Mary Wilson (born March 6, 1944) is an American vocalist, best known as a founding member and longest member of the Supremes. Wilson remained with the group following the departures of other original members, Florence Ballard in 1967 and Diana Ross in 1970. Following Wilson’s own departure in 1977, the group disbanded. Wilson has since released three solo albums, five singles and two best-selling autobiographies, Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme, a record setter for sales in its genre, and Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together; both books later were released as an updated combination. Continuing a successful career as a concert performer, Wilson also became a musicians’ rights activist as well as a musical theater performer and organizer of various museum displays of the Supremes’ famed costumes. Wilson was inducted along with Ross and Ballard (as members of the Supremes) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
Mary Wilson was born to Sam and Johnnie Mae Wilson in Greenville, Mississippi. She was the eldest of three children including a brother, Roosevelt, and a sister, Katherine. Wilson lived with her parents and moved to St. Louis and later to Chicago before living with her aunt Ivory “I.V.” and uncle John L. Pippin in Detroit. Wilson reunited with her mother and siblings at the age of 9. To make ends meet, Wilson’s mother worked as a domestic worker. Before reaching her teenage years, Wilson and her family had settled at Detroit’s upstart housing project, the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects. Mary Wilson first met Florence Ballard at an elementary school in Detroit. The duo became friends while singing in the school’s talent show. In 1959, Ballard asked Wilson to audition for Milton Jenkins, who was forming a sister group to his male vocal trio, the Primes. Wilson was soon accepted in the group known as The Primettes, with Diana Ross and Betty McGlown. Wilson graduated from Detroit’s Northeastern High School in January 1962. Despite her mother’s insistence she go to college, Wilson instead focused on her music career.
The Primettes signed to Motown Records in 1961, changing the group’s name to The Supremes. In between that period, McGlown left to get married and was replaced by Barbara Martin. In 1962, the group was reduced to a trio after Martin’s departure. The Supremes scored their first hit in 1963 with the song, “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes“, and reached No. 1 on the pop charts for the first time with the hit, “Where Did Our Love Go“, becoming their first of 12 No. 1 singles. (Though Wilson sang background on all of their hits before 1967, it was later revealed that Motown used in-house background singers, The Andantes, for the hits Love Child and Someday We’ll Be Together).
By 1964, the group had become international superstars. In 1967, Motown president Berry Gordy changed the name of the group to Diana Ross & The Supremes and, after a period of tension, Florence Ballard was removed from the Supremes that July. Cindy Birdsong was chosen to take her place. The new lineup continued to record hit singles, although several stalled outside the top 20 chart range. Ross left the group in early 1970, and at her farewell performance Jean Terrell was introduced as the replacement for Ross. According to Wilson in her memoirs, Berry Gordy told Wilson that he thought of having Syreeta Wright join the group in a last-minute change, after Terrell had already been introduced as lead singer, to which Wilson refused. With Terrell, the Supremes recorded seven top-40 hit singles in a three-year period. One River Deep/Mountain High was a collaboration with the Four Tops. Others included “Up the Ladder to the Roof“, “Stoned Love“, “Nathan Jones” and “Floy Joy“. Of these releases, only Stoned Love reached a No. 1 status (R&B Chart). Unlike the latter years with Ross, however, all but one of the hits, “Automatically Sunshine“, succeeded in reaching the top 20 charts, with two breaking into the top 10. During this period, Wilson contributed lead or co-lead vocals to several Supremes songs, including the hits “Floy Joy” and “Automatically Sunshine”, and the title track of the 1971 album Touch.
In 1972, Cindy Birdsong left the group following marriage and pregnancy and was replaced by Lynda Lawrence. The group’s popularity and place on record charts dropped significantly. For the first time in a decade, two singles in a row failed to break into the top 40, including the Stevie Wonder penned-and-produced “Bad Weather“. Discouraged, Jean Terrell and Lynda Lawrence both departed in late 1973. Scherrie Payne was recruited from a group called The Glass House. They were signed to the Invictus label, owned by the Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting-production team (who composed 10 of the Supremes No. 1 1960s singles). Cindy Birdsong also returned. Beginning with this lineup change, Wilson began doing almost half of the group’s lead vocal duties, as she was considered the group’s main attraction and reason for continuing. In 1976, the group scored its final hit single with “I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking“, written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland Group and included on the H-D-H produced album High Energy. Birdsong again departed, just before the album’s release, and was replaced by the group’s final official member, Susaye Greene, whose voice was dubbed over two songs. High Energy produced a flurry of positive reviews and sales, but a follow-up H-D-H effort in 1977 failed to ignite much interest. In late 1977, Wilson left The Supremes, following a performance at London’s Drury Lane Theatre. After Payne and Greene unsuccessfully lobbied to get a replacement for Wilson, the Supremes officially disbanded.
