January 21, 1961 The Supremes signed with Motown.
Mary Wilson was one of the original/founding members of the Supremes along with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard. Wilson was the only original member of the group from their start in 1961 until the end in 1977. Wilson, with the Supremes, achieved an unprecedented 12 #1 hits and 5 consecutive #1s from 1964-1965 “Where Did Our Love Go”, “Baby Love”, “Come See About Me”, “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again.” Billboard lists The Supremes as the #1 female recording group of all time and in 2018 Billboard celebrated their 60th anniversary with a list of “The Hot 100’s Top Artists of All Time”, where The Supremes ranked at #16.
The Supremes brought black and white audiences together in a segregated South. Their appearances on the Ed Sullivan show set an example for aspiring Black artists the dream of being famous and on national television was attainable. They broke the color barrier at the Copacabana Club paving the way for other Black pop acts into the cabaret circuit. Their success helped change racial perceptions during the American Civil Rights movement. Wilson demanded and bought black/white audiences together in South Africa in the 1970s.
Singer, activist, author, fashion icon, actress, U.S. cultural ambassador, motivational speaker, dancer, mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, friend, trailblazer, legend – Supreme: Mary Wilson – earned her place in music history. Post-Supremes, she dedicated decades of her time making it a career to help underserved communities. Already an established, chart-topping artist, she recognized she was destined to use her Supremes success as a springboard to make a difference. With the same passion she approached singing, she used her vivacious personality, fame and ability to connect personally with all she met to become a champion for social and economic change. In addition to her tireless work with non-profits in the U.S, as the Cultural Ambassador to the U.S. appointed by Colin Powell and the Humpty Dumpty Institute (HDI) spokesperson, she was involved in humanitarian efforts including hunger, HIV/AIDS, land mine removal, and encouraging peace. She travelled on aid missions to Pakistan, Laos, Bangladesh, Mozambique, Botswana, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Cambodia, Okinawa, Hong Kong, Bahrain – more than any artist in their history.
She also set her sights on changing laws. Members of Congress, the RIAA, and artist rights organizations called upon her to call, write letters and meet with House/Senate representatives to explain how it directly affects artists and the importance of the Music Modernization Act, a law to provide pre-1972 artists fair compensation on digital music platforms. She was in the gallery when it was passed in 2018. She also personally worked with individual state legislators to pass the Truth in Music Act in 35 states, which protects artist trademarks.
She authored four best-selling books, earned her degree from NYU in her 50s, and continued to be a spokesperson for The Supremes and Motown preserving their legacy and highlighting their contributions, social and cultural impact.
The world mourned the sudden passing of Mary Wilson on February 8, 2021.
In keeping with a promise made to the legendary artist, Motown/UMe announced the release of “Mary Wilson: Expanded Edition”. Ms. Wilson, who retained ownership of her solo recordings, was very involved in every aspect of the album choosing the tracks to liner notes to artwork. In fact, she announced her excitement about her upcoming album just days before her passing. Her fans that she’d meet around the world constantly asked her to re-release this album. “Mary Wilson: Expanded Edition” is a newly compiled version of her solo album, originally released by Motown in 1979, and made available on all digital platforms for the first time. Featuring the lead single, a new song, “Why Can’t We All Get Along,” produced by Richard Davis and co-written with Angelo Bond. A prescient song, she wanted released to help fans during the 2021 heated political climate.
A singer, best-selling author, motivational speaker, businesswoman, ambassador, mother, grandmother, and friend, the legendary Mary Wilson never stopped. Her signature was a single word, “Touch.”
For the millions of fans around the world, the communities she helped, and the artists she advocated for, her “touch” remains relevant every day.
This year, Figure Skating in Detroit, who provides opportunities for girls of color to express their creativity and talents on the ice, established The Mary Wilson Humanitarian Award. Mary Wilson was a longtime supporter of the organization, and they will continue to honor her legacy with an award honoring those who make a difference.
The HAL (Heroes and Legends) awards paid special tribute to Mary in 2022 as she was always there as a regular attendee, speaker, performer or honoree at the gala event of Motown alumni and family, and supporters.
