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Tribute to Mary Wilson of The Supremes

8 February 2021

Mary Wilson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, on 6 March 1944. Her parents separated when she was young and she was raised by family members until she was 10 years old, believing for many years that her mother was actually her aunt.

The family moved to Chicago and later Detroit, where they attended Aretha Franklin‘s father’s church every Sunday.

Wilson, who learned to sing by imitating Lena Horne records, formed her first group with Aretha’s sister, Carolyn, when she was in junior school.

The Supremes were the creation of a Detroit group called The Primes who wanted a new girl group to support them at local shows. They had already found two singers, Betty McGlown and Florence Ballard – who suggested adding Wilson, her classmate, as a third member.

Wilson then recruited Diane Ross, who she’d first spotted from the window of her apartment, calling her “the most energetic and pretty girl I’d ever seen”.

Christened The Primettes, the girls started performing covers of songs by Ray Charles and The Drifters at social clubs and talent shows around Detroit.

They quickly won an audition from Motown founder Berry Gordy – but he refused to sign the band until they had graduated from school. The group were renamed The Supremes and put through the “finishing school” by Maxine Powell, the Miss Manners of Motown.

Betty McGlown left the group in 1960 and was replaced by Barbara Martin, who then left in 1962. Their first #1 record was Where Did Our Love Go? recorded as a trio in 1964.

Holland-Dozier-Holland had originally written the song for Wilson, thinking it suited her grittier soul voice, but Gordy insisted Ross – who by this stage had changed her name to Diana – should take the lead vocal.

That set the pattern for the band’s next four number ones – Baby Love, Come See About Me, Stop! In The Name Of Love and Back In My Arms Again – where Ross was consistently thrust into the limelight.

As the hits continued to rack up, The Supremes were a constant presence on radio and television – subtly contributing to shifting perceptions of race in America.

In 1966, the album Supremes A Go-Go became the first record by an all-woman group to top the US album charts, knocking The BeatlesRevolver off the #1 spot.

But by this stage, Florence Ballard, who had been sexually assaulted as a child, was spiralling into depression and alcoholism. She was removed from the group in 1967 and replaced by Cindy Birdsong. She later died of a heart attack, aged 32.

Ross left the group soon after to pursue a successful solo career, leaving Wilson as the only original member still in the act. With Jean Terrell on lead vocals, the band scored hits in the early 1970s with songs like Stoned Love and Nathan Jones.

The “new” Supremes cultivated their live audience in Europe, eventually disbanding following Wilson’s departure in 1977.

Wilson married Pedro Ferrer in 1974, but the relationship quickly turned sour. Pedro had a violent temper and would explode into jealous rages, beating Mary and slashing her face with a glass, nearly severing her ear. In 1979, she gave him a year to clean up his act.

When he didn’t, she walked away and their divorce became final in 1981.

The couple had three children, the youngest of whom, Rafael, died in 1994, when Wilson’s jeep hit the central reservation of a Los Angeles freeway and overturned.

Mary curated The Supremes’ legacy, staging exhibitions of their gowns and writing two best-selling books documenting their achievements. She found major success in the 1980s with her memoir, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme which detailed the abuses the band had suffered at the hands of the record industry.

A New York Times bestseller, it remains one of the most popular rock & roll autobiographies of all time. Wilson followed it up with a second volume and a book on The Supremes’ style.

Fiercely protective of The Supremes’ legacy, she also lobbied – successfully – for copyright laws that made it illegal for tribute acts to pass themselves off as the real thing.

Mary Wilson passed away in her sleep at her home in Henderson, Nevada, on 8 February 2021, less than one month before her 77th birthday.

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