R.I.P. Mary Wilson – a Super Supreme from beginning to end

(February 9, 2021).  When Mary Wilson finally left the Supremes in 1977, it would have been easy to dismiss her as just another disposable background singer, one of several who backed Diana Ross and, later, Jean Terrell – Ross’s replacement as lead singer in 1970.

After all, Wilson’s solo singing voice was not identifiable on any of the group’s biggest hits either pre-1970, when Ross purred through No. 1 smashes like “Baby Love,” “Stop! In The Name Of Love” and “Come See About Me,” or post-1970 when Terrell was given the lead mic for hits like “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” “Nathan Jones” and “Stoned Love.”

Mary Wilson (1944-2021) died suddenly on February 8, 2021

But when Wilson called it quits after their last album – Mary, Scherrie & Susaye (the 1976 release named for Wilson and two more replacement singers) – the powers-that-be knew that the Supremes would be no more without the glue that had held them together for nearly two decades.

By then, fellow original members Diana Ross and Florence Ballard were long gone, both departing the Supremes before the 1970s got underway.  Diana had gone on to a very successful solo career; Flo’s lackluster solo career and her personal battles preceded an early death at 32 (in 1976).  She had left the Supremes in 1967.

It was with Ross and Ballard that Wilson had combined to create the most successful “girl group” in rock and roll history.  They scored 12 No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 between 1964 and 1969, a number that still ranks ahead of every American group in history (and behind only a handful of solo artists and the Beatles in the overall rankings). 

More important than their chart success was what these three women represented for Black people – especially Black women – in the turbulent 1960s.  In a decade epitomized by racial violence and civil unrest and a time where Black women had been largely viewed by society as anything but glamorous, the Supremes were a game-changer.

The Supremes – an unlikely group of poor Black girls from Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects – were living nothing short of a miracle.  They were stylish and graceful – groomed to be that way by Motown’s artists-and-repertoire folks, courtesy of the label’s finishing schools.  They had gone from singing doo-wop as The Primettes in the projects to filling stadiums worldwide under their Motown name and having their music beamed into space via satellite for astronauts to enjoy.  

Their songs – the biggest of which were helmed by the legendary songwriting and production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland – were mostly about love at a time when it seemed that love was in very short supply.  It’s a little reported fact that every one of The Supremes’ twelve No. 1 songs had the word “love” somewhere in its lyrics, with half of the songs having the word explicitly in their titles.

Original Supremes (from left): Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross

The Supremes were so big back then, that their biggest competition on the charts were indeed the Beatles, the biggest band in the world.  Five times between 1964 and 1968, either the Supremes knocked the Beatles out of the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100, or vice-versa.  It was their 1968 smash, “Love Child,” that knocked the Fab Four’s biggest hit single, “Hey Jude,” from the top in November that year. 

Ironically, it was also “Love Child” that signaled the imminent end of the Diana Ross-Mary Wilson era of the Supremes (Flo had left a year earlier).  Wilson and Ballard’s replacement, Cindy Birdsong, famously never recorded the backing vocals for that pivotal single, with the studio work being done by the session group known as the Andantes – a female foursome who had sung backup on a number of Motown hits by different acts during the 1960s.

It was around that time that Motown boss Berry Gordy’s plans to make Ross a solo star became a priority.  The Supremes, at the time still one of the most popular groups alive, would be allowed to continue with Wilson, Birdsong and new lead Terrell churning out new albums.  Motown famously recorded new material for the Jean Terrell version of the Supremes while Ross, Wilson and Birdsong were still touring together in Ross’ final months with them.

Rock Hall: Mary Wilson among the first women to be inducted to the RRHOF along with the Supremes.

The “New Supremes” were already recording their first post-Diana album, Right On, before their last hit with their former leader, “Someday We’ll Be Together,” even charted.  Like “Love Child,” “Someday” was recorded without Wilson or Birdsong backing Ross.  

