Mary Wilson (singer)

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Mary Wilson
Mary Wilson at Spaso House.jpg
Wilson at Moscow's Spaso House on February 2, 2011
Background information
Born (1944-03-06) March 6, 1944 (age 74)
Greenville, Mississippi, U.S.
Origin Detroit, Michigan, U.S.
Genres R&B, soul
Occupation(s) Singer, author, actress
Instruments Vocals
Years active 1959–present
Labels Motown (1961–1980),

CEO Records (1991–1992),

H-D-H Records (2009 – present)
Associated acts The Supremes

Mary Wilson (born March 6, 1944) is an American vocalist, best known as a founding member of the Supremes. Wilson remained with the group following the departures of other original members, Florence Ballard in 1967 and Diana Ross in 1970. Following Wilson's own departure in 1977, the group disbanded. Wilson has since released three solo albums, five singles and two best selling autobiographies, Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme, a record setter for sales in its genre and Supreme Faith: Someday We'll Be Together, both books later released as an updated combination.

Continuing a successful career as a concert performer, Wilson also became a musicians' rights activist as well as a musical theater performer and organizer of various museum displays of the Supremes' famed costumes. Wilson was inducted along with Ross and Ballard (as members of the Supremes) into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

Life and career

Early life

Mary Wilson was born to Sam and Johnnie Mae Wilson in Greenville, Mississippi. Wilson was the eldest of Johnnie Mae's three children including a brother, Roosevelt, and a sister, Katherine. Wilson lived with her parents and moved to St. Louis and later to Chicago before living with her aunt Ivory "I.V." and uncle John L. Pippin in Detroit. Wilson reunited with her mother and siblings at the age of 9. To make ends meet, Wilson's mother worked as a domestic worker. Before reaching her teenage years, Wilson and her family had settled at Detroit's upstart housing project, the Brewster-Douglass Housing Projects.

Mary Wilson first met Florence Ballard at an elementary school in Detroit. The duo became friends while singing in the school's talent show. In 1959, Ballard asked Wilson to audition for Milton Jenkins, who was forming a sister group to his male vocal trio, the Primes. Wilson was soon accepted in the group known as The Primettes, with Diana Ross and Betty McGlown. Wilson graduated from Detroit's Northeastern High School in 1962. Despite her mother's insistence she go to college, Wilson instead focused on her music career.

Music career

The Primettes signed to Motown Records in 1961, changing their name to The Supremes. In between that period, McGlown left to get married and was replaced by Barbara Martin. In 1962, the group was reduced to a trio after Martin's departure. The Supremes scored their first hit in 1963 with the song, "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes", and reached number-one on the pop charts for the first time with the hit, "Where Did Our Love Go", becoming their first of twelve number one singles for which Wilson was credited as member of the group (it later emerged that Motown used in-house background singers, The Andantes, for the hits Love Child and Someday We'll Be Together).

By 1964, the group had become international superstars. In 1967, Motown president Berry Gordy changed the name of the group to Diana Ross & The Supremes and, after a period of tension, Florence Ballard was removed from the Supremes that July. Cindy Birdsong was chosen to take her place. The new lineup continued to record hit singles, although several stalled outside of the top 20 chart range until Ross' departure in early 1970. At their final performance with Ross, Jean Terrell was introduced as the replacement for Ross. According to Wilson in her memoirs, Berry Gordy told Wilson that he thought of having Syreeta Wright join the group in a last-minute change, after Terrell had already been introduced as lead singer, to which Wilson refused.

With Terrell, the Supremes recorded 7 top-forty hit singles in a three period. One River Deep/Mountain High was a collaboration with the Four Tops. Others included "Up the Ladder to the Roof", "Stoned Love", "Nathan Jones" and "Floy Joy". Of these releases, only Stoned Love reached a # 1 status (R&B Chart). Unlike the latter years with Ross, however, all but one of the hits Automatically Sunshine succeeded in reaching the top 20 charts, with two breaking into the top 10. During this period Wilson contributed lead or co-lead vocals to several Supremes songs including the hits "Floy Joy" and "Automatically Sunshine" and the title track of the 1971 album Touch.

The Supremes in 1964. Left to right: Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross.

In 1972, Cindy Birdsong left the group following marriage and pregnancy and was replaced by Lynda Lawrence. The group's popularity and place on record charts dropped significantly. For the first time in a decade two singles in a row failed to break into the top forty, including the Stevie Wonder-penned and -produced Bad Weather. Discouraged, Jean Terrell and Lynda Lawrence both departed in late 1973. Scherrie Payne was recruited from the Holland-Dozier-Holland record group (the team which composed ten of the Supremes #1 sixties singles.Cindy Birdsong also returned. Beginning with this line-up change, Wilson began doing almost half of the group's lead vocal duties, as she was considered the group's main attraction and reason for continuing. In 1976, the group scored their final hit single with "I'm Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking" written and produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland Group and included on the H-D-H produced album High Energy, Birdsong again departed, just prior to the album's release and was replaced by the group's final official member Susaye Green whose voice was dubbed over two songs. High Energy produced a flurry of positive reviews and sales, but a follow-up H-D-H effort in 1977 failed to ignite much interest. In late 1977 Wilson left The Supremes following a performance at London's Drury Lane Theatre. After Payne and Greene unsuccessfully lobbied to get a replacement for Wilson, the Supremes officially disbanded.

