If I could change just one event in pop music history, it would be Mary Wells’ abrupt, acrimonious departure from Motown in 1964. The company was already basking in a level of success unheard of for a black-owned concern, musical or otherwise. In a business whose perceived capitals were New York, L.A. and (thanks to recent events) London, Motown was putting Detroit on the map as a major player. The firm was not just successfully riding musical and cultural trends but was - rather unexpectedly - guiding and growing them. And even in a roster that included future legends Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Four Tops and The Supremes, Mary Wells was firmly established as the company’s top star, the one whose singular success had helped usher Motown into the big leagues. Company head Berry Gordy had built the firm into a powerhouse presence in the niche R&B market. But dreamed of expanding that success into the white mainstream, making music that would captivate not just R&B fans, but the larger market as well. And the first Motown artist to repeatedly scale the upper reaches of the pop chart was Mary Wells, with a series of Top 10 singles in ’62 and ‘63. Neither she nor her songs were quite like anything America had heard before. But the public did hear the records, loved them and – most importantly - bought them in huge quantities. Then, near the beginning of ’64, came Mary’s single “My Guy”, a record that joyously retooled her sound in exciting new ways. The song was an immediate, world-shaking success. A rocket that promised to take Mary to the heights and beyond. But, as things panned out, Mary’s rocket ride turned very bumpy. She sued Motown for release from her contract, won the battle – and lost the war. Inundated with offers, Mary decamped to another label. But the mega-hit days were suddenly over. Record after record was released to steadily diminishing returns. Within a couple of years, she was a fringe figure in the music business. One who could only sit and watch as Motown (whom many observers felt would falter without its biggest star) went on to ever more resounding success on the world stage. Had Mary stayed with Motown, there’s no doubt she would have continued to be a major part of that success. Joining so many of her label-mates as mainstream music legends. She is a legend – but on a cult level. You either “get” Mary’s greatness or you don’t. I always think of the onscreen words at the beginning of “The Song of Bernadette” – “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.” Mary Wells fans are a fervent lot. But for the world at large, as far as the Motown story’s concerned, she’s not a keynote, just a footnote.
I was 14 when I first heard Mary Wells. The song was “Two Lovers”; I knew it was her third consecutive Top 10 single in the States. But our small-town Canadian radio station had never played the earlier ones so I’d not heard them. Yet somehow “Two Lovers” had broken the door down. Maybe the frenzied popularity of the Twist had suddenly made it easier for black artists to penetrate resistant white-bread markets. Not that “Two Lovers” was a twist record. Nor was it gospel shout or doo-wop. This was sombre, focused and intimate. Emanating from some strange acoustic chamber. The first seven seconds alone transport you somewhere. The thick stutter of drum beats, a single blast of horns, followed by what sounds like the kerplunk of something disappearing into a deep pool. Then a grave fanfare of harmonizing brass and tom-tom percussion, sounding for all the world like the establishing shot of an Apache village in an old Hollywood western. And yet it all works. Even before Mary starts to sing. When she does, the deal is sealed. The voice floats like sweet smoke rings, weaving into a beckoning blend with male background voices that seem to be performing under hypnosis (The Love-Tones, prominent on many of Mary’s early records). Spectral presences conjured up just for the occasion. Or acolytes, intimately attuned to the movements of their priestess. Some writers have attributed the record’s popularity to its then “daring” lyrics which at first suggest the singer’s seeing two men at once, before revealing its supposed kicker : the two lovers are just opposite sides of her boyfriend’s personality. Whatever. The record’s real magic comes not from its lyrics but from the stately ceremonial swirl of musical effects and the exquisite, trance-like vocals they embellish. For me, it was love at first sound. Love at first sight followed when I saw the “Two Lovers” LP. In those days (when you lived on an allowance) album purchases were few and far between. But I had to have this one! The cover mesmerized me, an alluring blend of yellow-based tones. Each side of the image featured a seated male silhouette (for me these were the Love-Tones). And in the center Mary herself – an apparition that not only lived up to that magic voice but intensified the spell. There she stood. Strikingly posed in front of a strange textured paper background, working a dramatic gold rush of a dress to the max. Honey mustard hair-do supplying a final wallop. In those days it never even occurred to me this might be a wig. It was just one more facet of Mary’s bird of paradise exotica. Every part of the picture was perfection - the sheer essence of Mary Wells’ music, captured in one extraordinary image. After all these years, it’s still my favourite album cover.
The Two Lovers LP monopolized my turntable for weeks. ”Operator “, “Was It Worth It” and – above all – the enticingly peculiar “Laughing Boy” became addictive favourites. I’d spotted Mary’s earlier album “The One Who Really Loves You” in a shop in our neighbouring town. And as far as I could see, it was the only copy in Northern Ontario. So I hiked over there one Saturday and bought it. And finally got to hear Mary’s first two top 10 hits, both featured on the LP. I still have that copy, made all the more endearing for Motown’s front cover error, misidentifying one of those hits , “You Beat Me to the Punch” as “I Beat You to the Punch”(later pressings corrected the mistake). At least they spelled Mary Wells’ name right. The Marvelettes weren’t so lucky on one of their early 60’s albums, which the company sent out credited to “The Marveletts.”
As has been widely reported, seventeen year old Detroit schoolgirl Mary Esther Wells was an aspiring songwriter who cornered local record producer Berry Gordy at a club. She was pitching ”Bye Bye Baby” a song she hoped he could persuade Jackie Wilson to record. When she sang it on the spot to Gordy, he offered her a recording contract and a chance to cut the tune herself. A happy semi-accident that led to one of Motown’s first pop chartings (#45 pop, #8 R&B). A follow-up “I Don’t Want to Take a Chance”, slightly less raucous, did well too (#33 pop, #9 R&B). The first two outings had been up-tempo. Motown slowed things down for the next one. In “Strange Love”, Mary stalks her way resolutely through a kind of embellished doo-wop landscape. It’s a record that still has its proponents. But there weren’t many takers in ‘61. And it was the first Mary Wells single that failed to chart.
