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Motown mates mourn passing of Supremes' Mary Wilson

By Gary Graff
ggraff@medianewsgroup.com, @GraffonMusic on Twitte

Posted: Tuesday, February 9, 2021

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Like many of his Motown mates, the Four Tops' Abdul "Duke" Fakir was in "a state of shock" Tuesday, Feb. 9, after learning the Supremes' co-founder Mary Wilson had passed the night before.

"I was just speaking to her the other day and she said she was feeling great and she was talking about some kind of new project," Fakir, who lived with and was engaged to Wilson for a time during the 60s, said. He learned of her death via an early morning text message from a friend on the West Coast.

"She was one of my dearest friends. We really stayed close, close, close. She was so full of life, so joyful. My heart's really broken."

No cause of death was immediately revealed for Wilson, 76, who was at home in Las Vegas at the time. It came only two days after she released a message via YouTube that she was planning to release some new music, including the unreleased solo album "Red Hot," via the Universal Music Group -- hopefully before her birthday on March 6.

Born in Greenville, Miss., Wilson came to Detroit when she was young to live with an uncle and aunt before her mother and siblings joined her. Living in the Brewster-Douglas Housing Projects she helped for the Primettes -- a sister group to the Primes, which became the Temptations -- during 1969. The group changed its name to the Supremes when it signed with Motown in 1961, scoring its first hit, "When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through Your Eyes," two years later.

The Supremes racked up a dozen No. 1 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, including five straight during 1964-65. The trio ranked No. 16 on Billboard's Top Hot 100 Artists of All Time and was the No. 1 female recording group. Wilson continued to lead the group after Diana Ross' departure in 1970, until Motown disbanded the act in 1977. Continuing on as a solo act, Wilson wrote a pair of memoirs as well as a book about her collection of the group's famous gowns -- which she would put on tour to museums and other cultural institutions.

She was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with the Supremes, and she received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 2019.

In a statement, Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. saluted Wilson as "a trailblazer, a diva...I was always proud of Mary. She was quite a star in her own right and over the years continued to work hard to boost the legacy of the Supremes."

Mark Bego, a Pontiac native who co-wrote two of Wilson's books -- "Dreamgirl: My Life as a Supreme" and "Surpeme Glamour" -- called her a "best friend" and spoke with Wilson as recently as Sunday, Feb. 7. "We talked and laughed and made plans for our next adventure together," said Bego, who met Wilson in 1975 when he interviewed her for Record World magazine and during 1983 served as road manager when she toured Japan and South Korea.

"Whenever we walked into a room together, all eyes were on Mary -- her beautiful figure, her captivating smile," said Bego, who was planning to co-host a TV cooking show with Wilson. "I am blessed to have had her in my life for so many years. I just lost my greatest friend."

Fakir concurred that Wilson "stayed beautiful all her life" and remembered her as "a real trouper" in the entertainment industry. The two became fast friends when the Four Tops signed to Motown in 1963. "We met the Supremes and they were beautiful, sweet kids," he recalled. "We took a liking to them right away, and Mary and I became instant friends -- and, of course, it grew into something a little more than that."

Though the engagement "didn't work out -- we were more engaged to our careers than anything else," Fakir and Wilson stayed close, and he remembered her consulting him over the years about projects and contracts. "She always pushed the name of the Supremes," he said. "It wasn't like she was trying to get away from it. She used to do whatever she could to enhance that name, which was exactly the right thing to do.

"She became quite a good singer, quite an entertainer," Fakir added. "We used to do some shows where she would open, and she would knock 'em out. She could sing those hits -- she didn't sound like Diane (Ross) but she sang the hell out of them. She loved her audience."

Like Fakir, others in the Motown universe expressed shock and grief about Wilson's sudden passing. The Temptations' Otis Williams said via email that, "I loved Mary. We grew up together and remained close friends over the past 60 years. Mary was a true icon, richly talented, charismatic and deeply passionate. I am deeply saddened and will really miss her. The world has lost a true legend and I have lost a very dear friend."

Wilson is depicted in the Temptations' stage musical "Ain't Too Proud," and Williams acknowledged her support of the project. This year, meanwhile, marks the 50th anniversary of two of the three albums the Temptations and Supremes recorded together.

Fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Martha Reeves, who's been touring with Wilson as "Legendary Ladies" during the past decade, called her death "hard to bear." They both attended Detroit's Northeastern High School and studied with the same music teacher, later bonding as assigned roommates during the first Motor Town Revue show. Last month they exchanged letters, with Reeves proposing that they open future concerts with the gospel hymn "Mary Don't You Weep" to celebrate the ability to return to the stage.

"I know in my heart and in my spirit (Wilson) will rest in peace," Reeves said. "She left a beautiful legacy for us to cherish. Her spirit will never die."

Robin Terry, chairwoman and CEO of the Motown, said Tuesday that "admired (Wilson's) passion for Motown and her protective nature for the Supremes and the Supremes brand and really carrying that torch for the Supremes legacy." Wilson, she added, would visit the museum during her visits back to Detroit -- though a commitment to "Dancing With the Stars" in 2019 prevented her from attending the Motown 60 anniversary event.

One of Terry's fondest memories was chance to sit down with Wilson in her hotel room a few years ago. "We spent a couple of hours together, just the two of us, talking about everything from life to the legacy of the Supremes," Terry recalled. "It was truly in that conversation that...not only did I have tremendous respect for the artist that she was, but also for the passionate person that she was as well."

Shelly Berger, who managed the Supremes for Motown from 1966-70 and stayed close to Wilson afterwards, said his last communication from her was a text message on Jan. 19, the night before the presidential inauguration. "You said, 'You don't think Trump is gonna pull a David Ruffin and show up tomorrow, do ya?" -- referring to surprise appearances the former Temptations singer made on stage during the summer of 1968, after being fired from the group.

"She had a great sense of humor," said Berger, who also managed the Temptations and heard about her death from Otis Williams. "We've lost a lot of people, but this one strikes so, so close to home." Berger also recalled that Wilson was "the first person who made me eat chitlins. When I would go to Detroit, she'd always have me cover for dinner -- with great fear and trepidation.

"Her death) just came as such a shock. She was always a vibrant person, dressed to the nines and looked incredible. She never stopped being Mary of the Supremes from the 60s. She had that style and that panache, never lost it."

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