For a minute, the “New Supremes” actually outperformed the newly solo Diana Ross on the charts.  The Supremes first single release without Ross – 1970’s “Up The Ladder to The Roof” – reached No. 10 pop, No. 5 soul.  Ross’ first solo hit – “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand),” released just a few months later, stopped at No. 20 pop, No. 7 soul.

Over time, as Ross’ solo career finally began to take off, The Supremes continued charting moderately, gaining a respectable eight top-40 singles between 1970 and 1976, including the first one on which Mary had a lead vocal: “Floy Joy,” a No. 16 pop hit in 1972.

Mary’s lead vocals: Hear all of Mary’s lead vocals on Supremes songs here.

With all of the changes the group underwent during the 1970s, Mary Wilson was the Supremes’ one constant.  Names like Terrell, Birdsong, Scherrie Payne, and Suzaye Greene had come and gone.  And by 1977, after allowing others to shine for the better part of a decade and a half, Mary Wilson was, ironically, its biggest draw.

Largely because of Wilson, the Supremes continued to have touring success into the mid-1970s, particularly overseas on the European and Asian continents.  Towards the end, she was given a more prominent role as a co-lead singer on two of the group’s last three albums – released in 1975 and 1976.  She had even provided co-lead vocals on a song that topped Billboard’s early, regionally based disco charts: the tune “He’s My Man” in August 1975.

So, in the end, the Supremes had sort-of come full circle with the one person – Wilson – who had been there since the beginning.  Unfortunately, the big selling hits just weren’t there anymore and, in 1977, when Wilson finally left the group she had co-founded eighteen years earlier in Detroit, the Supremes would be no more.

Actually, ending the group couldn’t have been a hard decision for Motown’s brass to make; The Supremes just wouldn’t have been the Supremes without Mary Wilson.

The fact that Wilson had stood in the shadows of Ross and Terrell (and for a minute Payne) didn’t deter her from being The Supremes’ strongest advocate, both in and out of the studio; and both during and after the group’s existence.  Even when others – like Ross and, to a greater extent, Motown boss Berry Gordy – had threatened to upend the Supremes’ legacy with cringe-inducing decisions about furthering Ross’s solo career or reneging on the selection of her replacement, it was Wilson who was there to clean up the mess and fight for the group’s dignity…and perhaps even her own. 

For instance, in 1970 after Ross had left and Gordy threatened to make Syreeta Wright (Stevie Wonder’s late ex-wife) the group’s new lead singer after the job had already been promised (and announced on a TV special) to Jean Terrell, it was Mary who refused.  It was with Mary’s blessing (and perhaps a bit of her humility) that Terrell became the voice of the group for the next several years, while the lone remaining founder continued to yield the spotlight to yet another member.

Years later, it was Wilson who became the Supremes’ and her own biggest advocate.  Whether it was turning down a potentially huge payday by declining a reunion tour offer in which she would’ve been paid much less than Ross, or fighting for legislation to be passed after several of the replacement singers began touring under the name “The Supremes” without the presence or permission of the surviving originals. 

We watched for decades as the most enduring Supreme wrote bestselling books about her dramatic, gossip-worthy experiences with Motown, Berry Gordy and Diana Ross.  We were incredulous over the fact that she and the Supremes had never won a Grammy but rejoiced when they became the first girl group – and the second female act overall after Aretha Franklin – to be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  

We were thankful that Mary rejoined Diana and Cindy Birdsong for the Motown 25 celebration in 1983 and didn’t want to think that it would be the last time the three of them – and Wilson and Ross in particular – would ever perform together again.

But it would be.  

And so it was that, in the end, whenever the name The Supremes was mentioned, it was Mary Wilson whose likeness was evoked, whose permission was sought, and whose legacy was equal to that of the group she helped found and remained with from start to finish…the only Supreme with that distinction.

Mary Wilson may you eternally Rest In Peace. You will be greatly missed and your legacy will live on!

Mary Wilson: March 6, 1944 – February 8, 2021

DJRob

DJRob is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.

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