Born in Mississippi in 1944, singer Mary Wilson got her big break before even finishing high school when Motown Records signed her, along with friends Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, as The Supremes. She soon became a Motown legend and enjoyed a successful solo career after the group disbanded in 1977.
Singer. Born March 6, 1944 in Greenville, Mississippi, Mary Wilson endured a difficult childhood before rising to music superstardom. As a young black girl, Wilson frequently encountered the harsh realities of racism and inequality. "When I was growing up and our generation of black Americans were growing up," she said, "we didn't have the same rights and privileges as the other Americans. So having my parents making you aware as a child that 'You can't do this because you're black.' Let me tell you, we couldn't do certain things." Wilson moved around frequently during her childhood, living for long stretches of time with her aunt and uncle instead of her parents before finally landing in the rough-and-tumble Brewster-Douglass projects of Detroit, Michigan.
It was in a Brewster-Douglass grade school where Mary Wilson first met Florence Ballard, another girl who loved to sing; the two friends made a pact never to forget each other if either someday got a chance to make it big. As Wilson later remembered, "I used to listen to rock and roll when it was very early and I just loved it. Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers were my favorite group. And I was in the eighth grade when I joined the school talent show and I did one of their songs. That was the very first time and I just fell in love with it. Then I met Florence and she told me about this group that they were going to start, and would I like to be in it, and that's what got me into doing this."
In 1959, when she was just 15 years old, Mary Wilson's show business dreams began to come true much sooner than expected. She was discovered by manager Milton Jenkins, who picked her to lead a new group called The Primettes, an all-female answer to his popular male doo-wop group, The Primes. Making good on their childhood promise, Wilson brought Ballard into the group. Ballard in turn recruited her friend Diana Ross. A fourth member, Betty McGlown, rounded out the quartet and the girls began establishing a reputation while performing at local gigs and functions.
Birth of The Supremes
In 1961, The Primettes caught the eye of Motown Records President Berry Gordy. Gordy told the girls they had to finish high school before he would sign them to a record contract, but they couldn't stand wait. The Primettes took to hanging around outside Gordy's studio as often as they could until he finally agreed to sign them under one condition: They had to change the name of the group. In 1961, Mary Wilson and her friends signed with Motown, becoming (at Ballard's suggestion) The Supremes.
Though Diana Ross would later become the group's breakout star, Mary Wilson was The Supremes' original anchor. Backed by Gordy's seemingly unstoppable Motown hit machine, The Supremes eventually began cranking out No. 1 singles at a rate that rivaled the likes of The Beatles and Elvis Presley.
But success did not come overnight. The Supremes' early years at Motown were marked by internal turmoil and failure to make much of a mark on the charts. Barbara Martin replaced Betty McGlown in the lineup, but was pressured by her parents to quit the group after becoming pregnant. Two years into their contract, The Supremes still hadn't produced a hit record and became the butt of jokes at Motown, where executives sarcastically called them the "no-hit Supremes."
After the group finally scored a Top 40 hit in 1963 with "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes," they began their ascent to the top of the music world. Over the next several years, they churned out a seemingly endless string of enduring singles including "Baby Love," "Come See About Me," and "Stop In the Name of Love." Throughout the 1960s heyday of the Motown era, The Supremes dominated radio play and the Billboard charts, becoming one of America's most beloved musical acts.
But internal tensions were threatening to tear the trio apart. Under Gordy's guidance, The Supremes had evolved from a group of equals into an act featuring Diana Ross as lead singer, with Ballard and Wilson relegated to backup vocals on most tracks. Eventually, Ballard could not take it anymore; citing depression and health problems, she quit the group in 1967. Some sources say she left willingly while others suggest she was forced out after clashing with Ross. Cindy Birdsong took Ballard's place in the lineup and Gordy changed the name of the group to Diana Ross and The Supremes. In 1970, Ross left The Supremes to pursue a successful solo career, leaving Wilson as the only original member alongside Birdsong and new addition Jean Terrell.
In the 1970s, Mary Wilson once again became the group's key member, the only steady presence in a trio that frequently shuffled in new singers to fill the other two spots of what became known as "The New Supremes." The only surviving link to the original Supremes, Wilson took on a more prominent role, but the new trio could never match the success of the original lineup. In 1972, The Supremes had their last hit with "Floy Joy," a Smokey Robinson production.
Later in the decade, Wilson married Pedro Ferrer and started a family. Things didn't go nearly as well for her childhood friend Florence Ballard, who endured a string of calamities in her personal life, ending with her 1976 death, at the age of only 32, from coronary thrombosis.
Finally in 1977, after a farewell concert at London's Drury Lane Theater, The Supremes officially disbanded and Mary Wilson began her solo career. In 1979, she released her first solo album, an eponymous record that did reasonably well, spurred on by the single "Red Hot" which became a great dance hit. In the 1980s, Wilson toured the globe and began pursuing creative projects outside of music, working on stage acting, movies and philanthropic ventures.
Wilson's most attention-grabbing move in the 1980s was the release of her memoir Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, released in 1986 to a huge reception and a long-running bestseller status. Dishing dirt on The Supremes' many backstage dramas, including fights with Diana Ross and conflicts with Berry Gordy, the book led to a harsh falling-out between Wilson and Ross, culminating in Ross pushing Wilson off the stage at the 25th Motown Anniversary Show.
In 1988, despite the drama, The Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, forever cementing their place in music history. In 1992, Wilson released a final solo album, Walk The Line, which won critical acclaim but had low sales.
In the 1990s and 2000s, Wilson shifted her focus to her humanitarian efforts. Her lecture series, "Dare to Dream," has inspired thousands of young people to pursue their goals. She has spoken out about safe landmine removal in war-torn countries, become an advocate for women's health in developing nations, and raised thousands of dollars for AIDS and HIV awareness. In 2003, she was named by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to serve as one of nine Goodwill Ambassadors to the world.
Although she is now focused on her humanitarian efforts, Wilson holds out hope for the possibility of a second act for The Supremes. Time has healed some of the wounds that long divided her from Diana Ross. Wilson is open to a Supremes reunion, and has said, "It just has to be negotiated again. It's if Diana is open to it, if she's ready. I sincerely hope she is."
Whether or not The Supremes ever sing together again, Wilson has much to be proud of. Asked to name her life's greatest achievements, she replied: "One of them would be to be in The Supremes and to have 12 No. 1 hits. And then my children, of course, I adore my children and that was my personal achievement. But then as Mary Wilson, I've gone on and continued a career and I think many people didn't think that could happen. I think that I have come a long way since then. I'm not just one of The Supremes; I'm Mary Wilson."
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