If I’d heard these first few Wells records when they were new, I wouldn’t have liked them much. Especially the first two. “Bye Bye Baby” ’s grating, a tuneless hullabaloo that Mary oversells with hoarse, unpleasant shoutiness. “I Don’t Want to Take a Chance” doesn’t offer much either. Zero originality, nothing that could be called a melody and Mary contributing some energetic but anonymous yelling. “Strange Love” ’s an improvement; at least it doesn’t sound like a hundred other records. And Mary seems to mean every word of it. Still, the record’s commercial failure prompted Gordy to try a new approach with Wells. And what happened next was a game-changer, finally producing the captivating sound that was to make Mary Wells Motown’s first superstar.
William “Smokey” Robinson was already something of a boy wonder at Motown. His group, The Miracles, had had some significant chartings (“Shop Around” hit #2 pop in 1960). And the group’s “I’ll Try Something New” (1961) remains one of the most exquisite of all Motown productions. He produced all of the group’s records and wrote most of them. Robinson was creative, ambitious and eager to produce music for other Motown acts. So Gordy decided to let him take a crack at getting Mary Wells back on the charts. When they started to work together, Smokey, astute and intuitive –with a gift for detecting and nurturing an artist’s special qualities - discovered things in Mary that her previous recordings had barely hinted at. A vulnerable, sensitive, engagingly mysterious personality and a higher softer singing voice than she’d ever revealed. Producer and artist were remarkably simpatico. Some observers feel Smokey found his female alter ego in Mary, grooming and guiding her to become his virtual second voice. To what degree that’s true is hard to pinpoint. But certainly the generic R&B shouting of “Bye Bye Baby” gave way to something decidedly more intimate – a special mix of reserve and conviction that added up to a different kind of soul , one that was to define the new Mary Wells. Smokey’d been experimenting with some Caribbean style rhythms and decided to go that route for Mary’s next single. What emerged was “The One Who Really Loves You” - and it set the template for Mary’s immediately subsequent string of triumphs. The record grabs you immediately with its echoey bathroom acoustics. (I could almost swear piano, horns, guitars and percussion are augmented by some deftly manipulated plungers). The Love-Tones are on board – their vocals delivered with a taut ebb and flow, like the satisfying spring of an elastic band. Listen to their alternating pronunciations of “put you down” and “put you dow-wun”. Irresistible! And they turn out to be the perfect complements, benignly bobbing and weaving behind and around Wells’ lead vocal. As for Mary, she’s a new woman; delivering the lyrics (warning a straying lover to mend his ways) with an I-may- sound-laid-back-but-I-mean-business approach, all the while getting comfortable with the new voice she’d explore and perfect over the next couple of years. “The One Who Really Loves You” was an instant smash( #8 pop, #2 R&B), immediately surpassing Mary’s earlier successes.
Various descriptions have been offered for the new sound cooked up by Robinson and company. Calypso and Cha-cha are the terms frequently cited. Perhaps Latin-esque might cover it. A kind of not quite decorous Afro-Cuban cocktail, shaken and stirred by teasing percussion. Not always fast, but inevitably sexy. Inspiring anything from languid undulation to provocative hip-swinging. “The One Who Really Loves You” is the record that first brought Mary the legion of Latino fans who helped make her early 60’s hits so successful. Many of them stayed loyal over the years, often turning out in droves when she appeared - long after her Motown heyday - in person. “I’ll Still Be Around”, an exuberant two minute trip to the tropics from “The One Who Really Loves You” album, was certainly calculated to please that part of her fan base - and could have easily been Mary’s follow-up single. But Smokey had something even better up his sleeve - “You Beat Me to the Punch”. Eventually reaching #9 pop and #1 R&B, it’s a perfect Motown record, certainly a career high point for Mary. It retains the bathroom acoustics, the Love-Tones (by now, Mary’s musical shadows), the ever-present percussion (with increased conga drum accents) and even more inventive syncopation. Bass reverberations deliver satisfying jolts to the solar plexus. Sudden drum flurries erupt like blows on a punching bag, punctuating but never interrupting the song’s progress. And –beyond that - this is the first Mary Wells record to create a kind of exotic ceremonial atmosphere. There’s nothing frivolous here. It’s stylized and serious. Stately, processional - but still funky. Simmering Latin fervor, sumptuous 60’s soul and some Asian mystery mixed with Muay Thai. And – somehow - moving elegantly through the contained delirium is Mary. Sounding wonderful.
Next came “Two Lovers”, the record that brought me onboard. It also gave Mary her biggest commercial bull’s eye so far (#7 pop, #1 R&B). With three top 10 pop hits in a row, Mary Wells was a proven chart champ. But, barely 20 years old, she’d quietly emerged as something beyond that –Motown’s prima donna. Reserved, mysterious and compelling. An enthralling centerpiece for the music industry’s most upwardly mobile company. People who loved the Mary Wells sound found plenty more of it to love in the next single, “Laughing Boy”. The regular elements –bathroom acoustics, Love-Tones, slow-burn percussion – were not only present, but heightened. A friend of mine dismisses what I hear as exotic keyboard chromatics as just an out-of-tune Snakepit piano, worked 24-7, that nobody from Gordy on down had the time or inclination to fix. Even if he’s right, I’m glad I hear what I hear. No Wells record before had boasted quite so rarefied (or polysemous) an atmosphere. Is it some tortured Pagliaccio marching to Calvary, staggering under the weight of a drum and mandolin crucifix? Or a full-on Balinese Gamelan ritual? The vocals float and hover like materializations at a seance. There are few Mary Wells records I can immerse myself in as fully as this one. But what, exactly, am I immersed in? That rhythm might be emanating from swaying temple incense holders or the slow-pounding beat of a slave-galley . Listening to the track, you get the feeling you’re spying on some sort of secret ceremony, the kind where getting caught could be fatal. It’s a dark, perfumed garden of a production. And it’s thrilling. Certainly, at this point, nothing short of actually turning into Rima the Bird Girl could have made Mary any more exotic.