Wilson got involved in a protracted legal battle with Motown over management of the Supremes. After an out-of-court settlement, Wilson signed with Motown for solo work, releasing a disco-heavy self-titled album in 1979. A single, from the album, "Red Hot" has a modest showing of #90 on the pop charts. Midway through production of a second solo album in 1980, Motown dropped her from their roster. Throughout the mid 1980s, Wilson focused on performances in musical theater productions including Beehive, Dancing in the Streets and Supreme Soul.

In 1994, The Supremes were recognized with a star on Hollywood Walk of Fame at 7060 Hollywood Blvd.

Wilson found major success once more with her memoir: Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme in 1986. The book remained on the national best-seller list for months and established a sales record for the genre. The book focused on the early career of the Supremes and its success during the 1960s. Four years later, in 1990, Wilson released her second memoir: Supreme Faith: Someday We'll Be Together, also a best seller, which focused on the Supremes' in the seventies. In between this period, Wilson became a frequent guest on several TV shows and talk shows and began regularly performing in Las Vegas casinos and resorts. Wilson then recorded a cover version of "Ooh Child" for the Motorcity label in 1990. A year later, she signed with CEO Records and released the album, Walk the Line, in 1992. The label filed for bankruptcy the day after its national release. Wilson maintains she was deceived about the financial status of the label. The available copies of the album quickly sold out however and Wilson continued her success as a concert performer. Wilson fought two court cases with former employees over usage of the Supremes name; Supremes' replacement singers Lynda Lawrence and Scherrie Payne and a former backing vocalist from her 1980's concert work, Kaaren Ragland. In both cases the courts found for the employees.[1] This prompted Wilson to take a high-profile role in lobbying for "Truth in Music" legislation, which prohibits usage of musical acts names, unless an original member of the group is in the act or the group is properly licensed by the last person to hold right of title to the name. So, far her efforts have succeeded in more than 28 U.S. states. In 1995, Wilson released a song, ".U", for Contract Recording Company. A year later, Wilson released the song, "Turn Around" for Da Bridge Records.

In late 1999, a proposition to reunite the 1967–1970 lineup of the Supremes of Ross, Wilson and Birdsong for a Summer 2000 tour, under their "Diana Ross & The Supremes" moniker was negotiated by Ross and SFX. Wilson publicly stated she was contacted only after several months into preparation and was offered 2 million dollars. Publicly she stated she countered with 5 million and settled for 4 million, and after accepting, Wilson (and Birdsong) were informed their offers were withdrawn. The tour instead went forward with Wilson's former employees, Scherrie Payne and Lynda Lawrence, but was cancelled mid-tour because of low ticket sales, following a spate of high scrutiny by the public and press of the absence of Wilson and the dispute between versions of events. That year, Wilson released an updated version of her autobiographies as a single combined book.[2] That year, an album, I Am Changing, was released by Mary Wilson Enterprises, produced through her and her-then management, Duryea Entertainment.

In 2001, Wilson starred in the national tour of Leader of the Pack – The Ellie Greenwich Story. A year later, Wilson was appointed by Secretary of State Colin Powell as a "culture-connect ambassador" for the U.S. State Department, appearing at international events arranged by that agency. In 2006, a live concert DVD, Mary Wilson Live at the Sands, was released. Four years later, another DVD, Mary Wilson: Live from San Francisco... Up Close, was released. During this period, Wilson became a musical activist having been part of the Truth in Music Bill, a law proposed to stop impostor groups performing under the names of the 1950s and 1960s rock and roll groups, including Motown groups The Marvelettes and The Supremes. The law was passed in 27 states. Wilson has also toured and lectured internationally, as well as across the United States, speaking to various groups worldwide. Her lecture series, “Dare to Dream”, focuses on reaching goals and triumph over adversity. Wilson's charity work includes the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, the American Cancer Society, St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital, the Easter Seals Foundation, UNICEF, The NAACP, the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the All-Star Network, and Figure Skaters of Harlem, a youth organization devoted to helping children towards entering the Olympics. Most recently, Wilson became the Mine Action spokesperson for the Humpty Dumpty Institute.[3]

