May 18 – Red Letter Day For Rock Reaper

On a day when the late Taylor Hawkins and the Foo Fighters are once again front and center in the news due to stories about his condition before death, it seems sadly appropriate to look at a couple of stars who went before him. This is a rather grim day for rock, with two beloved frontmen committing suicide on this day, years apart. In 1980, Joy Division’s Ian Curtis hanged himself just as his band was starting to earn widespread recognition and days before they departed on what should have been a North American tour that could have opened up that market. At home in Britain, they’d already had a gold album and top 10 indie single and were readying to release their second album, Closer, which with its single “Love Will Tear Us Apart” is considered one of the premier Goth rock releases. However, Curtis had long suffered from depression (which rang through clearly in his lyrics) and epilepsy which appeared to be getting progressively worse in the weeks leading upto his death. Many of the people around him at Factory Records and in the band’s inner circle said looking back, all the signs were there but they just didn’t see them until it was too late. The remaining trio of Joy Division soon added in Gillian Gilbert and formed the ultra-successful dance/new wave band New Order.

Fast forward 37 years to last year and Joy Division fan Chris Cornell followed suit, hanging himself in a Detroit hotel room only hours after leaving the Fox Theatre stage with his band Soundgarden. Cornell was 52 and left behind a wife and three kids.

Although Cornell had a history of depression and extreme drinking and drug abuse, it had seemed like he was on the right side of those problems, with Soundgarden back together and drawing great crowds and his life seemingly going fine.

Cornell was born and raised in Seattle and formed arguably the first grunge band, Soundgarden, back in 1984. Competent on piano, guitar and drums, Chris was the band’s original drummer but soon stepped out from behind the kit (not unlike another Seattle band drummer- Dave Grohl) to take center stage. Early on in their career Axl Rose called him the best rock singer in the world, a title Guitar World would also bestow upon him in later years. Soundgarden notched 6 mainstream rock #1 hits, peaking in 1994 with their Superunknown album that went 5X platinum at home and hit #1 there as well as in Australia. His stint in Audioslave in the early 2000s earned another 10 rock top 10 hits, including “Be Yourself” which hit #1 and like most of the Soundgarden hits (such as “Black Hole Sun” and “Blow Up The Outside World”) was written by him. Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament said of Cornell “Chris was the greatest songwriter ever to come out of Seattle. Jimi Hendrix could play the guitar like crazy, but Chris had the songwriting chops.”

Cornell’s widow had talked to him shortly before he was found dead and noted he was slurring his words and sounded odd. She blames his death on Ativan, a prescription drug for anxiety and insomnia that Cornell took. The drug is noted as increasing risk of suicidal behavior and was one of several legal drugs found in his system (worth noting that despite his history, there were no illicit drugs in him) but the coroner did not consider it a factor.

April 24 – A Sad Serving Of Ham

Canada’s April Wine once had a song called “Rock ‘n’ Roll Is A Vicious Game.” Indeed it seems that way at times and today we recall one of the worst examples of the bad side of rock taking over. Today we remember Pete Ham, who took his own life on this day in 1975. Only days short of his 28th birthday, he joined a growing list of Rock’s infamous “27 Club” – stars who died prematurely at that age.

The Welsh musician had been playing since 1961, primarily a guitarist although talented enough on keyboards and a pretty good singer to boot. His first band The Panthers became popular enough around Wales playing mainly cover songs; after a few personnel changes during the decade they became The Iveys and drew the attention of Ray Davies. He produced a demo for them, and around the same time, Peter Asher of the Beatles’ Apple Records also sat up and took notice. He personally spearheaded their career at Apple, talking to the Beatles about them and eventually getting them signed – the first act besides the Fab Four or their individual members to be on Apple.

Unfortunately for the band, they also drew the attention of Stan Polley, an American manager/agent who managed Lou Christie and Blood Sweat & Tears at the time. They got him to be their manager. Big mistake.