Perhaps it was too rich a brew. Because this is the first record to hint that Mary’s current style had reached some sort of saturation point. It sailed up to #6 on the R&B chart but stalled at #15 pop. A substantial showing – but less impressive than its predecessors. Still, Gordy felt no need to break up the Mary/Smokey team. Next off the block came “Your Old Standby” a kind of bare essence amalgam of the previous four singles. The song continually returns to the same zen point -a single note plucked on a guitar. Propelled by a kind of thrusting melancholy, the record features one of Mary’s most gravely ethereal vocals. And the single’s B side offers more of the same. A song with as much chart potential as its mate, “What Love Has Joined Together” has, if anything, a more haunting melody than “Standby”. Certainly Mary’s contribution is a marvel of delicacy, translucent and shimmering. In the end, though, just the A-side charted (#8 R&B but only #40 pop).
Rising songwriting & production team Holland-Dozier-Holland had worked with Mary on, 1962’s “Old Love(Let’s Try It Again), a swirling Latin workout buried on the B-side of “You Beat Me to the Punch”. Now Berry Gordy assigned them the job of coming up with a change of pace single for Mary Wells. Gordy would choose an A-side from between their offering and whatever Smokey concocted for her. The HDH track was a flat-out departure for Mary. A big beat call and response rouser that sounds more like Vandellas or Velvelettes territory. Mary may have liked this sort of thing. But it’s not what she does best. In her wheelhouse, she’s unmatched. But belting out gospelly stompers, she’s just not that special. What’s more, the background production overpowers her. The recognizable Mary Wells doesn’t really show up. But, Gordy, feeling the need for a radical change, went for this as the A-side. I remember reading that Mary’s next single was going to be called “You Lost the Sweetest Boy” and thinking “Wow, what a great title!” – just made to fit perfectly into the Wells groove I knew and loved. What a disappointment when I finally heard it! It’s not a bad record, just a waste of Mary Wells. It simply didn’t need what she was best at. Smokey’s contribution had to settle for B Side status. But he too had aimed Mary in a new direction. The Mary Wells Smokey had helped mold was a kind of languid apparition , trailing ambience and allure. A Detroit Dietrich, Motown records style. There’d been some up-tempo B-sides but the end results had just been gently accelerated versions of the same Blonde Venus.
There was an inherent (and quite compelling) sadness about Mary. It’s certainly one of the reasons she always seemed like a woman in a field populated by teenage babysitters. Now Smokey thought he might try spotlighting a more effervescent (and hitherto little seen) part of her personality. Pumping a bit of sunshine into Mary’s image seemed like it might be the way to polish up - maybe even expand -her popularity. A little Tin Pan Alley inflected buoyancy . Up-tempo , but nothing frenzied . Something more along the lines of jaunty. What he came up with was “What’s Easy For Two is So Hard For One”. The melody’s no great shakes – but the record skips along nicely. The title doesn’t sound all that optimistic but the song’s actually something of a musical come-hither. Cheerfully seductive - with a looking-on-the-bright-side feel to it not typically associated with Mary’s previous hits. And its rhythms and instrumentation owe more to the sweet big band style of the 40’s than to R&B or soul -though some infectiously syncopated hand-claps conjure up a pleasant 60’s girl-group feel as well. The Love-Tones are gone, replaced by the Andantes, Motown’s superb all-purpose female backup group. And they provide a swinging, saucy counterpoint to Mary’s newly playful approach. I was disappointed when I bought the 45 of “You Lost the Sweetest Boy”, but pleasantly surprised when I flipped it over. Definite intimations of a shiny new Mary. “You Lost the Sweetest Boy” performed well enough (#22 pop, #10 R&B) but DeeJays started turning the record over. And the lightly sunny B-side began getting a lot of airplay. It eventually surpassed “Sweetest Boy” on the R&B charts(#8) and though #29’s as far as it got pop-wise, it stayed on the Hot 100 longer, seeming in the end to have won (if narrowly) the battle of the A and B sides.
By this time, my own infatuation with pop music in general and Mary Wells in particular was in full bloom. Even on school nights, I used to lie in bed in the dark, snow collecting outside, trying to finesse my transistor radio into a position where it would pick up an American station. Grabbing snatches of all kinds of wonderful sounds. But most of all, conducting my own Operation Seti ... waiting, waiting to hear the next Mary Wells single. Then one night, some U.S. station faded in just as a record began. Even before the vocalist made her appearance, I knew I was listening to one of the sweetest sounds I’d ever heard. Then it came “Nothing you could say can tear me away from My Guy”. By the time Mary coaxed that purring Persian kitten out of a bag at the end (“There’s not a man today who could take me away from guy”), I knew I’d been to heaven. The Mary Wells I loved had – unbelievably – morphed into something newer and greater, transcending what I’d already accepted as sublime. Everything Smokey had hinted at in “What’s Easy for Two”, gloriously refined into one perfect record. And that’s an opinion I’ve never changed.
The whole thing’s outrageously melodious. A loving marriage of everything good about Tin Pan Alley and 60’s girl group pop. Yes, it’s derivative – and we’re not just talking about the vague assimilation of a Tin Pan Alley aesthetic or the overall pow-effect of a can’t-get-it-out–of-your-head show tune hook. No, the instrumental intro ( apparently a spur of the moment inspiration from the Funk Brothers that everybody liked enough to leave in) is a deliberate quote from Earl Heywood’s tasty “Canadian Sunset”. Even the opening (and frequently repeated) vocal section is a pretty frank lift from Johnnie Ray’s “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”. You could pretty seamlessly transpose the lyrics from “Nothing you could say can tear me away from My Guy” to “Gee but it’s great after stayin’ out late – with My Guy”. But it doesn’t matter. The record transcends its sources, changing them up, adding several layers of shimmer, choosing some shrewd detours, then embarking on a whole new trip. Subsequent developments gave me plenty to bask in. The song quickly conquered the airwaves. People who’d never heard of Mary Wells were suddenly singing along with her. “My Guy” went from hit to superhit to phenomenon. Dislodging the Beatles from the #1 spot they’d been all but monopolizing. The world was Mary’s for the taking. The record bounced around the planet like a perfect skipping stone skimming the water. And countries all over capitulated to the strains of “My Guy”. International sales of the record went far beyond anything in Motown’s history. The next Holy Grail would have to be a new Mary Wells album. A hastily assembled Greatest Hits LP had included the single. But that was before anyone knew what a blockbuster the song was going to be. Clearly, a dedicated “My Guy” album was needed. A long-play to celebrate Mary’s new “Queen of Pop” status. Something to extend the joy of that magical track into an album-long experience.