In celebration of Mary’s birthday March 6, Motown/UMe released the first-ever comprehensive overview of Wilson’s Motown discography. The Motown Anthologyboasts 38 tracks with nearly two dozen Supremes classics, deep cuts, and never-before-heard songs (most in stunning new mixes). The release coincided with a tribute to Mary Wilson at the Grammy Museum L.A. Live on March 4. The room was filled with friends from the world of Motown (Stevie Wonder, Janie Bradford, Claudette Robinson, Brian & Eddie Holland, William “Mickey” Stevenson, Karla and Iris Gordy); Politics (Congresswoman Maxine Waters), TV (Marla Gibbs, Anna Maria Horsford), Film (Judy Pace, Beverly Todd, Music (Brenda Russell) and Broadway (Eloise Laws).
In 2019, she stretched her dancing muscles when she joined the cast of the 28th season of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”
Mary was honored at the Paley Center in 2019 for Media in Beverly Hills celebrating her work in music and her influence on young African Americans and entertainment. Her conversation with Janice Littlejohn left the audience laughing with her unmatched humor and standing to the applause displaying her grace and elegance throughout the night. Showing the same love, she has shown to all her fans, Mary gladly met and personally thanked every attendee who attended the post reception and thanked them for their support throughout her career.
2015, Mary returned to recording. Leee John (Imagination and Gorrilaz) wrote a song for Mary telling the story of moving on from the past and embracing the future. “Time to Move On” climbed to #17 on the Billboard dance charts, which marked her first time on the charts with a solo recording.
MOTOWN – THE SOUND THAT CHANGED AMERICA
As an irresistible force of social and cultural change, Berry Gordy’s legendary Motown Records made its mark not just on the music industry, but society at large, with a sound that has become one of the most significant musical accomplishments and stunning success stories of the 20th century. The Supremes, Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, the Four Tops, Marvin Gaye, the Marvelettes, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Gladys Knight & the Pips, and later Stevie Wonder and the Temptations, Michael Jackson & the Jackson 5 and Lionel Richie & the Commodores, their music communicated and brought together a racially divided country and segregated society, around the world, touching all people of all ages and race.
Last year 2021, The Supremes celebrated the 60th anniversary of their signing to Motown. 2024 marks the 60th anniversary of the release of The Supremes’ first number-one hit single, “Where Did Our Love Go,” the first of five such consecutive hit singles. “Where Did Our Love Go” was released June 17th, 1964 and hit number one a couple of months later in August. The Supremes changed the face of pop music and became trendsetters who broke down social, racial, and gender barriers, which all started with the wild success of their first number one song.
Ms. Wilson’s “Dare to Dream” lecture, which she gave to young people, emphasized the need for personal perseverance to achieve goals, despite obstacles and adversities in their lives. The topic was the foundation of her best-selling autobiography “Dreamgirl – My Life as a Supreme.” Ms. Wilson later authored its sequel, “Supreme Faith – Someday We’ll Be Together.” In 2000, these two books, along with updated chapters, were combined to complete her third book. Her fourth book “Supreme Glamour” released in 2019 is a beautiful coffee-table book that showcases the gowns The Supremes were known for over the decades and delves into more history of the most successful female recording group of all time.
“THE STORY OF the Supremes FROM THE MARY WILSON Gown COLLECTION”
“The Story of the Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection” spotlights more than 50 gowns exposing the international community to the impact their fashion had on social issues in the United States. The exhibit traces their career from the early days when they were known as The Primettes to the glamorous height of their fame in the 70s. Their success story helped change racial perceptions during the time of the American Civil Rights movement and to appeal to the people of all ethnic backgrounds. A magnificent collection of dresses worn by Mary Wilson, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard for live performances, television performances, including the Butterfly dress worn on their television special in 1968, and on album covers are featured alongside contemporary photographs and magazine spreads.
The exquisite gowns were curated by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland for Ms. Wilson and later exhibited at the Detroit Historical Museum, the New York State Museum in Albany and the Long Island Museum. Several gowns have also been displayed at The Museum of Metropolitan Art in New York as part of the Rock and Roll of Fame Museum exhibit.
The gowns worn by Ms. Wilson and the original Supremes – Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, as well as the 1970s Supremes – were on exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, then showcased in the United Kingdom before starting a tour for two more years in Europe.