Their first album didn’t do much at all, and Apple decided that they needed a fresh approach. They got Paul McCartney to write them a tune, and to get them a new name. Thus was “born” Badfinger. the name a suggestion from Apple, either because of a stripper who was friends of the Beatles called Helga Fabdinger, or because John Lennon had an injured finger at one time and had to play the piano with one finger for “With a Little Help From My Friends” and he nicknamed that tune “Bad Finger Boogie.” Either way, the name took and so did McCartney’s song for them : “Come And Get It,” which he even played on.

With the backing of the Beatles and great melodies, one would expect Badfinger would have had it made. And they did alright for awhile, although never hitting the heights expected. They were more popular on our side of the Atlantic than their own, and they notched three top 10 singles in the U.S., four in Canada (the same three plus “Baby Blue”) and sold decent albeit not great numbers of their first four albums through 1972. Ham became their primary writer, and often lead singer, writing their hits “Day after Day” and “No Matter What,” as well as a tune of theirs which was initially overlooked until Nilsson heard it and took it to #1: “Without You.” He helped George Harrison on his epic All Things Must Pass album and appeared at his Concert for Bangladesh.

However, as good as the music, the business end of it was bad. Apple Records went under before long and worse, Polley wrote contracts that benefitted … Stan Polley. In an 11-month period of 1970-71, he paid Badfinger salaries (Ham got $5959, a few dollars less than his bandmates for some reason.) He himself took a commission of $76 000! As the ’70s passed, lawsuits were launched and eventually Polley took off, apparently with what was left of the band’s money.

It was all too much for Ham, whose wife was pregnant. He hanged himself at home, leaving a note saying “I will not be allowed to love and trust everybody. This is better,” adding a postscript saying “Stan Polley is a soulless bastard. I will take him with me.” He didn’t. Polley died at a robust 87 years of age in 2009.

Despite his sad circumstances, his music was great and his hometown of Swansea honored him with a commemorative plaque in 2013, calling Ham “Master of Melody.”

April 11 – Geils Drove His Namesake Band To The Winner’s Circle

Remembering a musician whose name is a household one, even if his music isn’t as much. John Geils Jr., or “J. Geils” died on this day in 2017 from natural causes at his home in Massachusetts. He was 71.

Geils is of course best known for the J. Geils Band, one of the States’ hardest-working rock bands of the ’70s who hit paydirt in the early-80s with the multi-million selling Freeze Frame and its #1 single, “Centerfold.” It pretty much put the icing on a sonic cake that included six gold or platinum albums and 10 top 40 singles at home between 1970 and ’84. By the time the band called it quits, it had become a radio-friendly pop rock outfit, quite different than its early roots as a bluesy rock’n’roll group more akin to early ZZ Top or Rolling Stones. We can hear the difference listening to their first hit single, “Lookin’ for a Love” In fact, when Geils started the group at college in 1967, it was called the J. Geils Blues Band. As the years went by, the group seemed to be more and more the work of the core duo of keyboardist Seth Justman and singer Peter Wolf, who wrote most of the original material. Geils however, was always an essential part of the band’s sound, being its only guitarist through the years, until he quit a re-formed version of them in 2012, suing the rest for what he felt was improper use of the band’s name.

After Peter Wolf’s initial departure from the band and its quick descent, commercially, Geils kept busy with other musical projects and cars. As a kid he was a fan of old jazz, blues and soul artists like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman and after the rock success of “Centerfold” he put out a number of jazz albums as “Jay Geils” with a jazz trio in the 1990s. He was also passionate about car racing, especially European versions and drove regularly in a number of races, fixing vintage sports cars in his own shop in his downtime.

April 1 – Much Of Adam’s Talent Was Hidden Under Fountains

Today we remember a “one hit wonder” who was well on his way to becoming a rare EGOT Winner – that’s Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony, an accomplishment only about 20 people, like Barbra Streisand and Cher, have ever pulled off. But perhaps Adam Schlesinger might have too had he lived longer – he was already halfway there and had nominations for all four categories. The guy from Fountains of Wayne died two years ago today, one of the first high-profile deaths from Covid.

Although most music fans only knew Schlesinger from the early-2000s alt rock group Fountains of Wayne, if they knew him at all, there was a lot more to his multi-faceted career than that. He was a producer, songwriter and a major player in creating music for movies and TV.