I went on a trip to Minneapolis that summer. Whatever the ostensible reason was, I knew this was the week the Mary Wells “My Guy” album was to be released in the States. In those days we always had to wait for everything (certainly anything glamorous) to wend its way up to Canada. And I didn’t want to wait. I can still remember my anticipation level as I entered that Minneapolis department store. We’re talking Gollum within clutching distance of the Ring. Some of that titillating American money changed hands and the record was mine. Of course, I had nothing to play it on till I got back to Canada, so the agony/ecstasy was prolonged. But the album cover, which I had plenty of time to eyeball, was a home run – a sun-dappled super-close-up of Mary, enticingly enigmatic look on her face. Writer Gerri Hirshey described the image(with eloquent aptness) as “soul music’s Mona Lisa”.
I couldn’t play the album yet, but there was nothing stopping me from opening it and performing full forensics on the disc itself. Which, for openers, sported the first genuine, made-in-the-U.S.A. Motown label I’d ever seen, let alone touched. In Canada all of the company’s product shared the same bare-bones yellow Tamla label. But even that was an improvement on what we’d had before. If I’m not mistaken, early Canadian editions of Motown singles shambled sullenly into stores with washed-out beige labels, unconvincingly stamped with the word Quality (the name of the Canadian company that marketed Motown product in Canada). With all the visual snap and glamour of expired hardtack. Now here I was gazing at the honest-to-goodness company insignia, with Motown spelled out in multi-colored letters over a map of the Lake Erie area, the word “Detroit” popping out smartly from beside an exclamatory red star. And as if that weren’t enough, reading song titles like “He’s the One I Love” and “Whisper You Love Me, Boy” had me shivering with anticipation ,wondering how they’d fit into the giddily expanding “My Guy” universe. Plus Side Two was filled with standards. For someone who’d grown up on musicals, with a small but played-to- the-nub LP collection where show tune albums outnumbered the Everly Brothers 20 to 1, this was catnip. Could Mary sprinkle additional “My Guy” magic onto the already Great American Songbook? I finally made it home, raced to the turntable - and got my answers. They turned out to be good ones.
The album opens with the dreamy “He’s the One I Love” the perfect bridge between Mary’s old and new styles. Pace slow – but mood buoyantly optimistic. The sound is crystalline. And Mary inhabits the space fully, comfortably, victoriously. Listening to it’s like sinking into the world’s most inviting easy chair. And you can picture Mary’s smile as she thinks “Well, people, here’s what you’ve been waiting for”. The Andantes, at their most angelically accommodating on the track, stay that way for the whole album. “How? When My Heart Belongs to You” is fashioned squarely in the “Your Old Standby/What Love Has Joined Together” groove. Let’s just call it the C side of that single. I’d guess it was recorded around the same time. But these baubles pale next to a couple of potential follow-ups to “My Guy” that nail the essence of Mary’s carefree new style bang-on. “Whisper You Love Me, Boy” offers finger-pops, Andantes, jaunty pace, melody galore and Mary caressing the I-yearn-for-you lyrics with intoxicating expertise. The acoustic effect seemed to come from somewhere inside the Pearly Gates. Best of all, though, is “Does He Love Me”, topped in Mary’s “My Guy” era oeuvre only by “My Guy” itself. The guaranteed #1 should-have-been follow-up single! It lopes along a trail of laid-back horns and percussion, with Mary’s voice sailing delectably across the landscape. The background vocals (predominantly male) are sensational (The Four Tops? It sure sounds like the bunch that backed Martha Reeves on “My Baby Loves Me” and that’s supposed to be the Tops.) The brass parts shimmer and float. And Mary’s vocal just builds and builds, climaxing in a gently coaxing come-to mama coo – similar to the ending of “My Guy” and every bit as good. “I wanna know... I wanna know... gee Whiz does the boy care... yeah... does he really love me... I wanna know...” . And that ‘s only Side One!
Side Two is the standards section. Opening with “My Baby Just Cares For Me”, a song that dated back to the 30’s - but I’d encountered (and fallen in love with it) much later when Danny Thomas used it to serenade Marjorie Lord on “The Danny Thomas Show”. Other 60’s hit paraders had tackled standards before, either doing them straight (usually with fish-out-of-water results) or souping them up with rock & roll trappings. Some worked better than others. Most didn’t work at all. Whatever was in the air at Motown in early ’64, whatever was swirling around Mary, whatever was upping the ante and enhancing everybody’s relaxed confidence, the Motown gang found a new and perfectly lovely way to do it. The ideal meeting ground for the “My Guy” groove and the allure of Tin Pan Alley. Of course, they chose some great songs to work on. Including “At Last”, the 40’s gem that Etta James had recently gotten around to, “It Had To Be You” and (a fairly recent addition to the standards catalogue) Edith Piaf’s “If You Love Me, Really Love Me”. These tracks were produced, incidentally, by studio vet William “Mickey” Stevenson. What, he, Mary, the Andantes and the Funk Brothers achieved is top-drawer. The recognizable Snake Pit sound is there, but with evergreen ingredients baked into a batch of oven-fresh goodies. The arrangement on “If You Love Me, Really Me” is sublime , with Mary’s yearning vocals containing the single most beautiful piece of musical acting she ever did. The song’s given something of a bossa nova treatment, wafting along on a breeze of tender optimism. This is the Mary - and the Mary album - that I love most. Summer 1964 – and all was right with the world, at least musically. And - above all - Mary Wells had kicked off a golden age that promised to light up the musical landscape for years to come.
