Martha Reeves got her final letter from Mary Wilson two weeks ago.
She didn’t realize that’s what it would be. But Reeves now cherishes the note from her “dear angel friend” and fellow Motown star, who was home in Las Vegas, eager to get through the pandemic and back onto the road. Someday, they’d be together, Wilson vowed to Reeves, sharing stages again, just as they’d done for decades.
Reeves and others in Motown’s tight-knit family were reeling Tuesday at news of Wilson’s unexpected death Monday evening in Henderson, Nevada, outside Las Vegas. The Clark County Coroner office told the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network, that she died of hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, a condition related to high blood pressure.
For a group of folks accustomed to seeing one another a few times a year, crossing paths at concerts and other Motown events, these months of pandemic separation had already been strange and difficult. Wilson’s passing was a shocking event that had phones ringing through the night.
In recent years, Wilson and Reeves had performed together regularly in a show billed as “Legendary Ladies of Motown,” revisiting the music that made them iconic. Amid the parade of hit songs, it was a chance to play out their personal bond for audiences — an affectionately sassy rapport that sent sparks flying whenever they got together.
Reeves, back in Detroit, had written to her old friend in early January, suggesting a new opening for their shows once COVID-19 permitted: How about taking the stage together with the classic gospel number “Mary Don’t You Weep”? The civil rights anthem, with its theme of spiritual liberation, would strike a fitting post-pandemic note. And the lyrics were already right on the button:
“Oh, Mary, don't you weep / Tell Martha, ‘Don't you moan.’ ”
Wilson loved the idea, Reeves said. In a gesture typical of the stylish ex-Supreme, Wilson penned her response on a Yves Saint Laurent card.
“It was in our hearts that we were going to sing this song,” Reeves said.
Outside Detroit’s Motown Museum on Tuesday, an impromptu memorial emerged as a steady stream of fans braved a temperature of 21 degrees to drop off flowers, posters and other tributes to Wilson. Supremes songs poured from the museum’s outdoor sound system.
“She’s a part of Detroit history, period,” said Ervin Harris, 60, a fan who said he listens to Supremes music every night after work. “And her music will live on forever. We’ll be gone, but her music will go on forever. That’s something that God put here for all of us.”
Wilson's "fervent fan base," as museum chairwoman and CEO Robin Terry described it, also piled into the museum's social media channels Tuesday to pay tribute.
"We are honored to serve as a space for fans to memorialize Mary's talent and profound impact," Terry said.
Across the country in Los Angeles, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. wrote that he was “extremely shocked and saddened” by Wilson’s passing.
“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,” he wrote. “Mary Wilson was extremely special to me. She was a trailblazer, a diva and will be deeply missed.”
Of special note, Gordy said, the Supremes “opened doors for themselves, the other Motown acts, and many, many others.”
It’s hard to overstate the cultural importance of Wilson and the Supremes, a trio of girls from the Detroit projects who went on to glamorous international stardom. Wilson, Diana Ross and Flo Ballard became three of the most prominent popular music figures of the 1960s, their infectious charm and magnetic allure helping break mainstream barriers via prime time TV appearances, swanky nightclub bookings and magazine covers.
Ross, whose last onstage performance with Wilson came during 1983's "Motown 25" special, posted Tuesday on Twitter: "I am reminded that each day is a gift."
"I have so many wonderful memories of our time together,” she wrote, adding that the Supremes will live on “in our hearts.”
'Each day is a gift': Diana Ross, Berry Gordy mourn death of Supremes co-founder Mary Wilson
Wilson was a force of life, a room-commanding presence with a big, bright laugh and an uplifting energy that made her an instant center of attention at public gatherings. Her voice, a warm alto with a touch of husky soul, was crucial to the Supremes’ sound, melding with the vocals of her group mates to adorn some of the biggest hits of the 20th century. When she stepped out front for the occasional lead vocal, most notably on ‘70s songs such as “Early Morning Love,” she made the moment unmistakably hers.
In later years, Wilson was comfortable reveling in the nostalgia that was now inseparable from her public image and stayed pleasantly patient with the fans and journalists who insisted on chatting about the old days. Despite the myriad personal dramas that had swirled around the Supremes through the decades, she spoke proudly of her time with the group and was wistful about her youthful years at Motown.
Speaking with the Free Press in 2016, her voice rose excitedly while recalling the Supremes’ first blush of success in the mid-'60s, as life became a whirlwind of spotlights, studios and globetrotting for three world-conquering young women.
The three were always together in public during those days, she said. Wilson fondly recounted “the big hullabaloo” when they’d breeze through the Detroit airport — “the homegirls coming home,” as she described it — or went shopping at the downtown Hudson’s department store for the latest fashions, including several stage gowns Wilson kept for posterity in her famed wardrobe collection.
“It was that wonderful feeling of being right there in the middle of all of this stuff that was happening now, because we’d started traveling and going to foreign places,” she said in 2016. “It was just a happiness of being in the middle of the party.”