Adam grew up in a musical but fairly strict Jewish family near New York City. Although he learned to play a wide range of instruments, including guitar, piano and drums, he went to college and got a philosophy degree. Around that time he formed a band called Ivy, which didn’t achieve a great deal of recognition, then Fountains of Wayne. They took their name from a lawn ornament store they saw in New Jersey. That band started with just him and school friend Chris Collingwood, but after they put out a demo and got signed to Atlantic Records, they added Pixies drummer Brian Young and a second guitarist, Jody Ponder; Schlesinger typically played bass and keyboards and was the lead vocalist as well as producer and writer, sometimes sharing those jobs with Collingwood. Allmusic describe them as “one of America’s strongest power pop acts” putting out “British-influenced pop songs, lo-fi production and wry lyrics.” Be that as it may, their first two albums did next to nothing and Atlantic dropped them around the millennium. Their third album, 2003’s Welcome Interstate Managers, on the new and small S-Curve label would have likely met the same fate were it not for one song…and the fact that Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Rachel Hunter was, well let’s be honest, pretty good-looking. The song was the Cars-like  “Stacy’s Mom”, a fun ditty about a teenage lad being rather, umm, attracted to his buddy’s mother. Ms. Hunter got the role of Stacy’s mom in the video which helped the song take off. It hit #21 at home and was all over alt rock radio that year, and earned them both a gold single and a Grammy nomination in the pop category. Brits liked it even more, with it going platinum there and peaking at #11. The Fountains kept going for another decade but never had anything resembling that level of success again and broke up in 2013.

But Schlesinger’s never been one to do nothing, with or without a band. In the pop or rock field, he was friends with James Iha of Smashing Pumpkins (who helped out on Welcome Interstate Managers) and formed a short-lived band with him called Tinted Windows. An interesting lineup it had, those two plus former Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos and one of the Hanson brothers! He’s written songs for artists ranging from the Monkees in their reunion phase to Bowling For Soup, and Katy Perry covered one of his songs (“Hackensack”). In the studio, he produced records for the Monkees, Verve Pipe, Fastball and others. But his greatest success, and it would seem, career love, was making music for screens and stages.

Schlesinger got into movie work in the ’90s and carried on with that for most of the rest of his life, creating music for films including Shallow Hal, Because of Winn Dixie (he and Iha did one song themselves from that, “Splish Splash”), Ice Age and most significantly, the Tom Hanks movie That Thing That You Do. He wrote and produced the title track for that one, being nominated for an Academy Award as a result.

He wrote for the Stage as well, co-writing the music for the Broadway musical Cry Baby (which got him Tony nominations) and was in the middle of writing a musical adaptation of the old TV sitcom The Nanny when he passed away. His Broadway connections got him the opportunity to create music for the 65th and 66th Tony Awards, and ironically that won him an Emmy Awards for Outstanding Music both years. Besides those he did music for TV shows as varied as Sesame Street to Stephen King’s Kingdom Hospital. He eventually won a Grammy for doing the music and subsequent album for a Stephen Colbert TV special.

Schlesinger was divorced but left behind two daughters when he passed away at just 52 years of age, after spending a week on a ventilator only weeks after Covid first showed up in North America. There was an outpouring of love and grief upon his death, as much from the acting community as the music one. Hugh Grant called him “a bona fide genius and a lovely person,” while Fran Drescher noted how he’d been working on a stage adaptation of her old TV show and said she was “devastated. My prayers are for you.” Stephen Colbert remembered Adam as “a great and patient and talented artist with whom it was my good luck to work.” Meanwhile, Jon Bon Jovi noted “you’re never just a kid from somewhere when you’re a kid from New Jersey. The music world lost a good one.” As did the movie, theater and TV ones … and apparently the rest of it as well.

March 31 – Texas Legend’s Tragic End

A sad day in music and a cautionary tale for musicians. The “Queen of Tejano”, Selena (Quintanilla-Perez, but she just went by her first name) was shot and killed on this day in 1995 – by the president of her fan club (and manager of a clothing store Selena owned) in Texas!