WILSON: THE “GOODWILL AMBASSADOR”
Ms. Wilson toured the globe not only as a performer, but as advocate on behalf of social and civic issues. As a Supreme, she performed for Kings and Queens, Prime Ministers and international audiences. Appearing as “Mary Wilson of the Original Supremes,” she was sought out to entertain all over the world; a Command Performances for the Royal family in England and Sweden. performing for President Bill Clinton in the East Room of the White House at the Millennium Celebration. Ms. Wilson’s global stature in the world of politics and humanitarian causes grew after former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell named her one of nine cultural ambassadors in 2003.
Ms. Wilson visited poverty-stricken areas in Bangladesh, where she witnessed children as young as five years old having to break bricks to earn money for their families. In Pakistan, she spoke at Fatima Jinnah Woman University about pursuing their goals and “Daring to Dream.” In Mozambique and Botswana, Ms. Wilson addressed young people about the dangers of HIV and AIDS and her quest towards world peace.
In November 2004, she was one of the featured performers to headline the United Nations’ “World AIDS Day” concert at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City. She later returned to the United Nations Building to lecture about the poverty, hunger and destruction she witnessed during her trips.
In 2007, Ms. Wilson was elated to be named spokeswoman for the Humpty Dumpty Institute (HDI), a non-government organization that establishes partnerships to raise money and awareness for landmine clearance projects across the globe, including Sri Lanka, Laos and Vietnam.
In November 2007, Ms. Wilson traveled to Sri Lanka, where as many as 15 people are injured or killed every month by landmines. Her tour focused on clearing mines in northern Sri Lanka and regenerating the area’s dairy industry. Along with her seven-member band, Ms. Wilson gave a 90-minute concert, drawing diplomats, government officials and the news media to the dance floor as friends which helped in discussions to help change. A portion of the proceeds from the concert was contributed to Sri Lankan charities assisting victims of landmines.
Ms. Wilson visited Laos, which received a $3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to improve the quality of life of children who were not attending school due to hunger or fear of unexploded ordnances. While in Muangkhai Village, Laos, Ms. Wilson personally pushed the button to detonate more than two tons of explosives found in and around villages and schools. In late 2008, she travelled to Vietnam, Cambodia and Okinawa, as well as returning to Laos, to clear landmines still active from the Vietnam War.
Over the years, Ms. Wilson has been highly recognized as the consummate humanitarian. She devoted her time and talent to assisting a diverse group of non-profit organizations, including the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, the American Cancer Society, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, The Po Leung Kuk schools of Hong Kung, UNICEF, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, and Figure Skaters in Harlem, a youth organization committed to helping children realize their dreams to compete in the Olympics.
In 2003, the National Foundation for Women Legislators bestowed a Lifetime Achievement Award on Ms. Wilson and invited her to a delegation of women legislators who traveled to Bahrain. She participated in a Trade and Civil Life Conference hosted by the Prince and Prime Minister of Bahrain and helped lead discussions that resulted in passing the Freedom Trade Bill between the U.S. and Bahrain.
At the 37th Congressional Black Caucus Annual Legislative Conference in 2007, she received the Floyd Washington Auto Safety Advocacy Award for her commitment to auto safety.
DREAMGIRLS/ THE PLAY/THE MOVIE
Interest in the Supremes’ legacy was renewed after the release of the award-winning film “Dreamgirls,” in 2006. While the film created a wonderful piece of work using the likeness of the Supremes, as well as their history, Ms. Wilson said it did not depict their true story.
ADVOCATE FOR WOMEN’S HEALTH
Ms. Wilson served as the national celebrity spokesperson for Universal Sisters; a division of the National Speaking of Women’s Health Foundation that helps women makes informed decisions about their health care, well-being and personal safety. She was an ardent supporter of women’s rights, mental health and worked tirelessly with numerous organizations to help create awareness for resources available. She was always the first to commit even dropping into a studio to quickly record a piece.
Growing up in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Projects, Mary Wilson had enjoyed a passion for singing. Performing at an elementary school talent showcase, she met soon-to-be long-time friend and future group mate, Florence Ballard. They made a pledge to remember each other if they ever joined a singing group.
Ironically, in 1959, Milton Jenkins, manager of male singing group, the Primes, decided to create a spin-off girls’ group. A friend of the Primes, Betty McGlown, was first asked to join, and then Florence Ballard, who invited Ms. Wilson to join. At the same time, Ms. Wilson’s then neighbor, Diane Ross, was asked by a member of the Primes, and completed the quartet the Primettes. After performing various gigs around Detroit, covering songs by popular artist, such as Ray Charles and the Drifters, the Primettes decide to audition for the up-and-coming Motown record company. Unfortunately, due to their young age, Motown President, Berry Gordy, Jr. turned them down and suggested they come back after they graduated high school.
