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Mary Wilson, founding member of The Supremes, dies at 76

"She was a trailblazer, a diva, and will be deeply missed," Motown founder Berry Gordy said.
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Mary Wilson, a founding member of The Supremes, died Monday at her home in Las Vegas at the age of 76, her publicist said in a statement.

She died naturally of hypertensive atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease, the Clark County medical examiner said.

Publicist Jay Schwartz said Wilson, who had a history of heart disease, died peacefully in her sleep.

Wilson, who grew up in a housing project in Detroit, was an original member of the singing group so fundamental to Motown's popularity, known globally for a string of hits including "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "Back in My Arms Again."

"The Supremes were always known as the 'sweethearts of Motown,'" Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown record label, said in a statement. "Mary, along with Diana Ross and Florence Ballard, came to Motown in the early 1960s. After an unprecedented string of No. 1 hits, television and nightclub bookings, they opened doors for themselves, the other Motown acts, and many, many others... She was a trailblazer, a diva and will be deeply missed."

Image: American Motown pop vocal trio The Supremes in 1968. From left, Cindy Birdsong, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson.
American Motown pop vocal trio The Supremes in 1968. From left, Cindy Birdsong, Diana Ross and Mary Wilson.George Stroud / Getty Images file

Wilson, Ross and Ballard rose to fame as a trio, but the group started with four women. Barbara Martin left the group, which Wilson and the others joined as teens. The group signed their first recording contract 60 years ago, in January 1961, Wilson noted in a YouTube video she posted last month.

In the early years of their career, the Supremes claimed a dozen No. 1 singles, five of which were consecutive from 1964-1965. “Where Did Our Love Go," “Baby Love," “Come See About Me," “Stop! In the Name of Love” and “Back in My Arms Again,” all topped the charts.

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They were inducted in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 by Little Richard who called them "the greatest" and said, "there's never been anything like them."

After Ross left the group for a successful career as a solo artist and actress, Wilson continued with the Supremes and then embarked on a solo career of her own.

"I just woke up to this news," tweeted Ross on Tuesday. "I am reminded that each day is a gift, I have so many wonderful memories of our time together."

Wilson was also the author of several books, including her memoir, "Dreamgirls: My Life as a Supreme." In 2003, she was named a U.S. cultural ambassador by the State Department, touring the world and talking to young people about the dangers of HIV and AIDS.

“We were always stylish,” she said in an interview on NBC New York in 2019 to promote her book "Supreme Glamour." “Our pearls were bought from Woolworth, but they were pearls to us. We were always into dressing up.”

Wilson continued to stay busy with music and entertainment, announcing over the weekend in a YouTube video that new recordings will soon be released, "hopefully," she said, in time for her birthday on March 6.

In 2018, she appeared on the show "Dancing with the Stars."

Services will be private due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but a celebration of her life will take place later this year, Wilson's representatives said.

The family asked that friends and fans support the United Negro College Fund or the Humpty Dumpty Institute. The latter group helps in landmine clearance projects around the world. Wilson spoke out about landmines and was a spokesperson for the group.