Selena may not have been a household name outside of the Mexican-American community, but was well on her way to becoming one. At age 23 she’d already been dubbed the “Mexican Madonna” by the media – a bit of a misnomer as she was from the Lone Star State – and was the dominant artist in the formerly male-dominated Tejano field (a music genre incorporating bits of Mexican folk as well as rockabilly, country, pop and often, accordions); her ’94 Amor Prohibito , her fourth Spanish-language one, was only the second such record to sell 500 000 in the U.S. and she’d rung up four-straight #1 songs on the Billboard Latin Music chart.  By way of comparison, 50 000 is considered the gold standard for Spanish or Latin records in the States.

She’d just released her first album with English songs, Dreaming of You which drew comparisons to Janet Jackson and was making her known to the world at large, with the title track cracking the pop charts and overall top 30 singles.  on to sell almost three million copies at home, and even go gold in Canada. She’d launched her own clothing line, appeared in a Johnny Depp movie and married her guitarist when she found her fan club boss had been embezzling from her; when confronted, the woman killed Selena.

The story was told in the 1997 movie Selena starring Jennifer Lopez. Soon after her murder, then-Governor George Bush designated April 16 as “Selena Day” in Texas for her and how she “represented the essence of south Texas culture.” She is still much-adored in that state. Her image is a big seller on T-shirts and a grocery store chain has issued shopping bags with her name and picture that have sold for up to $100 on e-bay!

March 22 – Life Gave Few Free Rides To Dapper Dan

Today we remember an artist most think of as a One Hit Wonder, a minor footnote to the music of the ’80s. But turns out Dan Hartman was actually a three or four hit wonder, and had a whole lot going on in music that most didn’t realize. He passed away this day in 1994 at a young age of 43.

Hartman grew up near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and was described as a child prodigy on the piano. His parents sent him to take classical piano lessons, and by age 13, he’d joined his older brother’s band, The Legends, to play keyboards. Dan was at the time a big fan of Motown, but the band was more into the Beatles, which their music reflected, although as the ’60s rolled by they became a harder, more acid rock outfit…with odd outfits too. One of the members recalls “we went out of our way to New York and Philadelphia to try to find obscure-looking clothes…we’d just wear odds and ends and weird makeup…it all came from Dan Hartman.” They were locally successful, and opened for the James Gang at times, but Dan ended up leaving them in the early-’70s, and sending out all sorts of demo tapes. One got the attention of the president of Blue Sky Records, which happened to have both Texan Winter brothers, Edgar and Johnny on their roster. They got Dan to tour with Johnny, then join Edgar in his new band (the Edgar Winter Band.) By then, Dan was rather like Edgar, a multi-instrumental talent. On their first album, They Only Come Out At Night (which went double-platinum in the States) he was essentially the bassist, but he also played acoustic guitar, percussion and even ukelele on some tracks. And he wrote and sang “Free Ride” on it, a top 20 single in North America. He stayed with them for two more albums, continuing to write a good amount of their music and keep their level of flair high. Take his guitar suit for instance. We can’t properly do it justice to describe, so have a look at the rubber suit with a built-in bass guitar.

In ’76 he declared independence and went solo, putting out six solo albums by the end of the ’80s. His first, Images, was self-produced but saw him get help from some notables including Edgar Winter, Rick Derringer and E Street Band “Big Man” Clarence Clemons who plays sax on “Shake it Down.” It didn’t do much commercially though, in fact none of his albums were huge successes themselves. But his second one, Instant Replay, had a dance hit with its title track. It topped dance charts here and made the British top 10. He hit mainstream recognition in 1984 with the song “I Can Dream About You,” which was produced by Jimmy Iovine. Originally from the soundtrack to a dud movie, Streets of Fire, it scored Dan a major hit, going to #6 at home, and #3 in Australia. He seemed to have connections in Hollywood and worked on a number of soundtracks in that time period, most of them for movies that didn’t attract much attention. But the exception to that was Rocky IV, for which he co-wrote “Living In America”. The song was recorded by James Brown (with Hartman playing rhythm guitar and keyboards; Stevie Ray Vaughan did the lead guitar bits) and became Brown’s final hit song and a major chart hit worldwide.