At least that’s what I thought was going to happen. That’s what should have happened. But insiders already knew what Joe Public didn’t. There was trouble in Paradise, at least in the Motown branch of it. The real Mary Wells was a complex young woman who’d come up from a rough background; the various professional faces of the singer covered up a complicated psyche, grappling with the pressures of success and high visibility. Being black in 60’s America was a challenge in itself. The problems of being a black cross-over celebrity in a significantly racist environment must have created some level of psychic overload. Mary formed some intense relationships at Motown, not just with father figure Gordy, but with mentor/alter ego Smokey (was she Mary or Smokey when she sang his songs?), with the other females at the label, all of whom probably adored or envied her, maybe both. Certainly powerful bonds must have emerged among some of the singers and musicians (Mary among them) who worked their way through those grueling, often humiliating, sometimes life-threatening tours in the Deep South. In the early 60’s Mary wed Motown jack-of-all-trades Herman Griffin, his low-on–the-Motown-totem-pole position somewhat shaken up by his marriage to the label’s reigning prima donna. The union ended in ’63 but he seems to have remained – at least for a while– a key adviser.
Now, Gordy was famous for running his company like a Detroit motor factory - 24-7 and full speed ahead. His employees were mostly young and ambitious, thrilled to be onboard at all and ready to buckle down and work their tails off. Doing whatever had to be done to grab a place in the parade. And there seems little doubt there was a genuine team spirit at Motown. A family feeling - and for some of these kids that had either been missing in their lives or had been such a crucial part of their experience that they craved something similar in the workplace. Hitsville offered a sense of spontanaiety and communal creativity - and in an organization that represented both stability and upward mobility. Company members seemed genuinely proud of Detroit. And - more and more – the town was returning the feeling. A David & Goliath dynamic pitched Motown against the music biz giants – and every success, big or small, seemed to represent genuine strides for black America. But it wasn’t a place to get rich – unless you were Berry Gordy. Now Gordy was music-mad himself, with talent of his own, charisma to burn plus a real ear for what the public might want –even before they knew they wanted it. But he was also a capital B Businessman . Without his drive and ability, there’d have been no Motown. And he and his close-knit family kept a sharp eye on the bottom line. ”The buck stops here” meant just that. Motown contracts (and the firm was hardly alone in this) contained a million ways to make sure the company (not the artists) got the lion’s share of the profits. If you were starting out, it seemed worth the gamble just to be onboard the Motown juggernaut. But, once you’d hit a conspicuous level of success (and Mary was the first to make it into the celebrity stratosphere), you couldn’t help feeling underappreciated – and certainly underpaid. The team ethic was something Gordy inculcated into his Motown family. It was good for morale and it was good for business. But Mary, urged on by Griffin, began to feel the deal at Motown was not good for her. Courted by the Beatles, extolled by the music press, selling records all over the globe, Mary felt she was missing out on her due. For her 21st birthday (May 1964) Gordy tossed her a party complete with a $5000 mink stole as a bonus. But what papa felt like giving was no longer enough. Days later, Mary shocked Gordy by suing for release from her contract on the grounds she’d been under-age when she signed it. Gordy was flabbergasted at what he saw as ingratitude and betrayal. Negotiations started and stalled several times as the months dragged on. Even within the press, back then not yet the paparazzi-fuelled entertainment rumor mill we know today, few details were reported. And fans like myself just wondered about the strange radio silence. Month after month dragged by with no follow-up single to “My Guy”. The new Golden Era seemed to be stuck in freeze-frame. When Mary finally won her suit, Gordy was shell-shocked – and Mary was, too. In spite of the $200,000 advance, 20th Century Records had given her, she had to know she was heading into uncharted waters. She’d virtually grown up at Motown. Everything she’d learn as a professional, she’d learned there. Almost everyone who’d worked with her, guided her, molded her was still there.
Mary’s first non-Motown album appeared almost a year after “My Guy” – a long time, in the rapidly moving music business, for fans to wait for a follow-up. Timing, as they say, is everything. And the frenzy that would have greeted an immediate sequel had dissipated (except among superfans) to the level of mere curiosity or even indifference. To complicate matters, 20th Century didn’t have Motown’s distribution know-how, nor much of a clue how to even market a black artist. For though she’d broken through the barriers, the R&B world was still her core market. And maybe there was some resentment that Mary had jumped ship from a black company to join a white one. Long story short, Mary’s 20th Century LP, called (after who knows how much high-paid brainstorming) ”Mary Wells”, was full of good tunes, most of them pretty close to the “My Guy” template. But the Funk Brothers sound wasn’t there. That unique acoustic was MIA. By the mid 60’s, the Motown sound had evolved, now propelled by Holland-Dozier-Holland’s powerhouse dance grooves. Mary’s part of the Motown sound, more intimate – and more intimately attuned to Hitsville’s early years - had been something else altogether. At the time her Motown sound had been the chief jewel in the Motorcity crown. But Mary was no longer there, no longer involved in or evolving with the company. The vocals on Mary’s new album were on the nose. And had the same songs been recorded at Motown, with her old gang around her, they’d have made for a perfectly good and undoubtedly successful continuation of her triumphant new phase. As it was, only one of the many singles spawned by the LP cracked the top 40(at #34). R&B chart placings were disappointing too. Within a year the bloom was well and truly off the rose. A move to Atco at least got her back on the R&B top 10 for one single (“Dear Lover”, a “My Guy” knock-off - but without the Motown magic). But pop chart glory was a thing of the past. By the end of the 60’s Mary was ensconced at low-end Jubilee records. No longer trying, it seemed, to recapture her “My Guy” sound, but unable to find anything else the public would accept as a substitute. “Dig the Way I Feel” from this period is probably the best of the lot. But it could only struggle to an unimpressive #35 on the R&B chart. Reprise released a couple of singles in the early 70’s. But the indifference that greeted them didn’t encourage the company to make a Mary Wells album.
