Mary Esther Wells (May 13, 1943 – July 26, 1992) was an American singer who helped to define the emerging sound of Motown in the early 1960s. Along with the Supremes, the Miracles, the Temptations, and the Four Tops, Wells was said to have been part of the charge in black music onto radio stations and record shelves of mainstream America, "bridging the color lines in music at the time."
With a string of hit singles composed mainly by Smokey Robinson, including "Two Lovers" (1962), the Grammy-nominated "You Beat Me to the Punch" (1962) and her signature hit, "My Guy" (1964), she became recognized as "The Queen of Motown" until her departure from the company in 1964, at the height of her popularity. She was one of Motown's first singing superstars.
Early life and initial recordings
Mary Esther Wells was born near Detroit's Wayne State University on May 13, 1943, to a mother who worked as a domestic, and an absentee father. One of three children, she contracted spinal meningitis at the age of two and struggled with partial blindness, deafness in one ear and temporary paralysis. During her early years, Wells lived in a poor residential Detroit district. By age 12, she was helping her mother with house cleaning work. She described the ordeal years later:
"Daywork they called it, and it was damn cold on hallway linoleum. Misery is Detroit linoleum in January—with a half-froze bucket of Spic-and-Span."—Mary Wells
Wells used singing as her comfort from her pain and by age 10 had graduated from church choirs to performing at local nightclubs in the Detroit area. Wells graduated from Detroit's Northwestern High School at the age of 17 and set her sights on becoming a scientist, but after hearing about the success of Detroit musicians such as Jackie Wilson and the Miracles, she decided to try her hand at music as a singer-songwriter.
In 1960, 17-year-old Wells approached Tamla Records founder Berry Gordy at Detroit's Twenty Grand club with a song she had intended for Jackie Wilson to record, since Wells knew of Gordy's collaboration with Wilson. However, a tired Gordy insisted Wells sing the song in front of him. Impressed, Gordy had Wells enter Detroit's United Sound Studios to record the single, titled "Bye Bye Baby". After a reported 22 takes, Gordy signed Wells to the Motown subsidiary of his expanding record label and released the song as a single in September 1960; it peaked at No 8 on the R&B chart in 1961, and later crossed over to the pop singles chart, where it peaked at number 45.
Wells' early Motown recordings reflected a rougher R&B sound than the smoother style of her biggest hits. Wells became the first Motown female artist to have a Top 40 pop single after the Mickey Stevenson-penned doo-wop song, "I Don't Want to Take a Chance", hit No. 33 in June,1961. In the fall of that year, Motown issued her first album and released a third single, the bluesy ballad "Strange Love". When that record bombed, Gordy set Wells up with the Miracles' lead singer Smokey Robinson. Though she was hailed as "the first lady of Motown", Wells was technically Motown's third female signed act: Claudette Rogers, of Motown's first star group the Miracles, has been referred to by Berry Gordy as "the first lady of Motown Records" due to her being signed as a member of the group, and in late 1959 Detroit blues-gospel singer Mable John had signed to the then-fledging label a year prior to Wells' arrival. Nevertheless, Wells' early hits as one of the label's few female solo acts did make her the label's first female star and its first fully successful solo artist.
Wells' teaming with Robinson led to a succession of hit singles over the following two years. Their first collaboration, 1962's "The One Who Really Loves You", was Wells' first smash hit, peaking at No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 8 on the Hot 100. The song featured a calypso-styled soul production that defined Wells' early hits. Motown released the similar-sounding "You Beat Me to the Punch" a few months later. The song became her first R&B No. 1 single and peaked at No. 9 on the pop chart. The success of "You Beat Me to the Punch" helped to make Wells the first Motown star to be nominated for a Grammy Award when the song received a nod in the Best Rhythm & Blues Recording category.
In late 1962, "Two Lovers" became Wells' third consecutive single to hit the Top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100, peaking at No. 7 and becoming her second No. 1 hit on the R&B charts. This helped to make Wells the first female solo artist to have three consecutive Top 10 singles on the pop chart. The track sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. Wells' second album, also titled The One Who Really Loves You, was released in 1962 and peaked at No. 8 on the pop albums chart, making the teenage singer a breakthrough star and giving her clout at Motown. Wells' success at the label was recognized when she became a headliner during the first string of Motortown Revue concerts, starting in the fall of 1962. The singer showcased a rawer stage presence that contrasted with her softer R&B recordings.
