Early Motown Legend Mary Wells

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Noted author Peter Benjaminson has written a new book about Mary.

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Read more here

Mary Esther Wells
(1943-1992)

Motown diva Mary Wells was more than just one of Motown’s most sultriest vocalists, she was also the label’s first real star to emerge from the label. A star that dimmed prematurely after Wells left during the success of “My Guy”, the song now a signature staple for Wells and sixties music in general. However, she kept on with her career before illness stilled her beautiful voice.

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Born into humble beginnings in Detroit on May 13, 1943, Wells was one of three children born to a single mother who worked odds and ends to keep her struggling family fed. At the age of two, young Mary contracted spinal meningitis and struggled to overcome near blindness, deafness and near-paralysis, all of which she overcame as the illness failed to end her life. By the time she was in her teens, Mary was already performing in nightclubs and talent showcases when in 1960, she felt confident to reach Motown president Berry Gordy and presented him with a song she said she’d written for R&B legend Jackie Wilson. However upon hearing the song, Gordy figured Wells could release it. In late 1960, “Bye Bye Baby” was released and quickly shot Wells to local stardom becoming an R&B hit. After another hit (“I Don’t Want to Take a Chance”) and an uncharted third single, Wells teamed up with Miracles front man Smokey Robinson to create a mixture of pop-soul that would define Motown Records in the years to come.

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In 1962, the duo collaborated on the single, “The One Who Really Loves You”. The song shot to the top ten of the pop charts and quickly spawned two follow-ups, “You Beat Me to the Punch” (which was Motown’s first Grammy nomination in the best Rhythm & Blues Recording category) and the #1 hit “Two Lovers”, the latter single sending Wells to pop stardom. The 19-year-old Wells’ vocals, championed by Robinson, showcased a deep sense of serenity and sultriness that made her one of Motown’s first prominent figures. Throughout 1963, Wells’ fame grew due to touring as a headliner on the Motortown Revue performances and to recordings such as “Laughing Boy”, “What’s So Easy for Two Is So Hard for One” and “You Lost the Sweetest Boy”, the latter composed for Wells by the team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Wells also cut a live album and a series of duets with Marvin Gaye later issued as Together. That same year, an album that was to be released was shelved for unknown reasons but was later issued as the album, Vintage Stock.

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In 1964, Motown issued the blockbuster hit, “My Guy”, which rose up to number-one on the Billboard Hot 100 becoming just the third number-one hit by a Motown artist and the first number-one under the Motown subsidiary. The song also took charge in England where it peaked at number-five. Wells’ success had briefly eclipsed that of the Beatles, who would later hail Wells as “their favorite American female singer”. The same time “My Guy” became running to the top of the charts, Motown put out Wells’ and Marvin Gaye’s first duet album, Together. Featuring the double-sided hits “Once Upon a Time” and “What’s the Matter with You Baby”, the album peaked at the top fifty and became Marvin Gaye’s first charted album as wells as one of Wells’ last to chart this high – her highest-charted album was to come (Mary Wells Sings My Guy peaked at number six on the strength of “My Guy”). However, despite this incredible year of accomplishments, Wells was restless. She was tired of what she says of being mistreated and mismanaged with no royalties coming in for her. She argued to Motown president Berry Gordy over the direction of her career and felt, with her ex-husband Herman Griffin’s request, that she should leave the label that had built her into a star. Despite counter-suing lawsuits between Wells and Motown, the singer’s argument that she had signed with the label when she was underage gave judges the right to rule in favor of Wells leaving Motown. The label gave her a stiff settlement and agreed to let her go. At the age of 21, Wells left Motown and signed with 20th Century Fox. Just a few weeks later, “My Guy” hit #1.

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Later in 1964, Wells agreed on an offer to join the Beatles on a UK tour with Wells as its opening act further establishing their point of the singer being their favorite “American sweetheart”. Wells was a hit in England and to celebrate one of her biggest accomplishments, she recorded the tribute album, Love Songs to the Beatles, one of two albums Wells recorded for 20th Century Fox Records. The first album, 1965′s self-titled Mary Wells included the successive hit singles “Ain’t It the Truth” (#45 pop), “Stop Taking Me for Granted” (#88 pop), “Use Your Head” (#34 pop, #13 R&B) and “Never, Never Leave Me” (#54 pop, #15 R&B). Despite her singles’ success, Wells’ albums began to falter on the charts after her release from Motown. Despite offers to receive a movie contract in earnest of her ambitious new deal with her company, the film deal proved to be a bust. To make matters worse, in 1965, the 22-year-old singer failed ill to tuberculosis canceling a string of engagements and events only making things worse for her after leaving Motown. After recovering, Wells decided to leave 20th Century Fox eventually settling with Atco Records, a subsidiary of R&B powerhouse label Atlantic Records.

