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Mary Wilson, Singer Who Co-Founded The Supremes, Dies at 76

Wilson was also a best-selling author, businesswoman and cultural ambassador

Mary Wilson, the celebrated singer, businesswoman and activist who co-founded the 1960s hit machine The Supremes as a 15-year-old Detroit teenager and was the group’s longest serving member, died Monday at her home in Henderson, Nevada. She was 76.

Her publicist confirmed the news to CBS on Monday night. The cause of death has not been disclosed.

Born in Mississippi in 1944, Wilson moved to Detroit as a child and in elementary school became close friends with future Supreme Florence Ballard. The two would form the pop vocal group The Primettes in 1959 along with Diana Ross. Originally a quartet, the group was solidified as a trio after signing to Motown Records in 1961 and changing their name to The Supremes.

Mary Wilson and The Supremes

The Supremes — Florence Ballard, Mary Wilson and Diana Ross — circa 1964 (Photo: Getty)

The Supremes were by far Motown’s biggest band of the 1960s, releasing 12 No. 1 singles, including “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “I Hear a Symphony” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Ballard was fired from the group in 1967 and Ross left to pursue a solo career in 1970. Wilson remained and The Supremes continued with a rotating lineup until 1977, when she left and the group was disbanded.

“I was always proud of Mary,” Berry Gordy, founder of Motown, said in a statement. “She was quite a star in her own right and over the years continued to work hard to boost the legacy of the Supremes. … she was a trailblazer, a dive and will be deeply missed.”

Following the Supremes, Wilson embarked on a solo career with mixed results, but found great success with her 1986 autobiography “Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme,” which charted the early years of the Supremes and became a runaway best-seller. She would go on to write three other autobiographies recounting her later career.

She continued to perform as a singer and make numerous television appearances, and in addition to motivational speaking became an activist for musician rights.

“The entire RIAA family is deeply saddened at the sudden passing of our dear friend, Mary Wilson. Mary was known to all as a founding member of the groundbreaking Platinum-awarded legends The Supremes. Off stage, we were also blessed to know her as an urgent voice in the fight for civil rights and a fierce defender of her fellow artists and musicians,” the Recording Industry Association of America wrote in a statement. “Mary Wilson was always ready to make the trip to Washington, DC to walk the halls of Congress and make a compelling and unapologetic case for artist rights directly to policymakers. Her efforts helped to pass the Music Modernization Act of 2018, which gave protections to legacy artists. She also led the fight in the states for Truth in Music Advertising legislation to protect classic acts from copycats and which – thanks to Mary – are now the law of the land in 35 states including, just last year, Hawaii.”

In 2001, Wilson was appointed a cultural ambassador for the U.S. State Department by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell.

She’s survived by her three children. The family will be holding a private ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and has requested that well-wishers donate to the United Negro College Fund and the Humpty Dumpty Institute in lieu of flowers.