Mary’s career was in pretty low gear for most of the eighties. That’s the decade when I finally got to see her in person – three times actually. Each time in Toronto, Canada. First at a little club in the trendy Yorkville area. The place was packed and Mary bloomed in an atmosphere of happy adoration. You know how it is when you see somebody famous in person. It’s like suddenly encountering a fictional character in the flesh. And seeing someone I adored as much as Mary was like coming face-to-face with a fairy-tale heroine. I haven’t really mentioned how much I always loved the way Mary looked. Gene Tierney overbite, beautifully expressive eyes –a melancholy aura that made you believe she really, really felt things. And that made her smiles – when they came –all the more radiant. Mary’s singing was all I could’ve hoped for. I guess the highlight for me was a live version of “These Arms”. It’s the last great song Mary recorded (1981). The result of an out-of-the-blue deal with prestigious Epic Records. “These Arms” was the opening cut on her Epic album (another fabulous cover photo, another Gollum purchase for me, though this one I picked up in New York rather than Minneapolis). The song was the long-awaited jolt of pure bliss her fans had been hoping for . It doesn’t sound precisely like a Motown ’64 production – but it fully captures the jubilant spirit of Mary’s palmiest days. Vintage lightning in a sparkling new bottle. And beautifully produced. If only the rest of the material on the album had been as good. But this was the disco era. And most of the LP was slanted in that direction. I didn’t even think it was good disco. Certainly the style didn’t do Mary any favours. Yet, it was one of those disco tracks that brought her back to the charts for the first time in years. (at least to the disco charts) “Gigolo”, it was called. And I’ve always resented it for taking the spotlight away from “These Arms”. Mary performed ”Arms” during her Yorkville gig, intro-ing it, with a rueful chuckle, as a hit that wasn’t.The performance blew the roof off the place. Most people there had never heard it – and were immediately wondering why. Just one more confirmation that radio dropped the ball on this one. The friend I was with had to leave right after the show. So I went with her. But as we passed Mary’s dressing room, jammed with well-wishers, I caught a glimpse of her and surprised even myself by calling out “I love you!”
Next time I saw her was at the Speakeasy, a second-floor venue that struggled into (and out of) existence in the late 80’s. It was centrally located, smack dab in the middle of the Yonge/ Dundas entertainment district. But in this case location, location, location clearly wasn’t enough. Underpublicized and probably underfunded, it was a glorified rabbit hutch, cramped and drab. I didn’t know that yet; but when Mary was announced as one of the first acts engaged, there was no way I was missing out. I arrived unfashionably early (of course), so there was no trouble getting a table. And I remember the place was chilly and stayed that way. Shortly after, the evening took on a surreal tone. There was apparently no artists’ entrance, but we didn’t know that. So it was a bit of a jolt when a ragtag little group came through the same door customers used (the club was perched on the second storey – above an arcade and a family restaurant, if I remember correctly) and then wended its way through the place. There was one woman in the group - weary-looking, slightly bedraggled - who I suddenly realized was Mary Wells. Like the rest of her group, she looked like someone who’d just emerged from a long, uncomfortable car trip. Unlike her compadres, she was carrying a baby (Mary’s delivery of a baby girl at age 42 had actually made the news a while back). But, though I knew about the baby, I didn’t really expect to see her at the club. Anybody in the audience that recognized Mary was too blindsided to say anything. The group navigated its way through the room to a background of stone silence. Their entrance was so devoid of fanfare, it could have been a band of plumbers arriving to fix a leak. I suppose it was better than coming in by fire escape. But not by much. They spotted a door at the back and disappeared through it. An hour or so later, we got our show. The performance was different from the Yorkville one. The place wasn’t especially full. And though Mary was in good voice – and her little band (including spouse, Curtis Womack) made sure things were tight and swinging behind her, I felt an undercurrent of “let’s get this over with and get some sleep”. And I don’t think it was all imagination on my part. After the first set, I got a chance to chat with one of Mary’s musicians. From information I’ve read since, I realize it must have been Will Porter, Mary’s musical director during much of this period. He turned out to be a sweetheart of a guy. I remember enthusing to him about an obscure Martha Reeves track called “No One There”, rattling on about what a great song it would have been – and still could be – for Mary. And I remember listening to him extolling, with equal fervour, the virtues of “He’s the One I Love” from the “My Guy” album and thinking “Ah, I’m right where I want to be.” Above all, it was clear that Will Porter liked Mary and cared about her. I figured if someone who knew her well felt that way, then my instincts about her were right all along. And it was good to think that no matter what downers life was pitching at her, she had a good guy like this in her corner. Between sets, Mary had slipped through that door at the back. I had some flowers and a gift, so I asked Curtis Womack when would be a good time to approach her – and he just pointed to the door and said, “Now’s fine.” So that’s how – in what passed for a dressing room at the Speakeasy - I shared a quiet moment alone with Mary Wells (well not quite alone. She had baby Sugar in her arms). I was too tongue-tied to do much more than mumble some compliments, which she accepted with a kind of hushed grace – weary but welcoming. My impressions of her? Vulnerable, warm in a guarded sort of way. With a prettiness that time had tempered but not really dimmed. Soft-spoken for sure, a little fragile, a little feisty. Certainly there was an aura, some of it probably projected via my own adulation. But some definitely coming from within this woman who’d been through triumphs and trials -and couldn’t have helped nursing a lot of what-ifs - but whose very special charisma remained intact.
