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Motown Records' first bona fide female star, Mary Wells enjoyed a string of Top 40 singles between 1962 and 1964, including her signature tune, the coy, soulful No. 1 hit "My Guy." Blessed with a unique singing voice that sounded equally demure and come-hither, Wells helped to usher Motown into the American mainstream during the early 1960s, but like many of its stars, failed to repeat her success once she left the label's aegis. A string of failed record deals and troubled marriages torpedoed her career, and by the early 1970s, she had left the business altogether. Wells mounted a brief comeback in the early 1980s, but found a receptive audience on the nostalgia circuit. As her life appeared to achieve a state of normalcy in the early 1990s, she was diagnosed with cancer, which depleted her health and fortune. A host of famous admirers revived her finances shortly before Wells died from the disease in 1992. Though she had never achieved lasting fame during her lifetime, her music - particularly "My Guy" - enjoyed enduring popularity for nearly half a century.Born Mary Esther Wells in Detroit, MI on May 13, 1943, she was raised by her mother in one of the city's poorer residential districts. She...
Motown Records' first bona fide female star, Mary Wells enjoyed a string of Top 40 singles between 1962 and 1964, including her signature tune, the coy, soulful No. 1 hit "My Guy." Blessed with a unique singing voice that sounded equally demure and come-hither, Wells helped to usher Motown into the American mainstream during the early 1960s, but like many of its stars, failed to repeat her success once she left the label's aegis. A string of failed record deals and troubled marriages torpedoed her career, and by the early 1970s, she had left the business altogether. Wells mounted a brief comeback in the early 1980s, but found a receptive audience on the nostalgia circuit. As her life appeared to achieve a state of normalcy in the early 1990s, she was diagnosed with cancer, which depleted her health and fortune. A host of famous admirers revived her finances shortly before Wells died from the disease in 1992. Though she had never achieved lasting fame during her lifetime, her music - particularly "My Guy" - enjoyed enduring popularity for nearly half a century.
Born Mary Esther Wells in Detroit, MI on May 13, 1943, she was raised by her mother in one of the city's poorer residential districts. She contracted spinal meningitis at the age of two and was bedridden for the next two years. Wells found comfort in singing, and after recovering from her illnesses, brought her newfound voice to her local church. She began singing in nightclubs while still in her teens. After graduating high school, Wells soon passed on her plans to become a scientist in favor of a career in music. In 1960, 17-year-old Wells approached Motown Records founder Berry Gordy at a Detroit club with a song she had penned for Jackie Wilson, for whom Gordy had written several hits. He insisted that she sing the number, called "Bye Bye Baby," for him on the spot, and to her surprise, asked her to record the song for his record label.
Released in 1960, "Bye Bye Baby" rose to No. 8 on the R&B charts and reached No. 45 on the pop charts a year later. Its follow-up, "I Don't Want to Take a Chance," rose to No. 33, making Wells the first female Motown artist to score a Top 40 pop hit. After signing a contract with Motown, the 18-year-old Wells was partnered with Smokey Robinson, who would write and produce the majority of her material between 1962 and 1964. The collaboration proved exceptionally fruitful: their first joint effort, 1962's "The One Who Really Loves You," shot to No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 8 on the pop singles list. A few months later, "You Beat Me to the Punch" became her first R&B chart-topper, and made her the first Motown artist to receive a Grammy nomination. "Two Lovers" (1962) minted her as the first female solo artist to achieve three consecutive Top 10 singles on the pop charts. By the end of the year, Wells was unquestionably one of Motown's biggest stars, and a major part of the label's early 1960s breakthrough into mainstream American radio.
Wells continued to mine Top 20 and Top 40 hits throughout 1963, including "You Lost the Sweetest Boy," an early songwriter effort by the legendary songwriting-producing trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland. But her most lasting hit would come a year later, when the Robinson-penned "My Guy" was released in early 1964. The lilting but gently seductive tune became her defining song, reaching No. 1 on the pop charts. It also broke into the Top 5 in the United Kingdom, making Wells an international star. No less of a pop culture juggernaut than the Beatles declared their admiration for Wells, which led to an opening slot for her on their tour through the U.K. in 1964.