Sadly, by then Hartman was probably already growing sick. He had HIV and refused to get treatment, presumably because he hadn’t come out as gay. He never did, even after his “friend” Holly Johnson of Frankie goes to Hollywood admitted his HIV status and got medical help. Johnson’s still alive today; Hartman passed away at his Connecticut home from AIDS-related tumors and complications.

Among those who felt the loss was Brit Tom Robinson, singer of “Glad to Be Gay.” He wrote the song “Connecticut” for Hartman, with poignant lyrics like “your heart was even wider than your smile” and “the driven urge to win, your privacy and your pain.”

March 18 – One Last Duckwalk

Remembering one of rock’s Founding Fathers. Chuck Berry passed away five years ago today at his St. Louis area home, at age 90. Bruce Springsteen soon after would say Berry was “rock’s greatest practitioner, guitarist and the greatest pure rock’n’roll writer who ever lived.” Although he had a fairly small number of hit records, few if any shaped the future sound of rock as much as Chuck did.

Berry was born in St. Louis, where he spent most of his life, and grew up listening to a mix of Gospel, blues and even country music, all of which would influence the sound he would go on to create. He began playing guitar with a blues group, Johnnie Johnson Trio, around 1950 and by 1955, his idol, Muddy Waters helped him get signed on to Chess Records. His first single, “Maybelline”, got to #5 that year when rock’n’roll was almost an unknown novelty, and as the Wall Street Journal‘s Matthew Osinsky said, “by 1958, Berry had already pioneered much of rock’n’roll’s instrumentation and rhythm.” Not to mention its style -decades before Michael Jackson’s “Moonwalk”, Berry came up with perhaps the original rock’n’roll move – his Duckwalk!

Songs like “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Rock & Roll Music” helped him become a popular and successful musician… and inspire the next generation or rock stars. Both the Beatles and Rolling Stones would jumpstart their young careers with covers of his songs, while the Beach Boys did so less directly – Chuck successfully sued them for plagiarizing his “Sweet Little Sixteen” on their “Surfin’ USA.”

Berry kept performing until weeks before his death, although his recording career stalled after his final (and strangely enough, biggest) top 10 hit, 1972’s “My Ding-a-ling.” But he was far from forgotten. President Carter had him perform at the White House and he was in the inaugural class of inductees in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, along with the likes of Elvis and Buddy Holly. Nine years after that, he’d play the first Rock & Roll Hall of Fame concert, with Bruce Springsteen and his E-Street Band being the backing musicians.

His memory shone upon his 2017 death, with the New York Times running a lengthy obituary declaring “with his indelible guitar licks, brash self-confidence and memorable songs (he) did as much as anyone to define rock’n’roll’s potential and attitude.” Mick Jagger said “I want to thank him for all the inspirational music he gave to us. He lit up our teenage years,” while Bob Seger noted “Chuck had tremendous influence on my work and could not have been a nicer guy.” Which seems like as good a way as any to be remembered. Long may you duckwalk across the rock’n’roll heaven stage, Chuck.

February 17 – Casale’s Band Had Devo-ted Fans

Remembering one of rock’s talented oddballs, Bob Casale, who passed away on this day in 2014. Talented? He could play guitar well, as well as keyboards and was an early adopter of computer programming and sampling in music. Oddball? Well, he was one of the founding members of Devo – enough said, right?

