Mary Wilson: Founder of The Supremes and Motown trailblazer

  09 Feb '21   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Mary Wilson, who co-founded The Supremes and was a pioneer in the world of Motown, has sadly died at the age of 76. In Detroit 67, Stuart Cosgrove charted the remarkable impact of The Supremes, set against a backdrop of urban riots, escalating war in Vietnam and police corruption. Read the below extract about Mary Wilson’s early life and ascent into stardom.

Extract from Detroit 67 by Stuart Cosgrove

Although she spent much of her time mediating between warring friends, Mary Wilson had her own unique story to tell. Wilson had been born in the small town of Greenville, Mississippi, known locally as ‘the heart and soul of the Delta’, and moved to Detroit as an infant. Born into an unstable family, her birth father, Sam Wilson, worked the riverboats on the Mississippi and was an inveterate gambler who believed in one of life’s most flawed concepts – easy money – and so wasted his adult life pursuing wealth via blackjack and roulette. ‘It was obvious that he loved the fast life,’ Wilson wrote in her autobiography, admitting that her grandparents resented her father’s fecklessness. ‘Although he had a trade, he couldn’t hold a job and had long been a drifter, and worst of all, he was a compulsive gambler. To proud and religious people like my mother’s kin, Sam Wilson was just plain weak. My mother was always the quietest and most reserved of siblings, but when it came to Sam, nothing they said could change her mind. She loved him.’ 

Wilson’s natural mother, Johnnie Mae, struggled to raise her children, and when she ‘was frightened down to her last few dollars and still without a job’, she reluctantly agreed that Mary be adopted by her aunt and uncle, Ivory and John Pippin. They had invested a $7,100 GI loan into a small newly built house in Dearborn, Michigan, and planned a more prosperous future in the Mecca of the north, Detroit. Thoughtlessly, Wilson’s aunt told the young child that she was not her natural mother and that her real mother, Johnnie Mae Wilson, now single and shot of her feckless husband, was travelling north to take her away. Tearful and confused, Mary went with her real mother, and they moved into a smaller house in southwest Detroit, then again to an apartment in the Brewster Projects in 1956. In this brief spell, Mary had experienced the comforts of living with her aunt in Dearborn and the poverty of being taken to various rundown apartments with her real mother. ‘Many people would have considered a move to the projects to be a step down,’ Wilson said. ‘But for me, having already stepped down from a middle-class neighbourhood to various apartments in the inner city, this was a step back up.’ 

Passed from one family to another, becoming the subject of a custody dispute between her adoptive mother and her real family, and before that the subject of emotionally disruptive fights between her mother and father, Mary had grown up feeling as if she was born to be in the middle of trouble. And so it proved at Motown. She was frequently caught not only in the midst of arguments within the Supremes but in disagreements with other groups too. The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas loathed each other; it was partly due to unhealthy competition but more perniciously because of the strong women that fronted the two groups. Martha Reeves and Diana Ross did not get along, and neither was the type to acquiesce. ‘I would get caught in the middle,’ Wilson said subsequently, ‘and although we both liked all the Vandellas – Martha, Rosalind Ashford and Annette Sterling – our relationship with Martha was strained by her feuds with Diane. Flo and I would admit privately who was right, and it wasn’t always Diane. But she was in our group, and solidarity was crucial, right or wrong.’ 

Tribalism between the two groups became exaggerated by professional jealousy as the Supremes surpassed Martha and the Vandellas in popularity. From 1965 onward they began to dominate the charts and became a greater priority for Motown. Ross’s close relationship with Gordy did not help either, and any advantage gained by the Supremes was seen by Martha Reeves as a by-product of Gordy’s preferential treatment.  

It was inevitable that Mary would be caught in the cross-fire. By far the most successful with men, she compartmentalised her life. She was more gregarious than Ross and more streetwise than Ballard, and by 1967 she had managed to build up a formidable list of conquests, including a long-time love affair with Abdul ‘Duke’ Fakir of the Four Tops and a ‘holiday romance’ with the English film director David Puttnam, who in 1967 was a successful advertising executive. Later in the year, in Las Vegas, she fell in love with the Welsh pop singer Tom Jones, by then a married man. 

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