Mary Wells

  • R&B, pop and soul singer born in 1943 from Detroit Michigan. Died in 1992 of cancer.
  • Wells grew up in a poor household, enduring spinal meningitis at the age of 2 and tuberculosis at 10. She sang in church choirs to ease the pain of her youth, and before she was a teenager, she was singing in Detroit area clubs. After high school, she decided to try a career as a vocalist, as several Detroit-based artists were having success. At 17, she approached Berry Gordon from Motown Records with a song that she had written, hoping that Jackie Wilson would record it. Gordon asked Wells to sing it, and then had her record it at the recording studio that he used in Detroit. After the 22nd take of Bye Bye Baby, he signed Wells to a recording contract.
  • Bye Bye Baby was released as a single in 1960 – it peaked at #8 on the R&B chart and at #45 on the Hot 100. The following year, her debut album was released. It included Bye Bye Baby as well as her second single, I Don’t Want To Take a Chance. That song broke into the Hot 100 top 40, and Wells was the first Motown female artist to have a top 40 hit.
  • Between 1962 and 1964, Wells released 6 more albums on the Motown label, including a live album, a Greatest Hits compilation, and a duo album with rising Motown star Marvin Gaye. Ten songs from these albums reached the top 10 of the R&B chart, including 3 that peaked at #1 – You Beat Me To the Punch, Two Lovers and her biggest hit and signature song, My Guy. All 3 of these songs were written and produced by Smokey Robinson. You Beat Me To the Punch was nominated for a Grammy award – the first Motown song ever to receive a Grammy nomination. Wells was the first female artist ever to have 3 consecutive singles reach the top 10 of the Hot 100 chart.
  • My Guy was one of the first Motown singles to be a hit in Europe, and The Beatles told the press that Wells was their favorite American singer. They invited her to open for them during their tour of the UK in 1964 – Wells was the first Motown star to perform in Europe, and one of only 3 women to open for the Beatles.
  • In 1964, Wells became angry that money that Motown received due to her work was used to promote other acts and not Wells. Gordy attempted to renegotiate her contract, but Wells insisted on leaving Motown. Finally, she left in early 1965 – as part of her settlement, she lost all future royalties from her Motown recordings, and she could not use her image to promote herself. She subsequently signed a contract with another label.
  • Two albums were released with the new label in 1965 – both flopped. A couple of minor hits managed to chart – Ain’t It the Truth reached #6 on the R&B chart, and Use Your Head reached #13 on the chart and #34 on the Hot 100. Her lack of success led to conflict with the label, and she was released from her contract before the end of the year.
  • She signed with her third label in 1965, releasing 1 album, with Dear Lover reaching #6 on the R&B chart. She couldn’t generate any other hits, and in 1968, she signed with her fourth label. Again, just 1 album was released, but the singles did not sell. By 1974, she retired from the music industry to focus on raising her children.
  • After divorcing her husband in 1977, Wells returned to recording and performing. She was offered a contract, and an album was released in 1981. Included on the album was a disco single – Gigolo became a hit in dance clubs, reaching #2 on the Disco chart. This motivated Wells to continue to perform until 1990, when she was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx.
  • Cancer treatments ruined her voice, so she could no longer perform. With no health insurance, she lost her savings to pay for her treatments. Her old Motown friends offered to help financially, and she won a lawsuit against Motown. In 1992, the cancer returned, and she died.
  • Wells’ rendition of My Guy was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. Her early days at Motown earned her the title “The Queen of Motown.” Alas, the business of the music industry ultimately led to her demise – that seems to be a common thread for so many artists over the years. Watch this video clip of her singing My Guy – such a happy sounding song!

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