'The supreme of the Supremes': Mary Wilson was avid ambassador of Detroit, Motown

Susan Whitall
Special to The Detroit News

She was the sweet, pretty one on the right, always with the right moves and purring backup vocals — Mary Wilson was also the one who kept the Supremes flame alive, collecting their gowns for exhibitions and writing books, including her 2019 tome on their glittery style, “Supreme Glamour.”

That sweet backup singer in Motown’s most celebrated girl group — the Supremes had a run of 12 No. 1 hits — morphed into a sultry jazzy vocalist in recent years, but Wilson never tired of talking about the Supremes and their meteoric rise to fame.

Mary Wilson, a former member of The Supremes, sings the national anthem before a  Detroit Tigers and Kansas City Royals opening day game in Detroit in April 2019.

Wilson died of heart disease Monday at her longtime Henderson, Nevada, home at 76, said her publicist Jay Schwartz. But her heart was always in Detroit, where she grew up a music-crazy teenager in the Brewster-Douglass Projects, before being signed to Motown in 1961 with friends Diana Ross and Florence Ballard.

“I just woke up to this news,” Ross tweeted on Tuesday, offering her condolences to Wilson’s family. “I am reminded that each day is a gift,” she added, “I have so many wonderful memories of our time together.”

Duke Fakir of the Four Tops had just talked to Mary a few days before her death. “It’s a very sad day,” Fakir said. “I’ve lost a really lifelong, dear friend. You just keep thinking she’ll always be here. It really makes you think,” he added.

The Supremes had languished for several years with no hits before things started heating up for them in 1964 with a string of hits beginning with “Where Did Our Love Go” and “Baby Love.” It coincided with the Four Tops’ success.

Rachel Frazier, left, of Allen Park with her mother, Deanna Frazier, pay their respects to famed Motown performer Mary Wilson at the Motown Museum on Tuesday, January 9, 2021. Wilson died Monday at her home in Las Vegas.

“The Tops and the Supremes became instant friends, we took to each other,” Fakir said of those days in 1963-64. “We came into a great friendship. Everywhere Mary went, she made friends. She wasn’t public-shy. If she was in a store and someone was looking at her, she’d talk to them. And she always publicized the Supremes when she was publicizing herself. We are all missing a very dear friend.”

Wilson returned to Detroit often, including a stint for four years co-hosting the Rhythm and Blues Awards up to 2019, and helping to emcee the Jackie Wilson street renaming in Highland Park in 2016.

WPON disc jockey/music historian David Washington co-hosted both events.

“She was the supreme of the Supremes,” Washington said. “She was loved by Detroiters. She never forgot where she came from, and she always remembered Detroit. She supported Detroit. For being such a glamorous diva, she was so reachable and down to earth. We co-hosted four years in a row, she knew just how to handle the crowd, when to put them in the pocket and keep them there.”

For her part, Wilson never lost her love of performing for a Motor City audience. “You can’t feel the magic until you come back where it all began,” she once told The News.

Motown founder Berry Gordy, who signed Wilson with the Supremes in January 1961, said in a statement: “I was extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family, Mary Wilson of the Supremes. The Supremes were always known as the ‘sweethearts of Motown’  Mary, along with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, came to Motown in the early 1960s. After an unprecedented string of number one hits, television and nightclub bookings, they opened doors for themselves, the other Motown acts, and many, many others. I was always proud of Mary. She was quite a star in her own right and over the years continued to work hard to boost the legacy of the Supremes. Mary Wilson was extremely special to me. She was a trailblazer, a diva and will be deeply missed.”

From left: Luke, Rachel and Deanna Frazier of Allen Park pay their respects to Mary Wilson at the Motown Museum on Tuesday, January 9, 2021.

Robin Terry of the Motown Historical Museum noted: “In this moment of extreme sadness, the world has lost one of the brightest stars in our Motown family. Mary Wilson was an icon. She broke barriers and records as an original member of the Supremes, one of the greatest music acts of all time. She was a legend who was not only extremely talented, but equally beautiful. We join Mary’s fervent fan base in remembering her life and profound cultural impact. Motown Museum will continue to honor, appreciate and celebrate her legacy for fans around the world and for generations to come.”

There has been an outpouring from fans of Wilson’s, who have left bouquets and mementos on the lawn at Hitsville, the Motown Museum, Tuesday.

“We have seen fans pour into our social channels and share their love and fond memories about Mary and her incredible life,” Terry said. “We are also seeing others safely drop off bouquets of flowers and photos to the steps of Hitsville as they mourn on this solemn day. We are honored to serve as the space for fans memorialize Mary’s profound impact, and we will continue to do so for generations to come.”

