Mary Wilson has seen it all: joy and heartbreak, love and loss, struggle and fame—and through it all, her faith has sustained her. It wasn’t something she had to go looking for; it was a given.
“Most Afro-Americans are brought up in the church,” she says. “So faith is something that’s kind of just in the air. It really is a huge part of me.”
As a teenager, Wilson joined the church choir, and it soon became clear that she had not just a dream but also talent. In the late-’50s, she and three neighbors from Detroit’s Brewster-Douglass housing project formed a “girl group” called the Primettes, and together they tried to make that dream come true.
In 1961, the girls—now a trio consisting of Wilson, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard—got their big break when they were signed to a fledgling local record company called Motown. There was one catch: They had to change their name. And the Supremes were born.
“We started out so young,” says Wilson, reflecting on the label’s milestone 50th anniversary. “Now, you can look back on your life and say, ‘What an achievement!'”
But it wasn’t always easy; for their first few years, they were known around Motown as the “No-Hit Supremes.” Then, in 1963, “Where Did Our Love Go” climbed to the top of the charts, and the rest of the decade saw 11 more number-one singles, including “Baby Love” and “Stop! In the Name of Love.”
Eventually Ross left to pursue a solo career, and the Supremes had a number of different lineups in the ’70s. Wilson was the only original member who remained with the group for its nearly two-decade history.
Through all the ups and downs, her faith was one constant. “It is always a part of my life,” says Wilson. “Faith gets me through my everyday.”
Never did she need it more than when tragedy struck her family. In 1994, Wilson was driving with her son Raphael early one morning when she nodded off at the wheel and crashed the car. Raphael died as a result of his injuries, and Wilson was left to pick up the pieces.
“Had I not had faith in my life, I would not have had a strong foundation to stand on,” she says. “Somehow I put one foot in front of the other. I don’t think you ever get over it, but you can’t dwell on it. To dwell on loss only brings you more loss.”
Wilson found a remarkable way to channel her sorrow: by going back to school.
“My mother always wanted one of her children to graduate from college,” explains Wilson. “She herself could neither read nor write. I became famous when I got out of high school, so I didn’t do that. But the thought always stayed in my mind. When I lost Ralphie, I said, ‘I’m going to do what would make my mom happy.’ And that was to go to college.”
Keeping up with schoolwork while touring—all at the age of 58—wasn’t easy.
“I was doing my homework in limousines, in hotel rooms, in dressing rooms, on airplanes,” she says. But it was all worth it when she earned her degree from NYU. “I made my mother’s dream come true.”
To this day, Wilson maintains a very full schedule. She has eight grandchildren as well as a great-grandchild. She tours the world as a cultural ambassador and spokeswoman for the Humpty Dumpty Institute, bringing attention to the dangers of landmines. She still performs. And she speaks to groups about her own experiences. Her message is simple: “Dare to dream.”
“Thoughts are very powerful,” she says. “If you can think it, you can achieve it. That means negative thoughts can stop you, as well. So dare to really change your life. Make your dreams come true.”