The other Mary Wells performance I saw was at a much larger, more upscale venue – the cavernous Imperial Room at Toronto’s Royal York Hotel. Mary wouldn’t have been able to fill the place herself. But this was marketed as a Motown reunion event co-starring Mary and Martha Reeves. And together they attracted a pretty large crowd. I wasn’t seated anywhere near the stage, so the experience tended to be a little more remote than my other in-person brushes with Mary Wells. Unfortunately, by this time, the throat cancer that was to take her life within a few years, was already starting to ravage her voice. Too often, her vocals were hoarse or downright inaudible. It was obviously frustrating for her and the audience; I don’t think Mary had actually been diagnosed yet. Certainly the audience knew nothing about it. So nobody was cutting her much slack. And the fact that her general composure onstage was low-energy, giving off a kind of work-to-rule vibe – well, that didn’t do her any favours with customers either. Reaction at the end of her solo set was muted. What saved the show was Martha Reeves. No energy problems here. This is a woman who always gives 110% then delivers some more. She never stands still. Some nights her banshee wails would scare bats; but other nights every one of those wails hits a sweet spot, then gets belted out of the park. This was one of Martha’s great nights. She brought the place to its feet – and when Mary joined her for some onstage duetting, she seemed to catch some of the Reeves spirit. Just being beside Martha elevated her own energy and performance levels. Their ultra-warm onstage chemistry was something to see and - by the end - the audience was in love with both of them. I’d say Martha Reeves is somebody we’d all be lucky to have in our corner.
The post-Motown years, which – let’s face it – took in most of her life –never restored Mary to the heady level of success she’d once enjoyed. She still had fans that adored her, but those fans no longer included big label record execs clamouring to wine her and dine her, waving enormous cheques, contracts, offering her the world. Mary Wells was only 21 when she left Motown. At that age – and with the level of acclaim she’d already experienced – she had every right to picture a rosy future stretching ahead. That future didn’t materialize. Not that Mary was nothing without Motown: her voice remained unique and arresting. But after the 60’s, her material and/or production level were too often inferior. The Motown sound had buoyed her up, amplified her magic, brought out the best in her. But Motown lost out too. Mary Wells was undeniably, unmistakably special . Unduplicatable, really. Certainly the company was never able to find a workable substitute, though they tried hard with Brenda Holloway, Kim Weston, Patrice Holloway and Barbara McNair. All talented but all to no avail. None able to elevate the Mary Wells-ish material they were handed quite the way Mary had. Some of the mid-60’s work Smokey did with Wanda Rogers of the Marvelettes was reminiscent of the old Smokey/Mary teamings – and close to that level of accomplishment (Don’t Mess With Bill, Here I Am Baby). And one can easily imagine that Mary, had she stayed, would’ve been the one to sing these songs – not to mention all the other (sadly, unwritten) ones she would have inspired in Robinson and other Motown writers. And, yes, Diana Ross did emerge as a superstar. But she first became famous as part of a group. And always carried that group’s identity and history with her as part of her deal. And style-wise she and Mary were poles apart. I see no reason to think Mary Wells and an ascendant Diana Ross couldn’t have co-existed at Motown for a few years. With Holland-Dozier-Holland focused on The Supremes and Smokey continuing to guide Mary. They were both divas – but divas of a different stripe. Mary, laid back, Diana, full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes. At this point, Mary simply would’ve had nothing to prove. Sure, I think once Diana Ross got a taste of topline success, nothing was going to get in her way. And, no doubt – through sheer drive, energy, talent (there, I admitted it), management connections and plastic laminated glitz – Ross would’ve outlasted Mary on the label. Wells would likely have stuck around till, say ’68. By which time, she’d have had three or four more big post-“My Guy” albums plus a duet collection with Smokey and maybe a second Greatest Hits package. Not to mention the inevitable Christmas and nightclub conglomerations most of the other Motown headliners were corralled into doing in the late 60’s. In other words, she’d have built up a substantial Motown catalogue and assured her long-term legacy.
It was the company’s stunning avalanche of success in ’65, with The Tops, The Temptations and -above all - The Supremes blasting their way onto the pop charts and staying there, that really cushioned the blow of losing Mary for Motown. The feeling seemed to be, “Who needs her? We’re conquering the world without her.” But Motown would have been even better with her. She was already a bona fide pop goddess and no company can have too many of those. And - at 21(it’s still hard to believe!) – she had so much more to give. And her Motown colleagues (the ones that weren’t in the front office) had so much left to give her. There really was no one like her. Never would be. Brenda Holloway said not long ago that Mary Wells was “more than a vocalist” she was “an experience”. and “once you had it, you wanted more”. Somehow, that experience was bound up with the place that had nurtured Mary’s talent into full bloom. Mary’s period of stardom had been intense but also brief – basically the early 60’s. And totally bound up with the Motown sound. For most of the public, Mary without Motown presented an experience that was somehow diminished. For many, who joined the parade in ’65 with “Where Did Our Love Go” and the dizzying commercial and cultural blitzkrieg of late 60’s Motown, that was the Motown sound. For them, Mary was part of Motown pre-history. As the 70’s and 80’s wore on, records and record deals grew few and far between. Mostly, she made her living with endless gigs, getting there however she could, sometimes scoring decent money, sometimes settling for whatever was on offer. Life on the road can be grueling even when you’re a top-of-the-charts headliner. When you’re perceived as just another name on the oldies circuit, it can be brutal. After the glory years at Motown, it’s sometimes hard not to see the rest of her career as one long denouement. My sense is that Mary Wells moved through these years a little like deposed royalty. Not imperious, mind you, but with a sort of stately self-possession. Conscious of the passing of an old order, yet pragmatically adapting to the all-too-frequent bumps in her road. But – with fans – calmly accepting her due. Quietly complicit with them in the knowledge that her status was and always would be unshakeable.