In April 2008, Wilson made a special appearance on 20/20 to participate in a social experiment involving pedestrians reacting to a young woman singing "Stop! In the Name of Love" with intentional amateurishness. Wilson approached the woman and gave her constructive criticism towards her style in contrast to the pedestrians whose reactions were positive yet dishonest. On March 5, 2009, she made a special appearance on The Paul O'Grady Show which ended in a special performance with her, Paul O'Grady and Graham Norton. Wilson is the creator of the Mary Wilson/Supremes Gown Collection and has had the collection on tour in an exhibition of the Supremes' former stage wear. The collection has been on exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, USA, and on May 12, 2008 commenced its UK tour, starting at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Over 50 sets of gowns are shown in rotation, starting with early formal wear from the early 1960s, and including famous gowns worn on television specials and nightclub appearances by the group in the 1960s and 1970s.[4] Wilson released two singles on iTunes called "Life's Been Good To Me" and "Darling Mother (Johnnie Mae)" in 2011 and 2013 respectively. In 2015, Wilson released a new single called "Time To Move On" produced by Sweet Feet Music and the song reached the Top 20 on the Billboard Dance charts peaking at #17 as of December 26th.[5] At 36 years and seven weeks, Mary Wilson holds the record for the longest gap between hits in the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart as "Red Hot" debuted on October 6th, 1979[6] and "Time To Move On" debuted on November 21st, 2015.

Personal life

Wilson married Pedro Ferrer in Las Vegas, NV on May 11, 1974. Their union produced three children: Turkessa, Pedro Antonio Jr., and Rafael (deceased). Wilson and Ferrer divorced in 1981. Wilson is also adoptive mother to her cousin, Willie.


In January 1994, Wilson and her 17-year-old son Rafael were involved in an accident on Interstate 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas when their Jeep Cherokee veered off the highway and overturned. Wilson sustained moderate injuries; Rafael's injuries were fatal.

Solo discography

Studio albums

Live album


Album guest appearances

  • with Neil Sedaka on Come See About Me (one song) – "Come See About Me"
  • with Paul Jabara on De La Noche Sisters (one song) – "This Girl's Back"
  • on the album Sing For The Cure (one song) – "Come to Me Mother"
  • with the Four Tops on From the Heart (2006) (one song) – "River Deep – Mountain High"
  • with Human Nature on Get Ready (2007) (two songs) – "River Deep – Mountain High" and "It Takes Two"


Motown releases
  • 1979: "Red Hot" / "Midnight Dancer"
  • 1980: "Pick Up the Pieces" / "You're the Light That Guides My Way" (UK only)
Nightmare/Motorcity releases
  • 1987:"Don't Get Mad, Get Even" – Nightmare Records
  • 1989:"Oooh Child" – Nightmare Records
CEO releases
  • 1992: "One Night With You"
  • 1992: "Walk the Line"
Other releases
  • 1995: "U" – Contract Recording Company
  • 1996: "Turn Around" – Da Bridge Records
  • 2000: "It's Time to Move On"
  • 2011: "Life's Been Good to Me"
  • 2013: "Darling Mother (Johnnie Mae)"
  • 2015: "Time To Move On"
  • 1980: Gus Dudgeon produced master tracks for Motown – "Love Talk", "Save Me", "You Danced My Heart Around the Stars", "Green River"
  • 1986: "My Lovelife is a Disaster" (unreleased demo)
  • "Sleeping in Separate Rooms" (Atlantic c.1987)
  • "Stronger in a Broken Part" (Atlantic c.1987)
  • "The One I Love" (Atlantic c.1987)
  • "Can We Talk About It"
  • "Show Me"
  • "Love Child" (out-take from Walk the Line album)


  • Wilson, Mary with Patricia Romanowski and Ahrgus Juilliard (1986). Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Wilson, Mary and Romanowski, Patricia (1990). Supreme Faith: Someday We'll Be Together. New York: HarperCollins. ISBN 0-06-016290-2
  • Wilson, Mary (1999). Dreamgirl & Supreme Faith: My Life as a Supreme. New York: Cooper Square Press. ISBN 0-8154-1000-X.

DVD appearances

Other notable appearances

  • Brenda Russell: "Walkin' in New York" – cameo in music video
  • Motown 40: The Music is Forever – herself (1998)
  • Motown 45 – performer (2004)
  • Motown: The Early Years: PBS Special (2005)
  • My Music: Motown Memories: PBS Special – hostess (2009)
  • Unsung: Florence Ballard – interviewee (2009)
  • Unsung: The Marvelettes - interviewee (2012)
  • Tavis Smiley – interviewee (2012)
  • Unsung: Eddie Kendricks – interviewee (2013)
  • 60's Girl Grooves: PBS Special - hostess (2013)


  1. Los Angeles Times, 9/2/1997
  2. Wilson, Mary (1999). Dreamgirl & Supreme Faith, Updated Edition: My Life as a Supreme. New York: Cooper Square Press. ISBN 0-8154-1000-X.
  3. "The Humpty Dumpty Institute". Retrieved April 11, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. "The Story of The Supremes from the Mary Wilson Collection — Victoria and Albert Museum". October 19, 2008. Retrieved April 11, 2011.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. "Mary Wilson Time To Move On Remix Dirty Pop Exclusive Premiere". October 1, 2015. Retrieved November 26, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Whitburn, Joel (2004). Billboard Hot Dance/Disco 1974-2003. Record Research. ISBN 0-89820-156-X.

External links