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Mary Wilson

Mary WilsonBorn: 6-Mar-1944
Birthplace: Greenville, MS
Died: 8-Feb-2021
Location of death: Henderson, NV
Cause of death: unspecified

Gender: Female
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Singer, Author

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: The Supremes

The only Supreme to endure throughout the group's entire lifespan, Mary Wilson was born in Mississippi and raised by an aunt and uncle in the less-than-promising surroundings of Detroit's Brewster Projects. An ambition to become a professional singer took root early in her childhood, and before she had graduated from high school this ambition was on its way to being realized: at the age of 15 she was enlisted by manager Milton Jenkins (along with schoolmate Florence Ballard) to become one of The Primettes, a female counterpart to his all-male doo-wop outfit The Primes (a group that later evolved into The Temptations). The line-up was soon completed with the addition of Diana Ross (another schoolmate) and Betty McGlown, and The Primettes set about establishing a name for themselves through performances at local clubs, "sock hops", and talent competitions. In 1960 their first single Tears of Sorrow b/w Pretty Baby was released on the Detroit-based LuPine label; the record did not have much of an impact, however, and the four young women subsequently took to loitering about the offices of the newly-founded Motown label in hopes of getting a record contract. Label head Berry Gordy refused to sign them until they had graduated from high school. By the end of the year, McGlown was forced to leave by her parents, and was replaced by Barbara Martin.

At the start of 1961 the group was finally added to the Motown stable -- but with the condition that they call themselves something other than The Primettes. Thus it was that their first Motown single, I Want a Guy, was credited to The Supremes, a name suggested by Ballard. Neither this record nor the seven others released over the next three years fared particularly well, giving rise to the nickname "The no-hit Supremes" among some of the less-supportive Motown employees. This slump was brought to a dramatic end in 1964 with the release of Where Did Our Love Go, the first in a long series of singles to reach the top of the charts throughout the remainder of the decade. By this time Gordy had made significant changes to the dynamics of the group (now a trio, Barbara Martin having departed towards the end of 1961), with Ross being postioned as the cenral figure and Ballard and Wilson essentially demoted to the role of back-up singers. Relations between Ross and the others inevitably deteriorated as a result, leading to the replacement of a thoroughly-unhappy Ballard with Cindy Birdsong in 1967; this same year the name of the group was altered to "Diana Ross and The Supremes", leaving little question concerning the pecking order amongst the members.

Despite these internal problems, by the start of the new decade The Supremes had established themselves as one of the world's top-selling acts. In 1970 Ross moved on to a solo career, and was replaced by Mississippi native Jean Terrell; the first two Ross-free Supremes albums Right On and New Ways But Love Stays were released before the year was over, both successfully maintaining their presence in the album and single charts despite the changes in personnel. The group's output over the next three years continued to be well-received, but after a succession of line-up problems in 1973 (Birdsong being replaced by Lynda Laurence, Terrell being replaced by Scherrie Payne, and Laurence being replaced once again by Birdsong) their popularity began to wane. During this period Wilson assumed a more prominent role, sharing lead vocals with Payne and -- as the only remaining original member -- taking control of the group's activities. Of their mid-70's output, only the 1975 disco track He's My Man managed to rival the success of their earlier material; Birdsong departed once again in 1976, and in 1977 Wilson made the decision to pursue a solo career. A farewell concert was staged at London's Drury Lane Theatre that June, after which the Supremes officially disbanded.

Mary Wilson's first solo effort eventually materialized in 1979, the eponymous release finding somewhat of an audience through the dance hit Red Hot, but not selling well enough to convince Motown to renew her contract; a second album (Walk the Line, released through the doomed CEO label) would not appear until 1992. In 1982 Wilson made an unlikely reunion with Diana Ross and Cindy Birdsong, performing Someday We'll Be Together on a television special in celebration of Motown's 25th anniversary. The event did not find Wilson's relations with Ross in any way improved. Throughout the remainder of the decade she focused primarily on touring, although occasional ventures into acting were also made, including an appearance in the Disney TV film Tiger Town (1983). In later years, her acting work expanded to include motion pictures (Brown Sugar, 1998) and numerous stage productions (Beehive, Grandma Sylvia's Funeral, Sophisticated Ladies, and even a performance of The Vagina Monologues in 2003 among them). Her most successful post-Supremes venture, however, was Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme -- an autobiography outlining the tumultuous inner workings of the group; response to the book kept Wilson on the national best-seller list for several months, and it would eventually prove to be one of the most successful music biographies in history. A second volume, Supreme Faith: Someday We'll Be Together was published in 1990. Wilson released two singles in the second half of the 1990s (U, 1995, and Turn Around, 1996), but live performance continued to be her primary endeavor.

Father: Sam Wilson
Mother: Johnnie Mae
Boyfriend: Tom Jones (singer, two-year affair in early 1970s)
Husband: Pedro Ferrer (m. 11-May-1974, div. Jan-1981, three children)
Son: Rafael Ferrer (d. 1994)

    University: New York University (at age 57)

    The Supremes Vocalist (1961-77)
    Mary Wilson
    Grammy 1999 for "Where Did Our Love Go?" (hall of fame, with The Supremes)
    Grammy 1999 for "You Keep Me Hangin' On" (hall of fame, with The Supremes)
    Grammy 2001 for "Stop! In The Name Of Love" (hall of fame, with The Supremes)
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 1988 (with The Supremes)

    The Quiet One (2-May-2019) · Herself
    Only the Strong Survive (14-Jan-2002) · Herself
    Jackie's Back! (14-Jun-1999)
    Beach Ball (29-Sep-1965) · Herself
    The T.A.M.I. Show (29-Dec-1964) · Herself

Official Website:

Author of books:
Dreamgirl, My Life as a Supreme (1986)
Supreme Faith, Someday We'll Be Together (1990)

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