Mary Wilson, the singer who co-founded legendary Motown group The Supremes, died unexpectedly at her home near Las Vegas on Monday night, according to her longtime publicist, Jay Schwartz. She was 76, and no cause of death was disclosed. Schwartz said a public memorial will be held later this year.
Wilson was just 15 when she formed The Primettes with Florence Ballard, Diana Ross, and Betty McGlowan. The group, with Barbara Martin replacing McGlowan, signed with Motown as The Supremes on Jan. 21, 1961. After Martin's departure in 1963, and with a new songwriting team of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier, the group embarked on a heady rise to stardom, scoring 12 No. 1 pop hits, including "Where Did Our Love Go," "Stop! In the Name of Love," "Baby Love," "I Hear a Symphony," "You Keep Me Hanging On," and "You Can't Hurry Love."
"If Ross became renowned as the group's international superstar and Ballard, who died prematurely at the age of 32 in 1976, came to be memorialized as its tragic figure, Wilson was its steady, omnipresent, and outspoken driving force," Variety reports. Motown chief Berry Gordy replaced Ballard with Cindy Birdsong in 1967, and Ross departed for a solo career in 1970.
Wilson stayed with the group until its 1977 farewell show in London, and she released a handful of solo albums and wrote four books, including Supreme Glamour, released in 2019, the same year she competed in Dancing With the Stars. Her first book, 1986's Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme, dug into her contentious relationship with Ross.
Two days before her death, Wilson released a video in which she talked about plans to celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Supremes, teased interviews she had already recorded about singing in the segregated South, and announced plans to release solo material from the 1970s. "Hopefully some of that will be out on my birthday, March 6," she said.
Wilson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, in 1944, but her family moved to St. Louis then Chicago before sending her, at age 3, to live with her aunt and uncle in Detroit. She is survived by two children, Turkessa and Pedro, from her marriage to Pedro Ferrer, a Dominican businessman and former Supremes manager, and seven grandchildren. A third child, Rafael, was killed in 1994 when Wilson's Jeep flipped. Wilson and Ferrer divorced in 1981.