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Original Member Of The Supremes, Mary Wilson, Dies At Age 76

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY WORLD IS EMPTY WITHOUT YOU")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) My world is empty without you, babe.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One of the Supreme voices who made this song, "My World," has died. Mary Wilson was a founding member of the Supremes, and she stayed with the group even after Diana Ross had left. NPR's Lauren Onkey, senior director of NPR Music, knew Mary Wilson and worked with her, and she is on the line with us now. Good morning, Lauren.

LAUREN ONKEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: You actually interviewed Mary Wilson, I understand, when you worked in the public education program at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Tell us about her.

ONKEY: I did. Back in 2015, I helped produce a tribute to Smokey Robinson. And she was a hearty participant. She was full of style and class and energy and really loved telling the story of Motown and helping the fans to understand what it meant and its significance. Just a delight to be around and a very generous person to her fans and to anybody she was around; she was just fun to be around.

MARTIN: She was born in Greenville, Miss. Her family moved north for opportunity. Tell us a little bit about her own story.

ONKEY: Yeah. As you said, she was born in Mississippi. And like many Black families in that time, there's a migration north and her family moved from Mississippi to St. Louis and then Chicago and finally landed in Detroit, where she had an aunt and uncle who she lived with for a number of years. And she grew up in the Brewster-Douglass projects in Detroit, which became the place where so many Motown artists came out of. So she landed in this kind of hotbed of musical creativity that was happening in Detroit with people like Berry Gordy, who established Motown, and his family and Smokey Robinson and of course, Diana Ross and Florence Ballard of the Supremes. So this tremendous creative hub in Detroit is where she landed and she helped to propel.

MARTIN: Yeah. Let's listen to more music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STOP! IN THE NAME OF LOVE")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Stop in the name of love before you break my heart.

MARTIN: I mean, this song, Lauren, this song - I mean, it came to epitomize Motown in so many ways. Can you tell us how that happened?

ONKEY: A huge smash in 1964, part of this incredible run that the Supremes went on. You know, they were the biggest Motown act of so many at that moment and crossed over from the R&B to the pop charts. But one of the really fun - like, who can't do the hand motions to that song, right?

MARTIN: (Laughter) Right.

ONKEY: Everybody tries to act them out, but you can't do them the way the Supremes did them. And what's really, I think, key to their story is their style and their fashion, their hair, their gowns. And they were schooled at Motown by the great Maxine Powell, who essentially ran somewhat of a charm school, to think about hand movements and Charlie Atkins, the dance instructor at Motown. And Diana Ross and Flo Ballard and Mary Wilson really got schooled on those and mastered them in a song like that.

MARTIN: And we know that Mary Wilson became the protector of the Supremes' legacy in her later life. Lauren Onkey, we so appreciate you, Lauren, from NPR Music. We've been remembering the life of Supreme Mary Wilson.

ONKEY: Thanks, Rachel.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COME SEE ABOUT ME")

THE SUPREMES: (Singing) Come on, boy, see about me. Come see about me. See about you baby. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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