Mary Wilson, co-founder of The Supremes, dead at 76

Mary Wilson, co-founder of Motown’s legendary “girl group” The Supremes, has died. She was 76.

Her longtime publicist Jay Schwartz confirmed in a statement that she passed away suddenly Monday at her home in Las Vegas. Her cause of death has yet to be announced and funeral services will be private because of COVID, Schwartz said, but a public memorial is planned for later this year.

Wilson launched the iconic pop and soul trio with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard after signing with Motown in 1961 when she was just 15, originally as a member of The Primettes —before label founder Berry Gordy re-christened them as The Supremes.

“I just woke up to this news, my condolences to you Mary’s family, I am reminded that each day is a gift,” Ross, with whom Wilson had an often publicly heated relationship tweeted Tuesday morning. “I have so many wonderful memories of our time together “The Supremes ” will live on in our hearts.”

Wilson, a 1988 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, was also legendary for sticking with the groundbreaking group long after breakout lead singer Ross left for a solo career in 1970 — and for fighting a hard-won legal battle for artists royalty rights, which she detailed in her explosive 1986 memoir, “Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme.”

Ballard was replaced by Cindy Birdsong in 1967, and Wilson stayed with the group until it was officially disbanded by Motown in 1977.

“I was extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family, Mary Wilson of the Supreme,” Motown guru Gordy said in a statement Monday night. “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 No. 1 hits, television and nightclub bookings, they opened doors for themselves, the other Motown acts, and many, many others.”

ary Wilson of the Supremes and her collection of gold and silver records, , photographed at a hotel in Los Angeles, California April 12, 1985.Getty Images

Gordy continued, “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.”

On Saturday, Wilson posted a YouTube video announcing that a deal to distribute previously unreleased solo recordings was in the works with industry powerhouse Universal Music. She also teased upcoming interviews she had done about the her early experiences with segregation in honor of Black History Month.

“Hopefully some of that will be out on my birthday, March 6,” said Wilson, who appeared in Season 28 of ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars” and published her fourth book, “Supreme Glamour,” in 2019.

Born March 6, 1944, in Greenville, Mississippi, she bounced the country with her parents until she was sent to live with an aunt and uncle at the age of three She wrote in her book that she didn’t learn the true identity of her parents until she was 6 years old — she letter settled with her mother in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Housing Project at 12.

It was there that she would meet her future group mates Ross and Ballard, with whom she formed a group that would serve as a “sister act” to the Primes, a male quintet featuring Paul Williams and Eddie Kendricks, future members of the Motown unit the Temptations.

The Supremes first No. 1, million-selling song, “Where Did Our Love Go,” was released June 17, 1964. Touring at the time, Wilson said there was a moment when she realized they had a hit song.

“I remember that instead of going home on the bus, we flew,” she told The Associated Press in 2014. “That was our first plane ride. We flew home. We had really hit big.”

It would be the first of five consecutive chart-toppers, with “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again” following in quick succession. The Supremes also recorded the hit songs “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Up the Ladder to the Roof,” and “Love Child.”

Ross began recording as a solo artist in 1968. The act’s swan song with Rosss, “Some Day We’ll Be Together,” topped the pop and R&B charts in December 1969. The single marked the act’s last visit to the top of the U.S. pop chart.

Wilson married businessman and former Supremes manager Pedro Ferrer in Las Vegas on May 11th 1977.  The couple had three children — Turkessa, Pedro Antonio Jr. and Rafael — before divorcing in 1981. 

Rafael died tragically at 14 when his Jeep flipped on a road trip between Las Vegas and Los Angeles, injuring her and killing her son.

Wilson is survived by her two children Turkessa and Pedro Antonio Jr, and her seven grandchildren: Mia, Marcanthony, Marina, Isaiah, Ilah, Alexander and Alexandria.