Singer Mary Wilson, founding member and linchpin of the Supremes, dies at 76 in 2021

Mary Wilson, founding member and linchpin of the Supremes, dies at 76

Singer Mary Wilson, who as a founding member of the Supremes was part of one of the most influential and successful acts in music history, died Monday night at age 76. Jay Schwartz, Wilson’s publicist, said in a statement that the singer died suddenly in her home in Henderson, Nev. A cause of death was not immediately given.

Known as the “sweethearts of Motown,” the Supremes blazed a trail for Black and female artists in the 1960s rivaled by few in American music. A triumphant string of 12 No. 1 hits transformed three Black teens from Detroit — Wilson, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard — into cultural icons recognized for their glamour, elegance and ambition.

Born March 6, 1944, in Greenville, Miss., Wilson was the eldest of three children to parents Sam and Johnnie Mae Wilson. Her parents separated shortly after her brother and sister were born in Chicago. Wilson, then 3, went to live with her aunt and uncle in southwest Detroit, believing they were her parents, she told the Wall Street Journal last year. It was here where Wilson was first exposed to music, with her uncle playing R&B and jazz records from the likes of LaVern Baker and Joe Williams in the basement of the one-story home.

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He played records all the time in the basement — so much so that I’d wake up each day singing,” Wilson told the Journal. “Nobody in my family could sing. I learned by listening to records.
When her mother moved to Detroit to be a domestic worker and live with the family, the 10-year-old Wilson came to grips with how the woman she thought was her aunt was actually her mom. They would settle in Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects, the city’s largest public housing complex, by the time she was 12.
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The singer was at her home in Henderson, Nevada. She is survived by her daughter, son, several grandchildren, a sister and brother.

Services will be private due to Covid-19 restrictions and a celebration of Wilson’s life will take place later this year, her publicist said.

Wilson was a “trendsetter who broke down social, racial, and gender barriers,” Schwartz said in his statement.

She began her career in Detroit in 1959 as a singer in what was then called “The Primettes.” They went on to become “The Supremes,” Motown’s most successful group of the 1960s, with 12 number one singles including “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” and “Stop! In the name of Love.”

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