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A Supreme Legacy: Remembering Mary Wilson (1944-2021)

Updated: Jan 1

A Supreme Legacy: Remembering Mary Wilson (1944-2021)

By Mark Mussari

A funny thing happened on the way to Diana Ross becoming a superstar. Mary Wilson became the Supremes.

Even though Ross sang lead on all the hits the Supremes had in the 1960s – hits that resulted in 12 number ones and often saw them knocking the Beatles off the top of the charts – the Supremes' legacy eventually fell to Wilson.

Not only because Wilson stayed with the group through all its iterations, but also because when Berry Gordy changed the name of the group to Diana Ross and the Supremes, he split the trio into two entities. While he groomed Ross for worldwide fame, Wilson steered the group through two other lead singers and various musical styles until it disbanded in 1977.

More than this, a loyal public stayed with the Supremes solely because of Wilson. In the group's early years, she was the "cute" one. Whereas Ross was aggressive with her constant facial pleas for attention, and Flo Ballard seemed quietly sassy, Wilson exuded joy on stage. In each performance she imparted the sense that fame was something new, something to be relished.

Pushing her and Ballard into the background took a toll on Ballard yet it never extinguished that light in Wilson. She morphed before our eyes from cute to glamorous, a strikingly beautiful presence on stage. She was also a "pacer" to Ross's ambitious runner: Wilson kept her own steady time, and she bided it as well.

Gordy had unknowingly transferred the Supremes' legacy to Wilson. Ross's career trajectory was a movement away from the Supremes, and so Wilson became the keeper of that flame.

History has not been as kind as it should be to the Supremes' legacy. Yes, Broadway proffered a hugely successful "take" on the trio's story in Dreamgirls, which then became a movie, and yes, the Supremes were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Still, their musical accomplishments and vocal dexterity beyond having "hits" are rarely discussed.

They could and generally did sing anything. They could serve up a driving soul hit like "Love Is Like an Itching in My Heart" and then switch gears instantly with a standard like "More." They produced an album of songs by Sam Cooke (perhaps the original trio's best vocal work), an album of Rodgers and Hart tunes, a salute to the British invasion, and even a Country, Western & Pop album. In 1965 they became the first "girl group" to top the Billboard charts with their album Supremes A Go Go.

On television they sang Fats Waller songs, Irving Berlin songs, Jules Styne songs. They sang with Bing Crosby, Andy Williams, Ethel Merman, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tennessee Ernie Ford. It didn't matter who: they could sing with them. And on film they rocked with Chuck Berry, James Brown, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys on The T.A.M.I. Show.

All this while producing more number ones than any other act to that date except the Beatles and Elvis Presley. If you're hard-pressed to think of another group that did all that – that could have done all that – it's because you can't.

How did three young black girls who began singing together in a housing project in Detroit accomplish all this? We often hear Oprah and other celebrities talk about how iconic and important the Supremes were to the black community, especially to black women who could see a reflection of themselves at a new level of elegance. The trio broke barriers with charm – a strange accomplishment in such a turbulent time.

It's ironic that they hit it big concurrently with the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The arc of their success resembled a wave, keeping time with the flow of history while simultaneously affecting it, impelling it forward on not one but two fronts: race and gender. That's an incredible feat in a musical genre dominated by men, but the Supremes were simply too big to be contained in rock and roll or even soul.

Early on, Wilson had a breathy alto that worked like a buffer against Ross's and Ballard's more nasal tones. In time, her voice mellowed into a dusky contralto that shone when singing jazz ballads. She often said she didn't really learn how to sing until after she left the Supremes. But this was a self-effacing assessment.

David Crosby once said of Mama Cass Elliot that she was "the greatest harmony singer of the rock era." The same could be said for Wilson: she had such a natural ear for harmony, usually providing the bottom, that it didn't matter which Supremes came into the group. She could harmonize with them and did so for hundreds of nights every year on stage.

About nine years ago, the New York Times did an interview with Wilson. Half of the questions were about Cindy Birdsong (who replaced Ballard in 1967, as Gordy changed the name of the group). Why? Because the world never stopped thinking of Wilson as a Supreme. Despite decades of a solo career that produced best-selling books, worldwide tours – even an appearance on Dancing with the Stars when she was 75 – Wilson was and always will be a Supreme.

Throughout her life, Wilson embraced the legacy of being a Supreme. She nurtured it and kept it alive for five decades. She often said she found the other two parts of herself when she met Ross and Ballard, her original cohorts.

And so it seems that some part of Mary Wilson remains on stage with them, still showing us that three young women from a housing project once ruled the world.

Mark Mussari is a freelance writer and translator and the author of American Life and Music from Elvis Presley to Lady Gaga.

Copyright ©2021 All rights reserved. Posted: February 9, 2021.

Photo credits:

#1 ©2007. Courtesy of Mary Wilson. All rights reserved.

#2 ©1964 Universal Motown Records. All rights reserved.

#3 ©1968 Universal Motown Records. All rights reserved.

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