By Earl Heath, Contributing Writer
The music world lost a truly wonderful person in Mary Wilson. She passed away suddenly at her home in Henderson, Nevada recently at the age of 76.
In the 1959 a trio of Wilson, Florence Ballard and Diana Ross came together and later they would be known as the Supremes one of the most successful female groups in history. They produced 12 number one hits on The Billboard Hot-100.That’s the most of any American Group. Songs like: “Come See About Me,” “Where did our Love Go,” “I Hear a Symphony” You can’t Hurry Love,” and “Baby Love” to name a few. They are songs that made us smile and made us want to dance. They are songs that are timeless.
“I was extremely shocked and saddened to hear the loss of a major member of the Motown family, Mary Wilson of the Supremes,” said Motown Records founder Berry Gordy said in a statement. “They were always known as the ‘sweethearts of Motown.’ Mary along with Florence Ballard and Diana Ross came to Motown in the early 1960’s. After an unprecedented string of #1 hits, television and nightclub bookings they opened the door for other Motown acts and many, many others.
Born in Greenville, Mississippi March 6th 1944 she was the oldest of three children to Sam and Johnny Mae Wilson.
Wilson and her family migrated to Detroit in the early 1950’s. They lived in the Brewster-Douglass Projects. She befriended Ballard while in elementary school. Diana Ross also living in the same projects.
In 1961 Mary got together with Florence, Diana and formed a group called the Primettes. They performed in small clubs at variety shows.
They went to audition at Motown and were turned down. “Mr. Gordy turned us down were quite young 15 and a half.” Wilson said in an interview with the Hollywood Reporter in January.
They did some auditions at a few record companies around Detroit. “Pretty soon we realized Motown was the record company where we wanted to join. And we were still in high school. We were hear Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Marvin Johnson and Mary Wells on the radio and we said that’s where we want to be. So we sat on the grounds of Motown outside Hitsville USA everyday until one day one of the producers came out and said ‘We need some background hand claps.’ That’s how we got into Motown and Mr. Gordy decided to go ahead and sign us because he saw that we were really serious. We were 16 years-old and our parents had to sign the contract because we were underage. We didn’t have any legal representation we were just so happy to be there” added Wilson.
They became the Supremes once signed by Motown. Things were slow in the beginning as the first eight songs released between 1961 and 1963 did not do well. The group was then paired with the Motown writing team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, Eddie Holland better known as Holland -Dozier-Holland.
In 1963 “When the Lovelight Starts Shinning Through His Eyes” was the first song to land on the Billboard pop chart. It got as high as 23.
In August of 1964 the first record to hit #1 was “Where Did Our Love Go.” It also became the groups first international hit, reaching as high as #3 in the UK. Then came a string of #1 hits including “Come See About Me,” “Stop in The Name of Love,” “Back In my arms Again,” and “Baby Love.”
They joined the Temptations and became one of the first music groups to have a T.V. special. They also were one of the first musical groups to endorse products.
As the 1960’s progressed Diana came to the face of the group. In 1967 Berry Gordy changed the name to Diana Ross and The Supremes. Due to personal problems and group dissension. Gordy also replaced Ballard with Cindy Birdsong.
Ross left the group to take on a solo career. The final performance was done In January of 1970 at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.
Wilson told the Hollywood Reporter about how Ballard shared with her having been abused at the age 14.
“That totally destroyed her. When you become rich and famous and all that stuff, all your problems are gone, well that’s not true that, she was never given any help and people never wanted to help her,” added Wilson.
When Ross left the group for a solo career. The final performance was in January of 1970 at the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.
Wilson and Birdsong were then joined by newcomer Jean Terrell. Together they had hits “Up the Ladder to The Roof” and “Stoned Love’ to name some.
In 1973 Sherrie Payne became the newest member of the Supremes. In an interview with Roland Bynum of KJLH Radio she explained how she flew from Detroit to Los Angeles. Them member Cindy Birdsong picked up at the airport. They drove directly to Wilsons home and began to rehearse. “It was a intense but good rehearsal, Mary had tenacity with class,” said Payne. “She had us all working together within minutes.”
During the many appearances and concerts around the world the groups designer LaVetta Forbes who traveled with the group for a decade.
“Mary was one of the nicest people you ever could meet,” said LaVetta. “She treated everyone the same and never looked down on people, she had a very caring heart.”
Even after the group separated LaVetta continued to design for both Mary doing personal outfits.
She and Mary stayed in touch for years and occasionally met for lunch. Wilson included LaVettta extensively in the book “Supreme Glamour” which was one of three books she co-authored. The others “Dream Girl -My Life as a Supreme” a Best seller and “Supreme Faith-Someday We’ll be Together.”
Wilson is survived by her son Pedro Antonio Jr., Sister Kathryn, brothers Roosevelt, William and several grandchildren.
I had a chance to see her perform a live concert before COVID at the Catalina Club in Los Angeles. It was an intimate setting with a room filled with some 300 guests. It felt like she knew everyone in the room and received heavy applause after each song. All I can say is she was a Truly Supreme: “Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away.”