Mary Wilson, longest-reigning original Supreme, dies at 76

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FILE - Mary Wilson, founding member of The Supremes, appears during a portrait session at Capitol Records in Los Angeles on June 12, 2014. Wilson, the longest-reigning original Supreme, has died at 76 years old. Publicist Jay Schwartz says Wilson died Monday night, Feb. 8, 2021, at her home in Las Vegas and that the cause was not immediately clear. Wilson, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard made up the first successful configuration of The Supremes. (Photo by Casey Curry/Invision/AP, File)

LAS VEGAS – Mary Wilson, one of the original members of the Supremes, the 1960s group that helped define the Motown sound and style and propelled Diana Ross to superstardom, has died. She was 76.

Wilson died Monday night at her home in Nevada and the cause was not immediately clear, said publicist Jay Schwartz.

“I just woke up to this news,” Ross tweeted on Tuesday, offering her condolences to Wilson’s family. “I am reminded that each day is a gift,” she added, writing “I have so many wonderful memories of our time together.”

Like many Motown artists, Wilson, Ross and Florence Ballard had grown up in Detroit and were still in their teens when they were signed in 1961 by Berry Gordy to his young record company. Within three years, the Supremes had their first No. 1 hit, “Where Did Our Love Go?” By the end of the decade, they were Motown's greatest commercial success and embodiment of the label's polished pop-soul music and elegant appearance, with their beehive hairdos and heavy eye makeup, in sequin gowns or in slacks and strapless tops.

Working mostly with the songwriting-producing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, the Supremes had 12 No. 1 hits, including such classics as “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again." Gordy was so invested in them that when “Nothing But Heartaches” failed to top the charts in the mid-1960s, Gordy wrote a company memo insisting that only No. 1 songs were acceptable for the Supremes. Balance was restored by their next release, “I Hear a Symphony.”

The Supremes gave listeners some of the most joyous sounds of the ‘60s, but their personal story was bittersweet. As loosely mirrored by the Broadway musical “Dreamgirls,” Ballard would become resentful of Ross' growing prominence and was replaced in 1967 by Cindy Birdsong after missing performances and recording sessions and struggling with alcoholism. (Ballard died in 1976).

Around the time Ballard left, Gordy renamed the group Diana Ross and the Supremes, a lineup which held until 1970 when Ross departed for a solo career and was replaced by Jean Tyrell. Once again called the Supremes, they had a top 10 hit in 1970 with “Stoned Love," but faded after that and broke up in 1977.

Gordy issued a statement Monday night saying he was was “extremely shocked and saddened to hear of the passing of a major member of the Motown family, Mary Wilson of the Supremes.” According to Variety, Gordy said “The Supremes were always known as the ‘sweethearts of Motown.’”