Although she had to wait more than a decade before taking the lead on one of their hit singles, Mary Wilson was the force that held the Supremes together through the episodes of tragedy and internal strife that marked the history of the most successful female pop group of the 1960s. Having endured the removal of one original member, the troubled Florence Ballard, and the defection of another, Diana Ross, to solo stardom, Wilson – who has died aged 76 – worked with their replacements to keep the group’s name going.
Often stationed in the middle of the original three on stage, Wilson had a radiant smile that stood out even when she was singing background parts. But she was also forming a buffer between the ambitious, upwardly mobile Ross and the earthier, more homespun Ballard. It was a rivalry sharpened by the knowledge that while Ballard’s powerful, gospel-trained voice made her the group’s best singer, it was the sultrier delivery and slinky glamour of Ross that gave them their distinctive appeal. Their string of 10 No 1 hits on the US pop charts began in 1964 with Where Did Our Love Go, the million-seller that turned the Motown sound into an international pop sensation.
Under the patronage of Berry Gordy Jr, the founder of the Motown record label, the Supremes were groomed, gowned, choreographed, routined and refined into an act capable of entertaining heads of state. Their spectacular and ever-changing wardrobe of fur wraps and shimmering floor-length gowns was worn with a poise that allowed them to realise Gordy’s dream of conquering sophisticated audiences while selling records to teenagers.
Wilson was born close to the Mississippi Delta, in the town of Greenville, to Sam Wilson, a butcher, and his wife, Johnnie Mae. Mary was still an infant when the family moved first to St Louis, Missouri, and then to Chicago, where a son, Roosevelt, was born.
Sam, however, preferred gambling and the high life to a steady job, so the three-year-old Mary was sent to Detroit to live with her mother’s sister Ivory (known as IV) while Sam, Johnnie Mae and Roosevelt returned to Greenville. By the time Johnnie Mae arrived to take up residence in Detroit, Mary had long come to believe that IV was her real mother. But she joined Johnnie Mae, Roosevelt and a second sibling, Cathy, in a flat in the Brewster Projects, a public housing estate. Attending the local Baptist church, Mary met Aretha, Erma and Carolyn Franklin, the pastor’s talented daughters.
It was in the Brewster Projects, where even the girls formed gangs, that she also met Ballard, a fellow competitor in a local talent show. They were neighbours, as was Diane Ross, with whom they and a fourth girl, Betty McGlown, formed a group called the Primettes, the female counterparts of a local male quartet called the Primes, who included two future members of the Temptations.
With McGlown replaced by Barbara Martin, the Primettes made their first record for Lupine Records, a small Detroit label, but Gordy’s Motown operation was where the real action was, and they were among the many young hopefuls who hung around the company’s offices and studios after school, wanting to be noticed.
It took two years of flops and near-misses before the renamed Supremes, now a trio after Martin’s departure to have a child, made their mark. The writing and producing team of Eddie and Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier came up with the soft-soul dancefloor friendly sound that carried them from Where Did Our Love Go and Baby Love in 1964 through Stop! In the Name of Love to You Can’t Hurry Love and You Keep Me Hangin’ On.
Reflecting Gordy’s promotion of Ross, with whom he had been having a long affair, in 1967 the group’s name was changed to Diana Ross and the Supremes. That year Ballard left the group, alcoholism having rendered her unreliable. Two years later Ross departed, leaving Wilson as the only original, now flanked by Cindy Birdsong and Jean Terrell, and finally taking the lead part on two lesser late hits, Floy Joy and Automatically Sunshine, before the Supremes finally called it a day in 1977.
Later Wilson would fight legal battles against those who tried to exploit the name. Her efforts helped create a law, adopted in more than half the US, permitting the use of a group’s identity only by original members or the last person to hold the right of title to the name. Recognising the unfavourable terms of her early recording contracts, she also fought to obtain access to Motown’s financial records.
Her career as a solo performer was boosted in 1986 by the sales of her first autobiography, whose title, Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme, was a nod to that of a successful Broadway musical of 1981, Dreamgirls, which had fictionalised the story of a successful but strife-torn female vocal trio.
Real-life rivalries resurfaced when the stars of Motown gathered for a 25th anniversary gala in 1983. As the reunited Supremes sang Someday We’ll Be Together, one of their last hits, Ross – still “Diane” to Wilson – sharply elbowed her former colleague out of the front line, knocking the microphone out of her hand, an incident cut from the televised version of the show.
In 1988 the Supremes were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Ballard had died, penniless and a victim of spousal abuse, in 1976, two years after Wilson had tried without success to persuade her to rejoin the group.
After relationships that included Duke Fakir of the Four Tops, Tom Jones and Steve McQueen, in 1974 Wilson married Pedro Ferrer, a businessman whom she appointed the Supremes’ manager. They had three children and were divorced in 1981.
One son, Rafael, was killed in a car crash in 1994. Wilson is survived by her elder son, Pedro Jr, and daughter, Turkessa, an adopted son, Willie, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
• Mary Wilson, singer, born 6 March 1944; died 8 February 2021