Wilson got involved in a protracted legal battle with Motown over management of the Supremes. After an out-of-court settlement, Wilson signed with Motown for solo work, releasing a disco-heavy self-titled album in 1979. A single from the album, “Red Hot”, had a modest showing of No. 90 on the pop charts. Midway through production of a second solo album in 1980, Motown dropped her from its roster. Throughout the mid-1980s, Wilson focused on performances in musical theater productions, including Beehive, Dancing in the Streets and Supreme Soul.
Wilson found major success once more with her memoir: Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme in 1986. The book remained on the national best-seller list for months and established a sales record for the genre. The book focused on the early career of the Supremes and its success during the 1960s. Four years later, in 1990, Wilson released her second memoir: Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together, also a best seller, which focused on the Supremes’ in the 1970s. In between this period, Wilson became a frequent guest on several TV shows and talk shows and began regularly performing in Las Vegas casinos and resorts. Wilson then recorded a cover version of “Ooh Child” for the Motorcity label in 1990. A year later, she signed with CEO Records and released the album, Walk the Line, in 1992. The label filed for bankruptcy the day after its national release. Wilson maintains she was deceived about the financial status of the label. The available copies of the album quickly sold out, however, and Wilson continued her success as a concert performer.
Wilson fought two court cases with former employees over usage of the Supremes name; Supremes’ replacement singers Lynda Lawrence and Scherrie Payne and a former backing vocalist from her 1980’s concert work, Kaaren Ragland. In both cases the courts found for the employees. This prompted Wilson to take a high-profile role in lobbying for “Truth in Music” legislation, which prohibits usage of musical acts names, unless an original member of the group is in the act or the group is properly licensed by the last person to hold right of title to the name. So far, her efforts have succeeded in more than 28 U.S. states. In 1995, Wilson released a song, “.U”, for Contract Recording Company. A year later, Wilson released the song, “Turn Around” for Da Bridge Records.
In late 1999, a proposition to reunite the 1967–1970 lineup of the Supremes of Ross, Wilson and Birdsong for a summer 2000 tour, under their “Diana Ross & The Supremes” moniker was negotiated by Ross and SFX. Wilson publicly stated she was contacted only after several months into preparation and was offered $2 million. Publicly she stated she countered with $5 million and settled for $4 million, and after accepting, Wilson and Birdsong were informed their offers were withdrawn. The tour, Return to Love, instead went forward with Wilson’s former employees, Scherrie Payne and Lynda Lawrence, but was canceled mid-tour because of low ticket sales, following a spate of high scrutiny by the public and press of the absence of the key identity performers, Wilson and Birdsong, and the dispute between versions of events. That year, Wilson released an updated version of her autobiographies as a single combined book. That year, an album, I Am Changing, was released by Mary Wilson Enterprises, produced through her and her then-management, Duryea Entertainment.
In 2001, Wilson starred in the national tour of Leader of the Pack – The Ellie Greenwich Story. A year later, Wilson was appointed by Secretary of State Colin Powell as a “culture-connect ambassador” for the U.S. State Department, appearing at international events arranged by that agency. In 2006, a live concert DVD, Mary Wilson Live at the Sands, was released. Four years later, another DVD, Mary Wilson: Live from San Francisco… Up Close, was released. During this period, Wilson became a musical activist, having been part of the Truth in Music Bill, a law proposed to stop impostor groups performing under the names of the 1950s and 1960s rock and roll groups, including Motown groups The Marvelettes and The Supremes. The law was passed in 27 states. Wilson has also toured and lectured internationally, as well as across the United States, speaking to various groups worldwide. Her lecture series, “Dare to Dream”, focuses on reaching goals and triumph over adversity. Wilson’s charity work includes the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, the American Cancer Society, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, the Easter SealsFoundation, UNICEF, The NAACP, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the All-Star Network, and Figure Skaters of Harlem, a youth organization devoted to helping children towards entering the Olympics. Most recently, Wilson became the Mine Action spokesperson for the Humpty Dumpty Institute.
In 2016, an Indiegogo campaign was launched to help raise $35,000 to fund a gay-themed romantic comedy movie, “Please Don’t Eat the Pansies”. The cast included actor/writer Ronnie Kerr, Andrew Lauer, singer/actor Tom Goss and Mary.