Mary Wilson, a founding member of the legendary pop group The Supremes, has passed away suddenly at the age of 76, according to a statement her publicist sent to The Associated Press.
Wilson’s passing came as a surprise to many. Just two days ago, she released a video announcing that she would be releasing some of her solo music in a new deal with Universal Music in honor of Black History Month.
“We’re going to be talking about the Supremes 60th anniversary, and I’m going to be talking a lot about that mainly because I’ve finally decided how to work with Universal and they’re going to release new recordings, Mary Wilson recordings,” she said. “Yes! At last! Hopefully some of that will be out on my birthday,” she continued. “We’ll see. I’ve got my fingers crossed here. Yes I do.”
Her longtime publicist Jay Schwartz said Wilson died at her home in Las Vegas but the cause was unknown. She is survived by her two children and seven grandchildren, according to Variety.
Wilson, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard founded The Supremes as teens in Detroit, joining Berry Gordy’ Motown and becoming the label’s first and most successful girl group ever. In a statement, Gordy called Wilson a “major member of the Motown family.”
“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,” Gordy said.
“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,” he added.
Wilson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1944 and spent years living with family members in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Housing, where she met Ballard and Ross and created The Primettes in 1959 as a sister group to another local band led by future Temptation band members Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks.
They renamed themselves The Supremes in 1961 and spent years toiling before getting their first hit with “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” in 1963. With Ross taking more of a lead role, the group recorded its first smash hit in “Where Did Our Love Go” in 1964, sending them to the top of the charts.
What a song. What a woman. What a life. Thank you Mary Wilson 👑 We’ll be listening on repeat all day. pic.twitter.com/QyqSxZISbL
— Altitude (@AltitudeFilms) February 9, 2021
That legendary classic kickstarted an unprecedented run of chart success, with The Supremes rivaling The Beatles as chart-toppers for nearly a decade.
According to Rolling Stone, they had 12 number one hits, including “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Back in My Arms Again,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “You Keep Me Hanging On” and “Reflections,” all from 1964 to 1967.
As Wilson chronicled in a number of her books, she and Ross began to have disagreements over the lead singer’s conduct and relationship with Gordy. Ross went solo in 1970 but Wilson stayed with The Supremes for many more years, becoming a constant as the group shifted out members.
“I just woke up to this news , my condolences to you Mary’s family, I am reminded that each day is a gift, I have so many wonderful memories of our time together ‘The Supremes ‘will live on, in our hearts,” Ross tweeted about Wilson’s death after hearing about it on Tuesday.
After the group officially disbanded in 1977, Wilson started a long career as an activist, author and continued to tour.
“Wilson used her fame and flair to promote a diversity of humanitarian efforts including ending hunger, raising HIV/AIDS awareness and encouraging world peace,” Schwartz told CNN.
Her best-selling books chronicled her time in the group and sought to remind the public of how important she was to their success.
“Most people only know me as a background singer, the oohs and aah but before they leave my show, they see there’s a voice. I have a very warm, nice voice. I want people to go away knowing, ‘Wow, it wasn’t just one girl in the Supremes. Maybe it was three,’” Wilson told Rolling Stone in 2000.