Mary Wilson's Music Legacy Is Bigger Than The Supremes

Photo credit: Elaine Chung
Photo credit: Elaine Chung

From Esquire

On Tuesday, Mary Wilson, founding member of The Supremes, died at the age of 76. Over the course of 60 years, Wilson was best known as a vocalist for the Motown band that changed the face of R&B, pop, and disco music, but her influence reached far beyond her 16 year stint in the iconic group. Her publicist, Jay Schwartz, confirmed that Wilson died in her home overnight in Las Vegas.

The news of her passing reached disco and R&B superstar and Diana Ross this morning. Ross was also a founding member of The Supremes, remaining with the group until 1970. On Twitter, she wrote, "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."

Born in Greenville, Mississippi, Wilson and her family moved to a housing project in Detroit as a child. She met Florence Ballard, another founding member of The Supremes, in elementary school. The two would go on to audition for a man named Milton Jenkins, who helped build the group that would eventually become The Supremes. In 1961, the original four members signed to Motown Records—a landmark anniversary that Wilson celebrated on her YouTube channel last month.

Wilson had just recently started uploading old videos to YouTube, documenting her success over the years. As late as Monday night, Wilson was uploading videos. Most recently, she included a 1967 clip of the group appearing on The Andy Williams Show after The Supremes had been consolidated to three members. Wilson, Ross, and Ballard became an unstoppable force, releasing a string of gargantuan hits in the mid-60s, including "Come See About Me," "You Can't Hurry Love," and "You Keep Me Hangin' On."

Even as the group shifted members and name—for a short stint, The Supremes became Diana Ross and The Supremes—Wilson remained steadfast with the group until its disbandment in 1977, amassing 12 number ones over the course of 16 years. Following the group's dissolution, Wilson went on to have a modest disco career under the Motown label. She eventually settled into musical theater roles before releasing the best-selling memoir, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme in 1986. The memoir, a tell-all that helped contribute to the public's perception of Ross' diva persona, remained on the New York Times' best-seller list for months.

In promoting the book, Wilson's determination and charm resurfaced for the public to see. She was candid about the group's disbandment, the never-ending legal dispute over the name "The Supremes," and the drama following Ross's departure. In an interview, Wilson coyly said, "Diana was to leave in 1970. They did not want us to leave before Diana did... how could they have a farewell if we already left her?" A few years later, Wilson released her second memoir, Supreme Faith: Someday We'll Be Together, which also became a best-seller. Both memoirs were re-released as a single book in 2000.

In 2000, Ross attempted to orchestrate a reunion tour with Wilson. (Ballard had passed in 1976.) Unwilling to negotiate without contact with Ross, Wilson passed on the opportunity and continued to cultivate a solo career as a popular performer in Las Vegas. In addition to her performances, Wilson became known for her charitable work with Susan G. Komen, the NAACP, and St. Jude's. She was also appointed as a "culture ambassador" by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.

But Wilson's legacy might be best summed up in the YouTube videos she's quietly been uploading to her modest YouTube channel with just over 1,700 subscribers. In the four months it's been active, Wilson has uploaded 51 videos—live performances from Vegas, old Supremes footage, and meditations on Motown icons who have since passed since she met them back in the '60s. And now Wilson will be remembered as a giant in the same regard—a teenage girl from Detroit whose influence on music would pave the way for generations of women to come.

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