• Photo courtesy of Motown Sound. Illustration by Shelby Powers.

Supremes Co-Founder Mary Wilson, Dead at 76: The LGBTQ+ Community Saw Us as ‘Gorgeous Black Barbie Dolls’

By |2021-02-09T15:15:56-05:00February 9th, 2021|Michigan, News|

A Detroit music icon beloved by the LGBTQ+ community has died. Mary Wilson, one of the original Supremes and a Motown legend, died suddenly Monday at her home in Henderson, Nevada. She was 76.

Wilson spoke to Pride Source many times over the years about her LGBTQ+ following. In her first interview with Pride Source in 2000, she said that the “glamour” drew the community to The Supremes. 

She added, “There was something magical about The Supremes. Even I don’t know what it is. And, certainly, Diane doesn’t. But it was something magical and, I think, perhaps the gay community probably zeroed in on that magic, because it’s something they know.”

During Wilson’s last Pride Source interview in 2015, she spoke again of her gay fans, and the first gay men she met.

“The realization (hit the Supremes) when we started doing TV shows and a lot of the guys who would design gowns for us were gay. They would bring all those gorgeous design sketches and we looked like little Barbie dolls – three little Barbie dolls – and so that’s when we realized there was something about that that was different from the way you were normally perceived, because they saw us as these glamorous, gorgeous Barbie dolls. Black Barbie dolls!”

Though she traveled the world promoting the Motown Sound, Wilson was actually born in Greenville, Mississippi. She moved to Detroit at age three to live with her aunt and uncle and, as a teenager, befriended neighbors Florence Ballard and Diana Ross. The three formed a singing group, called The Primettes, and recorded locally on a limited basis. Still in high school, The Primettes auditioned for Berry Gordy and his Motown Records without fanfare. Gordy thought them too young and passed. But he allowed them to hang out in the lobby of his label’s offices and eventually used them for handclaps and backing vocals. 

Finally, after finishing high school, Gordy signed them, but only on the condition they change their name. Ballard chose The Supremes from a list and the selection would prove fortuitous. Well, maybe not at first. Motown released several singles by the fledgling group and they quickly went nowhere, earning the group the nickname The No-Hit Supremes. All that would change in 1964 when the label released a Holland-Dozier-Holland written and produced song called “Where Did Our Love Go.” An instant smash, the song went straight to No. 1 and became a Motown classic. All told, from 1964–1969 the group would have a record-breaking 12 No. 1 singles. 

Along with The Temptations, The Supremes became Motown flagship artists. In 1967, Ballard, who like Wilson had been relegated to background singer as Gordy declared Ross should sing all leads, grew bitter and left the group. Motown changed the name of the group to Diana Ross & The Supremes, brought in Cindy Birdsong and began priming the lead singer for solo stardom. She would leave the group in January 1970 following a farewell performance at The Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas.

Though to many The Supremes story ends with Ross’s departure, that is truly not the case. Jean Terrell was brought in to replace Ross and, initially, The Supremes fared better than Ross on the charts with the hits “Up the Ladder to the Roof” and “Stoned Love.” Gordy would have none of that and is believed to have put the group on the back burner in favor of promoting Ross. Wilson would keep The Supremes going, in various incarnations, until 1977. She released an eponymous album in 1979 and initially tried to launch a solo career herself. The effort was short-lived and soon Wilson would find two more young ladies to tour with and bill herself as Mary Wilson of The Supremes. 

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Wilson kept the group’s legacy alive. She toured frequently and was the only member of the group present when The Supremes were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Wilson wrote two books, “Dreamgirl: My Life As A Supreme” and “Supreme Faith: Someday We’ll Be Together,” and almost reunited with Ross and Birdsong for a tour in 2000. Wilson was not happy when she was given no control over the tour or no chance to contribute meaningfully to the production of the show. Ross, who was rumored to be earning $15 million for what became known as The Return To Love Tour, offered Wilson $1 million, and then $2 million, but to no avail. A war of words ensued and Wilson and Birdsong passed on the tour. Instead, Ross took two latter day Supremes on the road and the tour, a dismal failure, was canceled less than halfway through.

Throughout the years, as she continued to tour and promote The Supremes, Wilson spoke to Pride Source about a potential reunion with Ross.

“Whenever, and if, Diana’s ready, then something like that could happen,” Wilson said “She would have to be the one to say she’s ready. Right now, she’s not ready. You should write about this… Diana and I are sisters from the soul, period. You know, you have a lot of things in life that interfere with your feelings, and that has happened with us. It’s just life situations. Life’s business. Life’s all those things that are in the middle of our friendship. Our friendship is still our friendship. It’s all this other crap that’s in the middle of it. I don’t even know how it started or where it came from, but it’s all professional.”

In recent years, prior to the pandemic, Wilson did a lot of touring with fellow Motown legend Martha Reeves, whom she was scheduled to return to the road with on July 4 of this year. They both attended Northeastern High School, though two years apart, and reunited at Motown where Wilson and The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas both became stars.

“We have been sisters and been tied together ever since 1962,” Reeves told BTL. “A loving, kind beautiful angel made her transition into heaven and she will be dearly missed and always alive in my heart.”

Services for Wilson will be private due to COVID-19 and a celebration of her life is planned for later in the year. Donations may be made in Wilson’s name to the United Negro College Fund, UNCF.org and the Humpty Dumpty Institute (thehdi.org).

About the Author:

Jason A. Michael
Jason A. Michael earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Wayne State University before joining Between The Lines as a contributing writer in 1999. Jason has received both the Spirit of Detroit Award (presented by the Detroit City Council) and the Media Award from the Community Pride Banquet & Awards Ceremony for his writing and activism. Jason is also an Essence magazine bestselling author having written the authorized biography "Strength Of A Woman: The Phyllis Hyman Story," which he released on his own JAM Books imprint.