Determined to leave an impression on Motown President, Berry Gordy, Jr – the young Primettes thinking that he didn’t like them – and join the stable of rising Motown stars, the Primettes frequented the Hitsville USA recording studio every day after school. Much to their surprise, ‘Prime’ members Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks joined with Otis Williams & the Distants and formed new male singing group The Temptations. Eventually, The Primettes themselves convinced Mr. Gordy to sign them to his label. Gordy agreed to sign them to his label, under the condition that they change their group’s name. With a collection of names from friends and family, Florence had chosen a name and on January 15th, 1961, the Primettes officially became The Supremes. At this time Betty had left the group and was replaced with Barbara Martin.
In the spring of 1962, after recording a few songs for their first album, Barbara Martin left the group to marry her childhood sweetheart. Now the newly named Supremes: Florence Ballad, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson became a trio; which to this day remains one of their greatest trademark signatures.
From 1961 to 1963, the Supremes recorded many songs and released eight singles, which did not garner much attention and jokingly earned them the title “no-hit Supremes” at Motown. But their fate changed dramatically in late 1963 when the song “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland, was released and peaked at number 23 on the Billboard pop chart. Although released in June, it was in August of 1964 that their single “Where Did Our Love Go,” reached number one on the U.S. pop charts and number three in the United Kingdom. Four more number one hits soon followed, including: “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” and “Back in My Arms Again,” making the Supremes the only group to have five consecutive number one hits.
The Supremes success attracted many promotional opportunities allowing them to become one of the first pop groups of the 1960’s to do commercial endorsements, to include Coca-Cola, Arrid deodorant, and even their own “Supreme” white bread and wig brands.
The Temptations and the Supremes taped two of the first TV Specials by any Pop stars. The Taking Care of Business and Getting It Together Specials were TV trends that are still popular today.
‘DIANA ROSS AND THE SUPREMES’
The year 1967 was pivotal for the group. Ms. Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong, Mr. Gordy renamed them “Diana Ross and the Supremes.” In January 1970, Diana Ross performed for the last time with the Supremes before pursuing a solo career. With Ross’ departure, Ms. Wilson was the only original member of the Supremes. Ms. Wilson continued performing with Cindy Birdsong and Jean Terrell as the “New” Supremes, better known today as the “70’s Supremes.”
The “New” Supremes scored a number of hits including “Up the Ladder to the Roof” (US number 10, UK number 6), “Stoned Love” (US number 7, UK number 3) and “Nathan Jones” (US number 16, UK number 5). These three singles were also R&B Top Ten hits, with “Stoned Love” becoming their last number one hit in December of 1970. Songwriting/production team Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson produced another Top 20 hit for the group, a Supremes/Four Tops version of Ike & Tina Turner’s “River Deep – Mountain High.”
In 1972, the Supremes had their last Top 20 hit single release, “Floy Joy,” written and produced by Smokey Robinson, followed by the final US Top 40 hit, “Automatically Sunshine” with Ms. Wilson on lead vocals, (US number 37, UK number 10).
While Ms. Wilson is best known as a founding member of the world’s most famous female trio, the legendary singer’s career did not stop there. The 70’s found Ms. Wilson getting married and starting a family. Then in June of 1977, Ms. Wilson embarked on her solo career and toured Europe and Asia while raising three small children. Ms. Wilson recorded two solo albums, including her self-titled debut in 1979 with the single “Red Hot,” and her 1990 release “Walk the Line.” “Red Hot” has been expanded and re-released recently by UMe/Motown.
In 1988, Mary Wilson accepted the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award on behalf of the Supremes when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 1994, the Supremes received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and in 1998, they were inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. In 2001, after returning to school, Ms. Wilson received her Associates Degree from New York University. She received an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Paine College in Augusta, Georgia.
The legendary Mary Wilson never stopped. She always had so much more to do – human rights, artist rights, spending time with friends and imparting wisdom to her family. Her impact on millions worldwide to her family and friends, her “touch” is everlasting.
Her Dreams Did Come True