On Thursday 9th February, Mary Wilson of The Supremes passed away in her home in Henderson, Nevada at the age of 76. Born in Detroit, Michigan, Mary along with her friends Florence Ballard and Diane Ross, formed the Primettes in 1959. When they signed with Motown Records in 1961, they changed their name to The Supremes as they felt it sounded more grown-up. The Supremes became the most successful Motown act of the 1960s, the best-charting female group in U.S. chart history, as well as one of the all-time best-selling girl groups in the world, releasing 29 studio albums and achieving twelve no. 1 singles.
As well as being a founding member of the group, Mary was the longest standing member of the Supremes, remaining in all the line up changes for over 18 years until the group disbanded in 1977. The Supremes were beacons of grace and sophistication, with their polished but soulful vocals, pristine gowns and graceful stage presence.
Last year, I read Mary’s book Supreme Glamour (2019), as well as pouring over the fabulous photographs of the Supremes’ gowns and performance outfits, I learnt so much about the passion Mary Wilson had for the group. She had an extensive collection of the Supremes outfits and costumes worn during TV performances, photoshoots and tours for almost 2 decades. From shorter, more girlish dressed to long, glamorous gowns and flowing capes to beaded jumpsuits – The Supremes wore it all. As well as the glamour, The Supremes’ style was also a political statement – about black affluence and sophistication, at a time of the huge social and cultural changes of the 1960s and 70s.
When the group ended in 1977, Mary went solo, continued to record with Motown and released her first solo album ‘Mary Wilson‘ in 1979. The album was unfortunately not a commercial success and she was dropped by Motown in the process of developing her next album. Her long awaited second album ‘Walk the Line‘ (1992) was released on the Independent CEO label, but Mary’s most remembered and revered legacy is with The Supremes and the beautiful costumes that exemplify the glamour, class, elegance and power of all the women who wore them. Mary Wilson has left an incredible legacy of music, activism, charity work and is an inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The musical Dreamgirls, and film released in 2006 starring Jennifer Hudson and Beyonce Knowles, is based loosely on the origins and career of the Supremes, although much of the story is disputed, including by Mary herself. In 2019, Mary competed in Dancing with the Stars, the US version of our Strictly Come Dancing and only two days before her death she announced that she was working on new music releases. So the news of her passing on the 9th February came as a shock to many.
The success of The Supremes has provided a blueprint many times over for how successful all-female music groups could be in the music industry. Think of Destiny’s Child, Spice Girls, Little Mix – although they may seem very different from The Supremes, the original girl group is often paid homage as the people that paved the way for women in the music industry. In the words of Mary Wilson herself: “How did three little black teenage girls from Detroit, Michigan, become the most beloved and biggest-selling female singing trio in music history? It came down to one mutual thing that we had in our hearts: we ‘Dared to Dream’.”
Here are my top five fave Supremes tracks, Mary Wilson singing lead:
- Come and Get These Memories (1966)
- Our Day Will Come (recorded 1965, first released 1987)
- Floy Joy (1972)
- Automatically Sunshine (1972)
- You Are the Heart of Me (1976)
Mary Wilson and Mark Bego, Supreme Glamour (Thames & Hudson, 2019).
Music Book Club: Supreme Glamour by Mary Wilson, 21/11/2020 (Music Maverick Blog), accessed 14/02/2021. www.musicmaverickblog.wordpress.com/2020/11/21/music-book-club-supreme-glamour-by-mary-wilson/
‘Supremes co-founder and singer Mary Wilson dies aged 76’, 09/02/2021 (BBC News), accessed 14/02/2021.