16th April 2021
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The Supremes Mary Wilson: A Tribute

The Supremes Mary Wilson: A Tribute
By Michelle Sciarrotta

American singer and founding member of The Supremes, Mary Wilson, sadly passed away on 8th February 2021. A pioneer in the popular music industry in the 1960s, Mary led a fascinating life and left a legacy behind.

The Supremes Early Days

Mary Wilson in the 1960s

The group formed in 1959 and had initially been called The Primettes. They signed to Motown Records in 1961, releasing 6 singles between 1961 and 63 although none charted. The group alternated with their lead singers, before settling on Diana Ross to take the role in 1963, encouraged by the songwriting and production team Holland-Dozier-Holland.

After much hard work and the group singing backing vocals for other artists in this time, this new songwriting and production collaboration proved to be the winning formula; The Supremes scored their first hit in 1963 with When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through his eyes, which was quickly followed with the wonderful No. 1 hit Where Did Our Love Go, which also found success in the UK charts, reaching No.3.

This was the start of the groups’ ascension which led The Supremes to become the most commercially successful vocal group in Motown, accumulating a total of 12 No. 1 singles that included five consecutive US No. 1 hits.

The 1960s saw the lineup reshuffle somewhat, with some short-lived name changes that included “Diana Ross & The Supremes” and The Supremes with Diana Ross”, which exacerbated tensions in the group, although Ross and Wilson both remained and worked to keep up the momentum and support their bandmates.

When the groups’ collaborators Holland-Dozier-Holland left the Motown label in 1968, it marked the beginning of the end for The Supremes; 6 out of 11 singles between 1967 and 1969 made the top 20 and the only No. 1 in that list was the 1968 track Love Child. Additionally, although the group were performing live extensively, the label decided to omit Mary Wilson and the newest member Cindy Birdsong from the studio recordings in favour of session singers at this time.

After Diana Ross

Diana Ross & The Supremes gave their final performance in January 1970, and the new lead singer Jean Terrell was announced, with Terrell, Wilson and Birdsong creating “The New Supremes” album, titled Right On.

The New Supremes/The 70s Supremes had successful top 10 and top 20 hits in both the US and the UK charts at this time, with Terrell sharing lead with Mary Wilson on some of these tracks. Following another few reshuffles with the group, Terrell eventually left following a couple of low/non charting releases, and was replaced by Scherrie Payne, sister of Freda Payne.

Although the group continued to be busy and extremely popular in a live setting, they struggled to maintain their previous chart success, although the final lineup in the latter part of the 1970s saw them back with Holland-Dozier-Holland for two more albums. The Supremes last top 40 hit was I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do The Walking and the group disbanded in 1977. Although several attempts had been made to forge a reunion, none made it to fruition.

Mary Wilson’s Solo Works

Following a battle with the Motown label over The Supremes management, Mary was signed as a solo artist and released a self-titled album in 1979. Though a second album was underway, Wilson was dropped by the label before its completion. Instead, Mary spent the 1980s performing in various musical theatre shows.

At this time, Mary Wilson penned her first memoir, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme which detailed her account of the 1960s, and was followed with her second book, Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together, which recounted the 1970s era of the group. Both books were best-sellers, and helped Wilson to maintain her career as an artist, giving regular concert performances in Las Vegas.

Wilson had a few records in the years that followed, however her most influential work in the music industry at this time was being a key lobbyist to the legal dispute over usage of musical acts names, titled the “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 the right of title to the name.”

The many musical nominations, awards and honours that have been bestowed to Mary Wilson over the years, include: two Grammy nominations, three songs in the Grammy Hall of Fame, The Supremes being inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame, as well as a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Musical artists spanning all ages and genres in the decades that have followed attribute The Supremes as an integral influence on their music.

Mary Wilson’s Untimely Death

In a cruel twist of fate, Mary Wilson had announced on 6th February that she would be releasing new material as a solo artist with Universal Music Group. The record of unreleased songs from the 1970s, was due to drop to coincide with her upcoming birthday, 6th March.

Mary Wilson passed away peacefully in her sleep on 8th February 2021 at her home in Henderson, Nevada.

Tributes

Also by Michelle Sciarrotta:

Accessibility At The Smith Center Series: Part One

James “Fitz” FitzSimmons Interview: The Boys In The Band On Netflix

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