Wells' success continued in 1963 when she hit the Top 20 with the doo-wop ballad "Laughing Boy" and scored three additional Top 40 singles, "Your Old Standby", "You Lost the Sweetest Boy", and its B-side, "What's Easy for Two Is So Hard for One". "You Lost the Sweetest Boy" was one of the first hit singles composed by the successful Motown songwriting and producing trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland, though Robinson remained Wells' primary producer.
Also in 1963, Wells recorded a session of successful B-sides that arguably became as well known as her hits, including "Operator", "What Love Has Joined Together", "Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right" and "Old Love (Let's Try It Again)". Wells and Robinson also recorded a duet titled "I Want You 'Round", which would be re-recorded by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston.
In 1964, Wells recorded "My Guy". The Smokey Robinson song became her trademark single, reaching No. 1 on the Cashbox R&B chart for seven weeks and becoming the No. 1 R&B single of the year. The song successfully crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100, where it eventually replaced Louis Armstrong's "Hello, Dolly!" at No. 1, remaining there for two weeks. The song became Wells' second million-selling single.
To build on the song's success, Motown released a duet album recorded with fellow Motown singing star Marvin Gaye, Together. The album peaked at No. 1 on the R&B album chart and No. 42 on the pop album chart, and yielded the double-sided hits "Once Upon a Time" and "What's the Matter With You Baby".
"My Guy" was one of the first Motown songs to break on the other side of the Atlantic, eventually peaking at No. 5 on the UK chart and making Wells an international star. Around this time, the Beatles stated that Wells was their favorite American singer, and soon she was given an invitation to open for the group during their tour of the United Kingdom, thus making her the first Motown star to perform in the UK. Wells was only one of three female singers to open for the Beatles, the others being Brenda Holloway and Jackie DeShannon. Wells made friends with all four Beatles and later released a tribute album, Love Songs to the Beatles, in mid-decade.
Former Motown sales chief Barney Ales described Wells' landmark success in 1964:
"In 1964, Mary Wells was our big, big artist, I don't think there's any audience with an age of 30 through 50 that doesn't know the words to My Guy."— (1992)
Ironically during her most successful year, Wells was having problems with Motown over her original recording contract, which she had signed at the age of 17. She was also reportedly angry that the money made from "My Guy" was being used to promote the Supremes, who had found success with "Where Did Our Love Go". Though Gordy reportedly tried to renegotiate with Wells, the singer still asked to be freed from her contract with Motown.
A pending lawsuit kept Wells away from the studio for several months, as she and Gordy went back and forth over the contract details, Wells fighting to gain larger royalties from earnings she had made during her tenure with Motown. Finally, she invoked a clause that allowed her to leave the label, telling the court that her original contract was invalid since she had signed while still a minor. Wells won her lawsuit and was awarded a settlement, leaving Motown officially in early 1965, whereupon she accepted a lucrative ($200,000) contract with 20th Century Fox Records.
Part of the terms of the agreement of her release was that she could not receive any royalties from her past works with the label, including use of her likeness to promote herself.
A weary Wells worked on material for her new record label while dealing with other issues, including being bedridden for weeks suffering from tuberculosis. Wells' eponymous first 20th Century Fox release included the first single "Ain't It The Truth", its B-side "Stop Taking Me for Granted", the lone top 40 hit, "Use Your Head" and "Never, Never Leave Me". However, the album flopped, as did the Beatles tribute album she released not too long afterwards. Rumors have hinted Motown may have threatened to sue radio stations for playing Wells' post-Motown music during this time. After a stressful period in which Wells and the label battled over various issues after her records failed to chart successfully, the singer asked to be let go in 1965 and left with a small settlement.
In 1966, Wells signed with Atlantic Records' subsidiary Atco. Working with producer Carl Davis, she scored her final Top 10 R&B hit with "Dear Lover", which also became a modestly successful pop hit, peaking at No. 51. However, much like her tenure with 20th Century Fox, the singer struggled to come up with a follow-up hit, and in 1968 she left the label for Jubilee Records, where she scored her final pop hit, "The Doctor", a song she co-wrote with then-husband Cecil Womack, of the famed Womack family. (Meanwhile, she had attempted a film career, but only managed a bit part in 1967's "Catalina Caper".) In 1970, Wells left Jubilee for a short-lived deal with Warner Music subsidiary Reprise Records and released two Bobby Womack-produced singles. In 1972, Wells scored a UK hit with a re-issue of "My Guy", which was released on the Tamla-Motown label and climbed to No. 14. Though a re-issue, Wells promoted the single heavily and appeared on the British TV show Top of the Pops for the first time. Despite this mini-revival, she decided to retire from music in 1974 to raise her family.