Wilson was active in recent years, adding to the shock friends expressed about her death. In 2019 alone, she released the book “Supreme Glamour,” was a contestant on ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars,” and was honored at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills celebrating her work in music and her influence on the younger generation.

'Hey Detroit!'

If you knew Mary as a journalist, you knew she would always make time for you and give quality information. I knew when I heard someone yell “Hey Detroit!” across the room backstage at the Apollo Theater in 2002, it was probably Mary. Her dedication to Supremes history was profound — I helped her with some minor research on “Supreme Glamour,” sending her old Detroit News stories about the Supremes.

Talking to her was always an exciting trip into one of Detroit’s most colorful, musical eras, as she described growing up in Detroit’s Brewster Projects in the 1950s, as a music-crazy teenager into Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, Little Richard, the Platters and Jackie Wilson.

“Moving into the inner city and the Brewster Projects, we were surrounded by music, it was fun!” Wilson told me in 2019. “It was different from what our parents grew up with—they had a hard time. We were a whole new generation, aware of who we were as Black people, and the music was inspiring.”

Forever a Supreme

Although most accounts credit the Supremes as being formed in 1959, Wilson always pegged it a bit earlier, in 1958. It was when she was living in the Brewster Projects, in her early teens, that Wilson met Ross, Florence Ballard and Betty McGlown, and they started singing together (McGlown was replaced by Barbara Martin, who in turn left the group before their 1961 Motown signing).

While Ross went on to attend Cass Tech, Wilson went to Northeastern. Her home economics classes came in handy when she and Ross replaced their schoolgirl pleated skirts with dresses for their early appearances as the Primettes (and later, the Supremes), sewed from Butterick patterns, helped by Wilson’s aunt Moneva.

The Supremes would wear their handmade dresses to sock hops, where they were known affectionately as “the girls” by local disc jockeys.

Although music was everywhere in her Detroit childhood, Wilson insisted she didn’t see what was coming.

“We wanted to sing, period,” she said in 2019. “We weren’t thinking about becoming stars, making lots of money, any of those things. Our parents were teaching us to be good citizens, we were brought up with good moral instructions from our parents. ‘When you walk out the door you are representing us.’”

She was a Supreme longer than anybody, as a founding member (of the Primettes). She continued after Ballard departed in 1967, and after Ross left the group in 1970 Wilson carried on with them through several lead singers, and beyond.

Wilson revealed some of the drama behind the scenes of Ballard’s departure in her 1986 book “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme” and her 1990 follow up, “Supreme Faith.” She referred to Ross as “Diane,” and depicted her as ambitious, but insisted to the end that she still loved her.

Mary Wilson touring the Motown Museum, October 1989.

Despite the title, Wilson’s book was not the basis of the Michael Bennett Broadway show “Dreamgirl,” which was a heavily fictionalized version of a Supremes-like group.

Wilson appeared on stage in many productions, including “The Vagina Monologues,” “Beehive,” “Leader of the Pack — the Hit Singles of Ellie Greenwich.”

While Wilson couldn’t come to financial terms with Ross in order to appear with her in the 2000 "Return to Love" show meant to be a Supremes reunion (Ross ended up singing with later Supremes Scherrie Payne and Lynda Laurence), she still professed love for her old friend, and said recently, about a Supremes reunion for their 60th anniversary, that it was up to Ross.

She was close to the late Florence Ballard’s daughters Lisa, Michelle and Nicole, making sure they were invited to represent their mother at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Girl Group Stamp event. “I got them all involved. Whenever there’s something about the Supremes, I always make sure people are aware that the girls are available to be there,” Wilson said at the time.

Wilson unveiled a more adult, smoky voice in her recent recordings in a jazzy mode. And she effortlessly sang lead on “You Can’t Hurry Love” in November 2002 at the Apollo Theater, fronting the Funk Brothers in their triumphant concert.

Wilson is survived by her daughter, Turkessa, and grandchildren (Mia, Marcanthony, Marina); her son, Pedro Antonio Jr. and grandchildren (Isaiah, Ilah, Alexander, Alexandria); her sister Kathryn; her brother, Roosevelt; her adopted son/cousin William and grandchildren (Erica, Vanessa, Angela as well as a great-granddaughter, Lori). Wilson’s son, Raphael, died in 1994.

In 1967, Cindy Birdsong, left, started to stand in for Florence Ballard when she missed performances due to alcoholism. She's seen with Diana Ross and Mary Wilson on Jan. 22, 1968. By this time, she was a permanent member of The Supremes.

Services will be private due to COVID-19 restrictions. A celebration of Wilson’s life will take place later this year. The family asks in lieu of flowers, that friends and fans support the United Negro College Fund, UNCF.org  and the Humpty Dumpty Institute, thehdi.org.