Statements

Statement on the Passing of Motown Legend Mary Wilson

February 10, 2021
Photo of Mary Wilson Singing Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Kevin Young, director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, released the following statement today, Feb. 10, on the passing of Mary Wilson, the founding member of the legendary Motown music group, The Supremes.

“One of the founding members of America’s most successful vocal group, The Supremes, Wilson along with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard would record songs like “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “Stop! In the name of Love” and other hits that spanned generations. Their glamorous personas, exciting choreography and expression of femininity left an indelible impact that continues to influence countless musical acts to this day.

Born in Greenville, Mississippi, to a working-class family, Wilson moved to and was raised by her aunt and uncle in the Brewster-Douglas Housing Projects of Detroit. Participating in the elementary school’s talent show, her talented vocals were revealed early on, and there she befriended Ballard. Their musical friendship continued, and they started their music careers together in 1959 by joining an all-women singing group called The Primettes, along with Ross and Betty McGlown. The Primettes eventually signed a record deal rebranding themselves as The Supremes in 1962, after regularly visiting the Motown Record’s Hitsville USA recording studio and gaining the attention of Motown founder and record executive Berry Gordy.

Photo of The Supremes

Photo of The Supremes

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The song, “When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes,” was the group’s break into stardom coming in at No. 23 on the Billboard pop chart. Admiration for The Supremes was ubiquitous across the country during the 1960s, a time of division in the United States. The women, all African Americans, broke racial barriers when they were invited to perform at clubs whose patrons were predominantly white. The group underwent changes as members left and new women joined, but Wilson remained. The Supremes were pivotal in empowering black girls and women through the music they released, the makeup they wore and the stylish clothing they performed in. Wilson’s commitment to preserving the legacy of The Supremes was not through the lens of “how great we were” but through one that amplified civil rights, female empowerment and black girl magic. 

Oprah Winfrey was quoted in Diana Ross: A Biography (2007) stating, “You never saw anything like it in the 1960s—three women of color who were totally empowered, creative, imaginative.”  

Mary Wilson, Dionne Warwick, Lena Home, DeeDee Warwick, radio DJ Detroit Benson and backup singers, 1973

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Mary E. Jackson, Posthumously and Linda A. Jackson, © Linda A. Jackson

Shortly after The Supremes decided to break up in 1977, Wilson continued to pursue music and released her disco-style, self-titled album in 1979. Her interests expanded into writing as she released her memoir Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme in 1986 and best-selling book, Supreme Glamour in 2019. Wilson’s memoir inspired the 2006 musical drama film, Dreamgirls that followed a girl group from Detroit pursuing music in the ’60s and ’70s. The film won numerous awards, including two Oscars, a Golden Globe Award and two Grammy Awards for its reverent exploration of the history and evolution of R&B music. Her music career continued throughout the rest of her life, with her most recent Billboard top hit released in 2015 titled, “Time to Move On.”

Photo of Mary Wilson

Photo of Mary Wilson

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

In addition to her music career, she was a part of a few musical theater performances including Beehive, Dancing in the Streets and Supreme Soul. Wilson also dedicated her time to philanthropic work with UNICEF, NAACP, American Cancer Society, Susan G. Kolman Race for the Cure and was an activist who fought to pass ‘Truth in Music Advertising’ bills to protect artists and their livelihood from unjust treatment in the music industry. Wilson’s lobbying efforts successfully resulted in the Modernization Music Act of 2018 addressing copyright issues for new music. As a U.S. Cultural Ambassador, she used her fame to increase visibility of humanitarian issues like hunger and HIV/AIDS awareness. In 1988, she, along with her original Supreme groupmates, Ross and Ballard, were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for their transcendent influence across music genres, including contemporary R&B, pop and soul.  

Wilson will be remembered as a trendsetter who became a role model to young black girls and music artists for generations to come. She had an inherent role in creating the Supremes’ legacy reflecting her perseverance and enduring spirit both in and outside of the music industry.” 

About the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Since opening Sept. 24, 2016, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has welcomed more than 7 million visitors. Occupying a prominent location next to the Washington Monument on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the nearly 400,000-square-foot museum is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted exclusively to exploring, documenting and showcasing the African American story and its impact on American and world history. For more information about the museum, visit nmaahc.si.edu, follow @NMAAHC on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, or call Smithsonian information at (202) 633-1000.

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Media Contact(s): 

Jason Spear (202) 633-9904; spearj@si.edu
Melissa Wood (703) 732-5700; woodm2@si.edu

About The Museum

The National Museum of African American History and Culture will be a place where all Americans can learn about the richness and diversity of the African American experience, what it means to their lives and how it helped us shape this nation. A place that transcends the boundaries of race and culture that divide us, and becomes a lens into a story that unites us all.