However, the runaway success of "My Guy" also marked the end of Wells' tenure at Motown as well as the peak of her singing career. At the behest of her husband, singer Herman Griffin, whom she had married in 1960, Wells asked to be let go from her Motown contract in order to pursue what she believed to be a more lucrative deal at 20th Century Fox, which included the possibility of film roles. Gordy filed a lawsuit, which Wells eventually won due to the fact that she was a minor when she signed with Motown and unaware of the terms of the contract. Wells was officially released from the label in 1965, but the victory was short-lived as it would also begin her long, slow descent from the top of the music business.
Wells scored a Top 40 pop hit for Fox with the 1964 single "Use Your Head," but subsequent efforts failed to find an audience, including the 1965 album Love Songs to The Beatles. Rumors circulated throughout the industry that Gordy had used his considerable power with radio stations to effectively blacklist Wells from airplay, but the fact remained that Wells had failed to capitalize on her runaway success with her efforts for Fox. After a protracted legal battle, she left Fox for the Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco, which generated "Dear Lover," her final Top 10 R&B hit, in 1966. But relations with Atco soon soured. She bounced between imprints for the remainder of the 1960s, recording for Jubilee and later Reprise but finding little success with either outfit.
Her marriage to Griffin also came to an end, and she married Cecil Womack, brother of soul powerhouse Bobby Womack. Together, they co-wrote her 1968 song "The Doctor," which peaked at No. 65 on the Billboard singles chart. The union was troubled, due to alleged abuse by Womack, as well as Wells' affair with another of his brothers, Curtis Womack. Wells also suffered from chronic bouts of depression, and attempted suicide when word was leaked to the press about her affair with Curtis. In the years that followed, her fragile emotional state drove her to a number of addictions, including cocaine and heroin.
Wells briefly resurfaced in 1972 when a reissue of "My Guy" shot to No. 14 in the U.K. But by 1974, she had tired of the business and retired to raise her family, which by then included her son Cecil Jr., later a successful music producer under the moniker of Meech Wells. Her marriage to Cecil Womack ended in 1977, after which Wells mounted an impressive comeback through Epic Records with the single "Gigolo," which became a Top 5 hit on the disco charts in 1982. However, her subsequent album, In and Out of Love, which she had recorded in 1979, was a flop, due in part to lack of promotion by the label. She left Epic in 1983 and recorded for a string of smaller imprints while finding modest success on the touring circuit, where older Motown acts like herself were warmly embraced by baby-boomer audiences.
Wells appeared briefly on the landmark 1983 TV special "Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever" (NBC), on which she and former Vandellas singer Martha Reeves were granted 30 seconds apiece to reprise "My Guy" and "(Love is Like a) Heat Wave." The success of the broadcast boosted her profile, allowing her to continue to draw audiences as a touring performer. In 1989, she was among the first artists to receive a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. The following year, Wells inked a deal for an album with Motorcity Records, but found it difficult to sing. She discovered that she was suffering from laryngeal cancer due to a lifelong smoking habit, and began treatment that eventually took her remaining singing voice. It also devastated her finances, which forced her to sell her home.
Her plight was taken up by members of the Motown family, including Gordy, Diana Ross and the Temptations, as well as admirers like Bruce Springsteen, who supported her through donations. In 1991, Wells filed a lawsuit against Motown for unpaid royalties, which the company settled with a six-figure sum. Her victory was short-lived; she was hospitalized with pneumonia in the summer of 1992, and succumbed to cancer on July 26. Smokey Robinson delivered the eulogy at her funeral. In 1999, "My Guy" was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, while Wells herself was inducted posthumously into the Michigan Hall of Fame in 2006.
By Paul Gaita
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