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In early 1966, Wells released the album, The Two Sides of Mary Wells, and released what became her final top ten R&B hit with “Dear Lover” (#6 R&B, #51 pop). However, despite that success, Wells struggled with other singles and her tenure with Atco was much less successful than her 20th Century Fox tenure. In 1967, Wells left Atco for Jubilee Records. That same year, the star married her second husband, musician Cecil Womack. It would be Womack, the brother of famed R&B star Bobby Womack, that convinced Wells to establish more control in her career and for the first time since she first auditioned for Berry Gordy, she was writing her own songs. One of them, “The Doctor”, would become a modest hit reaching #65 pop and #22 R&B in 1968. The parent album, Servin’ Up Some Soul, showed a grittier and earthier element in Wells’ music that hadn’t been there in a while since she teamed up with Smokey Robinson. However, like her other deals, her tenure with Jubilee was complicated and short-lived. By 1970, struggling with her declining career and becoming the mother of three, Wells abruptly retired from performing and left Jubilee Records.

Between 1971 and 1974, Wells would record some singles for Reprise Records, which included productions from Wells’ brother-in-law Bobby. Family matters would get complicated in 1977 when after divorcing Cecil after 10 years of marriage, she wounded up carrying Cecil and Bobby’s brother Curtis’ baby, her fourth. She also adopted three other children from late brother-in-law Harry Womack’s children giving her a total of seven children to raise. Dealing with struggles, Wells tried to keep it together. Smoking two packs a day of Menthol cigarettes and dealing with troubling affairs, Wells had had enough. In 1980, she separated from the Womack family completely and began raising her children as a single mother. That year, she finally convinced herself to end her retirement from performing. After signing a deal with CBS/Epic Records in 1981, she was convinced to make a comeback to the music scene that had drastically changed since Wells’ last studio album over thirteen years ago.

Recording songs by Greg Perry and the talented Mizell brothers Larry and Fonce, Wells recorded a mixture of funk jams and R&B ballads and titled it In and Out of Love. Released in the fall of 1981, the album yielded the dance-floor classic, “Gigolo”. With a feverish funk production, high-octane vocals by Wells (she even recorded two rap verses!), the song eventually hit #2 on Billboard’s disco chart. Its success eventually landed Wells on her first TV appearance in years performing on Soul Train in 1982. With the increasing rise of Motown nostalgia, Wells was convinced to return fully to performing and began recording two cover albums that would be released in 1982 and 1983, the latter album including four new tracks had a new-wave approach to them. In 1983, Wells reunited with Motown Records during the label’s 25th anniversary special. Recording several singles and one more album in 1990 for Motorcity Records, Wells kept up a frenetic performing schedule. However in 1990, the 47-year-old was stunned when during a routine check in the hospital, doctors discovered that she had cancer in the larynx. After immediately going into treatment, Wells’ finances, already a problem because of Wells’ declining success, was completely wiped out by her illness. Treatment on her cancer led to her voice being reduced to a whisper forcing her into a retirement 30 years after her career started in Motown. Wells, always the survivor, talked about her battle with cancer and opened up to the houses of Congress to find cure in cancer treatment. In 1990 and 1991, tributes were given out to Wells and money donations came from fans such as Bruce Springsteen and Natalie Cole to old friends such as Dionne Warwick and Diana Ross. However, by spring 1992, the cancer returned and she was diagnosed also with pneumonia. The 49-year-old struggled to survive in her hospital bed but relapsed into a coma.

On July 26, 1992, the strain of Wells’ cancer and a weakened immune system finally forced her heart to give out. And a voice that was one of the most beautiful to emerge out of the sixties was stilled forever. Mary Esther Wells died of pneumonia and cancer-related complications at the tender age of just forty-nine. Her death stunned the Motown family putting an end to an early era of the classic sounds of the label. Despite her difficulties after leaving Motown, Wells managed to handle everything with a smile. She never complained and always was humble even in success. For music listeners who love Motown and grew up in the sixties, Wells’ soothing voice fit the soundtrack of people’s lives and more than fifteen years later, they’re still proclaiming Wells to be “their girl”.

Mary with Marvin Gaye

Mary

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