Mary Wilson: the Supremes' tenacious star who refused to accept defeat

By Alexis Petridis

In November 1969, Diana Ross announced her departure from the Supremes. It was not an entirely unexpected turn of events for anyone who knew about the internal workings of Motown Records. From the moment in 1963 when label boss Berry Gordy began taking an interest in the trio – whose seven singles to date had met with such commercial indifference they’d become known around Hitsville USA as the No-Hit Supremes – it was obvious who he thought the group’s star was. First Ross became the de facto lead singer on all their singles, with her fellow members Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard relegated to occasional leads on album tracks or on stage.

It was clearly unfair – Ballard and Wilson were fine singers, the latter’s soft-toned version of Come and Get These Memories from The Supremes A’ Go-Go (1966) is delightful – but you couldn’t argue with the commercial results: they had five No 1 singles in 12 months. In 1967, the band’s name was changed to Diana Ross and the Supremes, precipitating the departure of the increasingly troubled Ballard. From that point on, the Supremes were a Diana Ross solo vehicle in all but name: subsequent singles, including Love Child and I’m Living in Shame, featured Ross backed by session singers.

It might reasonably have been expected that Ross’s departure would spell the end of the Supremes, particularly after Gordy announced he was washing his hands of the group following a disagreement over who should replace Ross. But that would have reckoned without Wilson, who was already furious about Gordy favouring Ross – just how furious would be revealed in 1986, when she published her celebrated memoir Dreamgirl: My Life As a Supreme – and, as the band’s solitary original member, became the de facto leader. Eventually, her ex-husband Pedro Ferrer took over as manager.

Rather than becoming lead singer herself, Wilson forged ahead with a new lineup, fronted by Jean Terrell. The problem of the Supremes’ image – despite briefly dabbling with a dressed-down look on the sleeve of their 1968 album Love Child, their reputation for sparkly glamour seemed outdated in a world where soul music had become more stridently political and sonically adventurous – was dealt with: they posed for photos in a Black Power-inspired look of afros and dark polo necks.

An enduring career … Mary Wilson in 2012.
An enduring career … Mary Wilson in 2012. Photograph: Fred Prouser/Reuters

Frank Wilson, a protege of Motown’s most forward-thinking producer Norman Whitfield, initially took over their albums, introducing a sound that was markedly different from their 60s hits. Their choice of covers became more countercultural – the Beatles’ Come Together, Stephen Stills’ Love the One You’re With – and their material became more politically conscious. If you had to squint hard to detect the message in Everybody’s Got the Right to Love, then the gentle anti-Vietnam sentiment of 1970 album track Bill, When Are You Coming Back? or the love-and-peace message of Stoned Love were more obvious. The latter formed part of an astonishing run of singles that also included Up the Ladder to the Roof, Nathan Jones, Floy Joy and Automatically Sunshine, the latter two featuring Terrell and Wilson sharing lead vocals.

At first, it was one of the great musical reinventions of the era: in 1970, the Ross-less Supremes commercially outstripped their former frontwoman. They might have been successful for longer had Motown been more interested, but, as the 70s progressed, the label’s attentions waned. They under-promoted their new releases – Steve Wonder-penned Bad Weather (1973) should have done far better than its lowly chart position suggested – and delayed new members’ contracts when the lineup changed again. Their commercial standing slipped, resulting in later Supremes releases being largely overlooked delights. With lead vocals shared by Wilson and new recruit Scherrie Payne, the fantastic He’s My Man (1975) showed a band transitioning with ease into the disco era, as was proved by their final two albums. High Energy (1976) contained a fabulously atmospheric title track and the hard-driving I’m Gonna Let My Heart Do the Walking. Its follow-up Mary, Scherrie & Susaye had two dancefloor killers in the utterly joyous Let Yourself Go and the warp-speed closer Love, I Never Knew You Could Feel So Good.

But commercial failure spelled the end of the Supremes. Wilson stayed with Motown, despite a bitter legal battle over the Supremes’ management, and recorded a solo album. It deserved to do better on the back of its single Red Hot, which revealed Wilson as a far more characterful singer than her largely supporting role on Supremes releases suggested. But its failure set a trend for her solo career: her next album, Walk the Line (1992) vanished when her record label went bust. By then, she had established herself as an actor in musical theatre and as a popular live performer.

The enmities revealed in her memoir Dreamgirl never seemed to entirely fade away: in 2000, a Supremes reunion tour did not feature her and was cancelled midway through, after poor ticket sales.

Wilson had just announced a new album when she died. Her legacy is inexorably bound up with her tenacity, her stubborn refusal to concede that the Supremes were a one-woman show, regardless of what anyone else thought. As the music they went on to make proved, she was absolutely right.