Casale was born and raised in northern Ohio and went to school to become a medical technician. One terrible event resulted in not only a classic rock song, but in what allmusic describes as “one of new wave’s most innovative bands.” That event was the shooting at Kent State in which Ohio guardsmen shot at (peacefully) protesting students. Neil Young quickly wrote the song “Ohio” about it and Bob’s brother Gerald, who was there (as was Chrissie Hynde) decided to double down on his idea for a band that he and Mark Mothersbaugh had been playing around with for a year or so. They called it Devo, which they considered short for “De-volution”, their assertion that mankind had probably evolved as far as it could and was now moving backwards. But rather than play music thusly, dour and depressing, they decided to take a light-hearted approach, making deliberately quirky music, often “jerky, robotic…atonal” (in the words of allmusic) to reflect their view of society with its “herd instinct” and fascination with technology above all else. To drive home their sense of humor about it all, they became equally famous for their attire, which more often than not consisted of yellow jumpsuits and upside down flower pots on their heads…which they refer to as “energy domes.” Bob typically played both rhythm guitars and keyboards.

With their unusual looks and sound, plus an early love of video (as in this 1975 one for their take on Johnny Rivers ’60s hit “Secret Agent Man”), it should come as no surprise they first caught on in Britain rather than at home. They signed with Stiff Records there around 1974 and got to a respectable #41 doing what few bands would dare to do – make a cover version of a Rolling Stones classic, “Satisfaction.” This unusual sound got David Bowie and Iggy Pop to advocate for them, and eventually signed by Warner Bros. Their 1978 album debut, Q: Are We Not Men? A: We Are Devo, became a cult hit on underground and college radio stations and went gold in the States and up to a riproaring #7 on New Zealand’s charts. That album was bested by ’80’s Freedom of Choice, which went platinum, briefly made them a significant touring band and landed them a platinum, top 20 hit at home with “Whip It.” In Canada, Australia and New Zealand they’d garner another top 20 the following year with “Working in a Coal Mine”, but their sound – some would say schtick – began to wear thin on most soon after that. They’d keep at it, mind you and record six more albums, but Bob began to spread his wings a little more and work in the studio and on film soundtracks. He was an engineer on a number of records including the solo album from Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh and the first post-Police one by Andy Summers and took part in a 1990 Devo spinoff, Visiting Kids. However, his real forte later in his career seemed doing film work, helped along by his move to L.A. He did score work and assisted in the production of a number of movies including Rushmore, Happy Gilmore and the Royal Tannenbaums, which Mothersbaugh did most of the composition of the score for.

He died at 61 after being taken to a hospital ER for coughing and stomach problems; he seemed to go into cardiac arrest shortly after. Bob was survived by a wife and two children…and his Devo family. They had been scheduled to go on a 40th Anniversary tour shortly after he passed away, so they did some of the tour with proceeds going towards his family. It’s said he was cremated, and buried in one of the band’s energy domes. A fitting end for an unusual musician.

February 12 – Grammy Winner Did Some ‘Moonlighting’ As Shrink, Writer

Remembering a talent who left us five years ago today – Al Jarreau. Jarreau was one of the great voices of the ’80s and ’90s, albeit one who was difficult to categorize. Proof of that is that he managed to win Grammys for best male vocals in three different categories: jazz, pop and R&B.

However, he says he considered himself to have a “jazz” mentality, often adlibbing and free-forming on stage. As he told the New York Times, “I try to be receptive and to be listening and to not be afraid to try something new.” The same paper in 1981 said of him, “(Jarreau) may be the most technically gifted singer working in jazz” then, although they also decried what they heard as a lack of real emotion in his music. Fittingly, four of his 17 studio albums (released between 1975 and 2014) topped jazz charts, but his 1981 Breaking Away, which hit #9 on Billboard was his biggest mainstream success. That album gave us the single “We’re In this Love Together”, his biggest hit although he may be remembered more for the theme from the TV show Moonlighting (which was a top 30 hit in 1987.)

Like so many other soul & R&B artists, he grew up in a religious household and got his singing beginning in a choir, in Al’s case in his dad’s Milwaukee church. Unlike most though, he started taking music seriously quite late- he was almost 30 by the time he moved to the Big Apple and focused on a music career – and that was after he’d earned a masters’ degree in psychology and worked as a counselor in California! The education showed through in other aspects of his life: in 2009 he worked with author Carmen Rubin on the children’s book Ashti Meets Birdman Al and he used that book to help promote youth literacy worldwide.

Jarreau died at 76, two weeks after being hospitalized for “exhaustion” and canceling the tour he was on.

