to Wilson’s family. “I am reminded that each day is a gift,” she added, writing “I have so many wonderful memories of our time together.”

Motown founder Berry Gordy said he was “extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family, Mary Wilson of the Supremes.” His statement on Monday night, according to Variety, said, “The Supremes were always known as the ‘sweethearts of Motown’.”

The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. The 2006 film Dreamgirls, starring Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson, was loosely based on their story.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, a funeral service for Wilson will be private, the statement said. A celebration of her life is expected later in the year.

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