The world woke up to the sad news this morning that Supremes singer Mary Wilson died of unknown causes at her home in Henderson, Nevada. She was 76.
“I was extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family, Mary Wilson of the Supremes,” Motown founder Berry Gordy said in a statement. “[She] was extremely special to me. She was a trailblazer, a diva and will be deeply missed.”
Wilson was a founding member of the Supremes going all the way back to their roots in the late Fifties when they were known as the Primettes. They were one of the most successful musical acts of any genre in the Sixties, scoring massive hits like “Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Baby Love,” “I Hear a Symphony,” and “You Can’t Hurry Love.” But offstage, relations between Wilson, Florence Ballard, and Diana Ross were often quite tense. In 1967, Cindy Birdsong replaced Ballard and they began releasing music under the name Diana Ross and the Supremes.
That version of the Supremes went out on a very high note with the release of “Someday We’ll Be Together.” The 1969 song was both their final single and their last of twelve Number Ones on the Hot 100. Here’s video of them performing it on Ed Sullivan. “As you know, Diana Ross is continuing her career as a single star,” Sullivan said in his intro. “And now in their last television appearance together, here is Diana and the Supremes singing their current Number One record.”
Mary Wilson kept the legacy alive in the Seventies by touring and releasing new Supremes music with a rotating crew of singers. She pulled the plug on the group after a farewell concert in London June 12th, 1977. But the prophecy of “Someday We’ll Be Together” came true at the Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever TV event on March 25th, 1983, where the trio of Wilson, Ross and Birdsong once again sang the song as the Supremes. (Ballard died in 1976.)
Wilson wrote in her 1986 memoir Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme that it wasn’t exactly a joyful reunion since tensions were still high from the split, but viewers at home didn’t know any of that and the reunion was the climax of an evening that also included Michael Jackson debuting the moonwalk. There was much talk of another Supremes reunion in the years that followed, and in 2000 Ross toured with Seventies-era Supremes Lynda Laurence and Scherrie Payne when negotiations with Wilson and Birdsong broke down. Sadly, Wilson’s death means that a legitimate reunion is now impossible.