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  • Mary Wilson sings in Dec. 2019 for Friends of the LBJ Library. (Photo: Jay Godwin)
    Mary Wilson sings in Dec. 2019 for Friends of the LBJ Library. (Photo: Jay Godwin)

    Mary Wilson, who shot to the top of the charts as a founding member of The Supremes in the 1960s and had a storied career in music for six decades, has died. She was 76.

    The iconic singer, who performed with the legendary Motown group for 18 years until they split up in 1977, passed away on Monday night (Feb. 8) at her home in Las Vegas.

    Her publicist Jay Schwartz revealed the news, but the cause of death has not been announced. She reportedly died in her sleep, according to Variety.

    Wilson was part of the original lineup with Diana Ross, Florence Ballard and Barbara Martin, who left before they became successful.

    The singing group began as The Primettes in 1959, when Wilson was just 15 years old.

    In late 1963, the group, now known as The Supremes, had their first hit with “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes.” It peaked at No. 23 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart. 

    The group’s first No. 1 “Where Did Our Love Go,” was the beginning of an unprecedented run: between August 1964 and May 1967, Ross, Wilson, and Ballard recorded ten No. 1 singles.

    Mark Bego and Mary Wilson of the Supremes
    Mark Bego and Mary Wilson.

    The were known for their huge hits, including “You Can’t Hurry Love” and “Stop! In the Name of Love.”

    The group later became known as Diana Ross & the Supremes, after Ballard was fired and replaced by Cindy Birdsong.

    In 1968, Ross began to perform solo, although she still recorded with the group. She released a solo album in 1970.

    Wilson followed with her own solo career in 1977, formally ending the Supremes as a group.

    Wilson was inducted along with Ross and Ballard (as members of the Supremes) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

    In addition to her singing career, Wilson was also an activist. She fought to pass “Truth in Music Advertising” legislation and donated to various charities. 

    Secretary of State Colin Powell named her as a “culture-connect ambassador” for the U.S. State Department, and she toured internationally in that role.

    Wilson also focused on performing in musical theater productions during the ’80s, including BeehiveDancing in the Streets and Supreme Soul.

    “Mary Wilson was without a doubt the most gracious, beautiful and fun-loving person I have ever met,” said celebrity author Mark Bego, who knew Wilson for more than 45 years.

    “The thought of losing her has me in shock and saddened beyond belief.

    “On Sunday of this week she called me and we talked, and laughed, and made plans for our next adventure together.  The next morning she was gone.”

    Just days before her death, Wilson revealed on YouTube she was working on new solo material.

    “I was extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family, Mary Wilson of the Supremes,” said Motown Records founder Berry Gordy in a statement:

    “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.”

    He noted that he “was always proud” of Wilson, and hailed her as a “star in her own right.”

    “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 said.

    “Mary Wilson was extremely special to me. She was a trailblazer, a diva and will be deeply missed.”

    Bego said he first met Mary in 1975 when he interviewed her for Record World magazine.

    “In that very first meeting we talked about one day writing a grand book together about her life with The Supremes,” he recounted.

    “Not only did I work on her best-selling hit book ‘Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme’ in the 1980s, but in 2019 we wrote the book ‘Supreme Glamour” together,” he said.

    “It hit Number One on seven separate Amazon best-seller charts. When it was released I said to her, ‘Well Mary, this only took 44 years to pull together!'”

    “She was so sharing and giving to me, and to others. One day in 1983 Mary called me on the phone and said, ‘Do you know anything about road managing and stage managing is about, and do you have a passport?’

    “I sheepishly answered her affirmatively, and 10 days later I was landing in Tokyo for a madcap tour of Japan and Korea, in spite of never really knowing what a road manager or a stage manager did, until I was doing it.  I wasn’t about to let Mary down!”

    “With Mary’s passing, there is suddenly a hole on my life that can never be filled.  I just lost my greatest friend,” Bego said.

    Florence Ballard passed away in 1976. Diana Ross, 76, is the sole surviving member.

    Wilson leaves two children, 10 grandchildren and 1 great granddaughter. Her son Rafael Ferrer predeceased her.