The Supremes' crisp, graceful choreography became the group's onstage hallmark, their moves on numbers such as "Stop! In the Name of Love" imitated in front of mirrors in countless kid bedrooms.
"I happen to be a singer," Wilson said. "But I’m more of a performer."
For all the looking back that came with the gig later in life, Wilson was relentlessly active and forward moving, always revved up about the next project, the next life move. Her interests were wide-ranging: In 2001, she obtained an associate degree at New York University; in fall 2019, she performed on "Dancing with the Stars."
The Recording Industry Association of America on Tuesday applauded Wilson's work as an advocate for artists' rights, saying she was "always ready to make the trip to Washington, D.C., to walk the halls of Congress and make a compelling and unapologetic case." The group said her efforts helped pass 2018's Music Modernization Act, which updated copyright and royalty structures for legacy artists.
She was also keen on the theater, performing in several off-Broadway productions. Well into her 70s — telling the Free Press she’d “kind of done everything musically that I could do” — she headed to L.A. for weekly acting classes and improv training at the Groundlings Theatre.
Songwriter-producer Lamont Dozier — part of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team that shepherded the Supremes to the top of the charts — was among those coping with the jolt of Wilson’s sudden death.
Dozier said memories were flowing Tuesday, including a 1964 interaction with Wilson when he presented her the song that would become the Supremes’ first No. 1 hit. Dozier privately knew that “Where Did Our Love Go” had already been rejected by Gladys Horton and the Marvelettes. Now Wilson was resisting it for the Supremes.
So he fibbed: He told Wilson he had written the song especially for her.
Dozier said Wilson snapped back: “No, you didn’t write this for me. I already heard Gladys say this was a piece of crap.”
“Some people, you just don’t see them leaving us. She was always a go-getter, always striving to do something and be relevant,” Dozier said Tuesday. “The news just struck me like a ton of bricks. You thought she’d be the last one standing.”
For a Motown family that has lost so many of its key figures through the years, Wilson was part of the emotional glue that kept things tight and bonded. Though she’d left Detroit decades ago, she was still a regular back home, appearing at Motown gatherings and other events, including the annual Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame induction ceremonies.
It was a theme that went back to the Supremes’ heyday, Dozier said, with Wilson often serving as group diplomat.
“Mary was always trying to smooth things out,” he said. “If the girls got into an argument or disagreement, she was the level-headed one. That’s because she was always looking at the big picture. She wanted the group to go as far as it could go, to be as big as they could be.”
In the wake of Wilson’s death, worldwide coverage was quick to reel off her career milestones, including the 12 No. 1 pop hits — “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and others — that made the Supremes the most successful American vocal group of all time.
But for those close to the singer, Tuesday was about mourning the loss of a beloved friend.
“In the beginning of our careers, 60 years ago, the Temptations and Supremes were extremely close, almost inseparable,” the Temptations’ Otis Williams said in a statement. “We toured together on buses, shared the spotlight on some of the world’s most prestigious stages and top television shows, released albums together, and broke racial barriers with the power of our enduring music. Mary was a true icon, richly talented, charismatic, and deeply compassionate about her family, friends and career.”
Television producer TJ Lubinsky said Tuesday he spent two hours last week interviewing Wilson in a remote taping, capturing material for the an upcoming public TV program. Lubinsky, who has spearheaded dozens of oldies specials, had worked closely with the Motown star for two decades.
As always, he said, Wilson was enthusiastically thinking ahead — talking about a new album, contemplating a book project and brainstorming with Lubinsky about hosting a lifestyle show for television.
"She was so alive. She looked fantastic," he said. "There were a million ideas about where she wanted to go with her future – like the Supremes song says, there was no stopping her now. She was a ball of energy like she always was."
The new segments with Wilson will appear as part of "It's What's Happening Baby," debuting at 7 p.m. March 6 on WTVS-TV and other U.S. public television stations. It features newly restored footage from a 1965 New York special featuring the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, the Four Tops and other artists of the day, airing for the first time since the initial broadcast.
Watch this short clip here of a Rock Hall interview with Martha & Mary Wilson as they tease about the earlier days of Motown. We are confident you'll get a little chuckle as the audience did! You'll have to wait until the full video is released to see it all! #rockhall #marywilson #supremes #marthareeves #motown
Posted by MARTHA REEVES Official Page on Tuesday, November 10, 2015
For Reeves, the relationship with Wilson went back well before Motown. They were fellow students at Detroit’s Northeastern High School, where both received vocal training from a teacher named Abraham Silver. Later, they were roommates on the road as the first Motortown Revue trekked down the Eastern seaboard.
“Mary and I have been singing together all this time,” Reeves said. “That’s my sister. That’s my darling Mary, one of the most precious spirits you’d ever know. God has brought her back.”
Choking back tears, Reeves said she is comforted to know that Wilson is resting in peace.
"She's looking down from heaven. Don’t be sad," she said. "We’ll always love Mary, and we'll always have her in our heart and spirit."
Contact Detroit Free Press music writer Brian McCollum: 313-223-4450 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Mary Wilson was beloved inside Motown's tight-knit family