February 8 – Mary, The Supreme Supreme?

Remembering one of Motown’s almost anonymous greats, Mary Wilson, who passed away one year ago today at age 76. Wilson was, more than anyone else really, the supreme member of The Supremes, even though fate and Berry Gordy have conspired to make that fact relatively unknown. She was the only permanent member of the most-successful “girl group” of all-time, after all.

Wilson was born in Greenville, Mississippi, but her family moved north, first to Chicago then Detroit when she was a small child. In Detroit, she met Florence Ballard at school, and Aretha Franklin in church. She and Ballard began singing at talent shows while still young teens, and by 1959 joined the girl group the Primettes. They quickly signed to a small label (Lupine Records) and had a couple of early singles out, including “Pretty Baby”, on which Mary sang lead. They weren’t particularly successful, but did catch the attention of Berry Gordy, who signed them to Motown, insisting they change their name…and utilize Diana Ross as the “face” and lead singer. So were born The Supremes.

Although they didn’t take off right away, by 1964 they were red-hot, running off five-straight #1 American singles, including “Baby Love” and “Stop! In The Name of Love”. They’d go on to put out a dozen #1 songs and 20 top tens, making them the 26th biggest recording act of all-time according to Billboard. If the Beatles personified British music of the ’60s, it could be said The Supremes did so for American music.

Although they were able to replace Florence Ballard fairly easily when she quit (or got fired) in 1967, replacing Ross after she left in ’70 was more daunting. A number of new voices came and went in the ’70s, but the time when the Supremes ruled supreme was clearly over. Wilson decided to quit the band in 1977; initially Scherrie Payne and Susaye Greene, two newcomers to the group, had planned to push on but they themselves hung up the mics days later. Wilson went on tour as “Mary Wilson of the Supremes.”

In 1979, she put out a solo album on Motown, which won middling reviews. Cashbox, for instance said she “fared well on this disco-oriented excursion.” It would post only lukewarm sales however, and she was let go by Motown – her employer of nearly 20 years. She focused more on musical theatre and writing in the ’80s, releasing an autobiography, Dreamgirl, My Life As A Supreme, in ’86. Curiously, it didn’t inspire the musical Dreamgirls, rather the latter inspired her book title. The play was already running and she was said to have been the inspiration for the Lorrell character in it. Her book was a best-seller, but also deepened the chasm between her and Ross who she described as rather a selfish diva. Still, they did put differences aside briefly to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame soon after that.

In the ’90s, she recorded a second album, Walk the Line (which included her remake of the Supremes song “You Keep Me Hanging On”) , but through absurd bad luck, the record label went bankrupt the day after her record came out, effectively stopping all promotion for, and distribution of, it. She wouldn’t record again until well into the 2000s; in 2015 she had a minor dance hit she put out herself, “Time to Move On”, and when it moved onto Billboard‘s Dance chart, she set a record for longest time between chart appearances – 36 years.

She was far from inactive though in those years. She became a popular motivational speaker, with a set of lectures known as “Dare to Dream”, about overcoming adversity, and did volumes of charitable work for organizations like Unicef, St. Jude’s Hospital and the Cancer Society. Also, disturbed by a number of the short-term members of the Supremes touring using the name “Supremes” she took several to court, arguing that she was given 50% rights to the name. Courts disagreed (saying “Supremes” was the property of Motown and they could let anybody they chose use it) getting her to advocate for the “Truth in Music” bill which would force bands to have at least one original member to continue using the name … ie, they’d be no “Rolling Stones” after Mick and Keith leave this mortal coil. Or “if”! So far, it hasn’t been approved nationally but a number of states have passed similar legislation.

Wilson passed away near Las Vegas from heart disease, only a year or so after being a contestant on Dancing with the Stars, at age 75. She said she was working on a new record days before her passing. Berry Gordy reacted, saying he was “shocked and saddened” by her passing and noting “she was quite a star in her own right.” Which she was, albeit one who might have shone a little brighter had he not been so singularly fixated on that other Supreme, the “Diva” , years earlier.