In 1977, Wells divorced Cecil Womack and returned to performing. She was spotted by CBS Urban president Larkin Arnold in 1978 and offered a contract with the CBS subsidiary Epic Records, which released In and Out of Love in October 1981. The album, which had been recorded in 1979, yielded Wells' biggest hit in years, the funky disco single, "Gigolo".
The song became a smash at dance clubs across the country. A six-minute mix hit No. 13 on Billboard's Hot Dance/Club Singles chart and No. 2 on the Hot Disco Songs chart. A four-minute radio version released to R&B stations in January 1982 achieved a modest showing at No. 69. It turned out to be Wells' final chart single.
After the parent album failed to chart or produce successful follow-ups, the Motown-styled These Arms was released, but it flopped and was quickly withdrawn, and Wells' Epic contract fizzled. The album's failure may have been due to light promotion. She still had one more album in her CBS contract, and in 1982 released an album of cover songs, Easy Touch, which featured a more adult contemporary flavor.
Leaving CBS in 1983, she continued recording for smaller labels, gaining new success as a touring performer.
On the 21 April 1984 edition of American Top 40, Casey Kasem reported that Wells was attempting to establish a hot dog chain.
In 1989 Wells was celebrated with a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation during its inaugural year.
In 1990, Wells recorded an album for Ian Levine's Motorcity Records, but her voice began to fail, causing the singer to visit a local hospital. Doctors diagnosed Wells with laryngeal cancer. Treatments for the disease ravaged her voice, forcing her to quit her music career. Since she had no health insurance, her illness wiped out her finances, forcing her to sell her home. As she struggled to continue treatment, old Motown friends, including Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, members of the Temptations and Martha Reeves, made donations to support her, along with the help of admirers such as Dionne Warwick, Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin and Bonnie Raitt. That same year, a benefit concert was held by fellow fan and Detroit R&B singer Anita Baker. Wells was also given a tribute by friends such as Stevie Wonder and Little Richard on The Joan Rivers Show.
In 1991, Wells brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Motown for royalties she felt she had not received upon leaving Motown Records in 1964 and for loss of royalties for not promoting her songs as the company should have. Motown eventually settled the lawsuit by giving her a six-figure sum. That same year, she testified before the United States Congress to encourage government funding for cancer research:
"I'm here today to urge you to keep the faith. I can't cheer you on with all my voice, but I can encourage, and I pray to motivate you with all my heart and soul and whispers."—Mary Wells
In the summer of 1992, Wells' cancer returned and she was rushed to the Kenneth Norris Jr. Cancer Hospital in Los Angeles with pneumonia. With the effects of her unsuccessful treatments and a weakened immune system, Wells died on July 26, 1992, at the age of 49. After her funeral, which included a eulogy given by her old friend and former collaborator Smokey Robinson, Wells was laid to rest in Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
Wells married twice: first, in 1960, to Detroit singer Herman Griffin. The marriage of the teenage couple was troubled from the start due to their age and Griffin's unhealthy control of Wells. They divorced in 1963. Despite rumors, she never dated fellow Motown singer Marvin Gaye, who would go on to have successful duet partnerships with Kim Weston, Tammi Terrell and Diana Ross after Wells had left Motown. In 1966, Wells married singer-songwriter Cecil Womack, formerly of the Valentinos and the younger brother of musician Bobby Womack. The marriage lasted until 1977 and produced three children. Wells began an affair with another Womack brother, Curtis, during her marriage to Cecil. Her relationship with Curtis Womack was reportedly abusive. Wells was a notorious chain smoker and went through bouts of depression during her marriages. Prior to divorcing Cecil and while dating Curtis, she tried committing suicide after word had leaked of her relationship with Curtis. After the botched suicide attempt, Wells sought other methods of what she called "meditating", including using cocaine. Over time, she developed a heroin habit. Her drug habit ceased after she became pregnant with Curtis' child. After splitting from Curtis in 1990, Wells focused on raising her youngest daughter until her cancer appeared. Mary had four children: sons Cecil, Jr. and Harry, and daughters Stacy and Sugar.
Awards and accolades
Though Wells has been eligible for induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, being nominated twice in 1986 and 1987, she has yet to achieve it. She earned one Grammy Award nomination during her career, and in 1999 the Grammy committee inducted "My Guy" into the Grammy Hall of Fame, assuring the song's importance. Wells was given one of the first Pioneer Awards by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1989. A year later, the foundation raised more than $50,000 to help with her treatment after her illness had wiped out all of her finances.
See Mary Wells discography
Top 40 albums
- at the Internet Movie Database
- at Allmusic
- at Discogs
- at Find a Grave