The last year’s been a good one for Mary Wells fans. The first full-length biography finally appeared (“Mary Wells – The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar” by Peter Benjaminson). The author has a clear affection and respect for his subject. And has combined that with loads of topnotch research. The resulting book fills in so many of the blanks in what we’ve previously known about Mary’s life. The approach is honest – and that means some of the revelations are sad and disturbing. A lingering, frequently losing battle with substance abuse. Bouts of depression and erratic behaviour. A messy personal life, full of complicated relationships and frequent bad choices. But Benjaminson also reveals a woman who persevered, someone who valued family and loved her children (who loved her, too). A woman who ,whatever self-doubts she might have had, never seems to have stopped believing in the uniqueness of her own talent or lost sight of the fact that she’d been blessed with a gift. Life threw her as many brickbats as bouquets – more as the years went by - but she seems to have summoned up whatever she needed to soldier on. She spent a long time in denial about the illness that eventually robbed her of her voice. But, once she’d confronted it, behaved with grace and dignity. Expensive medical treatment exhausted her savings. But though her days at the top of the charts were long gone, friends, colleagues and admirers – people who‘d never lost their admiration for Motown’s real First Lady - rallied to her side with donations that helped make the final days a little easier for her and her loved ones.
There’s a TV One documentary series called “Unsung” which spotlights artists who never quite got the rewards their talents deserved. A while back, I was intrigued to discover they’d produced an episode on Mary Wells – and recently I managed to catch up with it. Mary’s own children helped in its making and many of her old colleagues are interviewed. Check it out, if you can find it, for a loving look back at what Mary meant to so many people. It’s this program that contains Brenda Holloway’s lovely quote about “the Mary Wells experience”.
Maybe the best of all recent developments came this year when that “experience” was revisited, revitalized and gloriously augmented with the release of a fantastic 2 CD set (From Hip-O Select) called “Mary Wells- Something New- Original Recordings 1961-1964”. It’s part of the company’s amazing Lost and Found series, which has already supplied astonishing volumes on a number of Motown artists. You’d think - after all these years of pop music archaeology, of Northern Soul detectives ferreting their way into the Motown vaults, of rarities compilations and CD bonus tracks – that those vaults must have been fully stripped of their concealed riches. But the intrepid guys at Hip-O Select seem to have found hidden chambers behind the hidden chambers. Because in the past several years, they’ve unearthed a motherlode of previously unheard treasures from Motown’s heyday. Unearthed them, remastered them and released them. In so many cases, it’s hard to understand why they were consigned to the catacombs in the first place. Even harder to figure out how they managed to remain hidden for four or five decades. But they’re out in the open now. And the Mary Wells collection is a barn-burner.
There are 47 tracks in the set, a full 25 of them appearing for the very first time. And the rest still qualify as rarities, having previously shown up only in blink- and- you’ll-miss- ‘em compilations. Or as isolated pearls used to lure completists into snapping up some stray Mary Wells anthology. The sound quality (and this is something of a Hip-O-Select hallmark) is superb. So there’s plenty to revel in here. Each period of her Motown tenure is represented –and it’s insanely gratifying to hear Mary Wells material (from half a century ago) that’s essentially brand new. There’s stuff from the early “Bye Bye Baby” period plus mouth-watering (and up to now unheard) collaborations with Smokey. She did a duet album with Marvin Gaye and here you’ve got seven tracks that were left off it. And what the (excellent) liner notes say about them is true. They’re all as good or better than anything that actually made it to the LP. In fact, I’d say “Oh Lover”s probably the very best thing they ever did together. Apparently she worked on a standards album that was scrapped. Who knew? The “Lost and Found” collection dishes up eight different tracks from the project. And if the arrangements aren’t quite as delicious as the ones on the “My Guy” album, well – hey – on several of the songs, she’s backed by the Four Tops. And how could that ever be a bad thing? Besides which we’ve got Mary and the Andantes on five “My Guy” album out-takes. Not to mention, “That’s Why I Love You (Like I Do) a bouncy one-minute-to-“My Guy” gem that I’d have been grooving to in ’63 if someone at Motown hadn’t decided this one was going to remain a deep, dark secret. And I haven’t even got to the three tracks I love best. “I Want You ‘Round” is a Mary/Smokey duet and it’s one track that actually did manage to poke its nose above ground once (on the 1993 CD “Mary Wells – Looking Back 1961 -1964) But it’s so good to hear it again! Really, it’s just a quick stab at a number they never got around to finishing. Yet in spite of that (and a comically off-key organ) , the song is pure bliss – with a vocal blend that’s to die for. If I were blowing out the candles on a birthday cake I couldn’t wish for anything better than to finally hear Mary Wells and Smokey Robinson singing together on record. Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston eventually released a version – professional accompaniment, perfectly commendable vocals. But it doesn’t come within a mile of this one. Two and a half minutes of off the cuff grooving that casually trumps mere perfection. It makes you yearn for the Mary & Smokey duet album they would have inevitably recorded had she stayed at Motown. “Prove It” is a 1963 item that (like “I Want You ‘Round”) first saw the light of day on the” Looking Back” compilation thirty years later. But Hip-O-Select’s remastering turns it into a smoother, richer experience. Warm caramel slowly melting on a soul sundae. The Love Tones are in super Dells mode, as producer/writer Robert Hamilton dresses up Mary’s sound with a dash of Barbara Lewis’ organ infused “Hello Stranger” groove. And in my book that’s a convergence of two Heavens. A hit that never happened. But how did it miss even album track status? The collection also includes an alternate take on one of Mary’s earliest singles, “Strange Love”. This version’s recorded in ’63 at the Graystone Ballroom, an old Detroit landmark (now demolished). At the time, Motown was throwing together a series of “Live On Stage” albums. Though these records make intriguing time capsules, the material on them generally gets tossed off at breakneck speed. Besides which, Motown tended to play fast and loose with the concept. In the case of “ Mary Wells Live On Stage”, her original B-sides “Old Love (Let’s Try It Again) and “Operator” are simply trotted out and dressed up with a lot of background hooting and hollering to pass them off as live performances. Needless to say, authenticity is compromised. But, in those days – let’s face it – nobody was checking. My 14 year old self may have silently cried foul beside my turntable but no one with any industry clout was going to take Motown to court over this. The Graystone “Strange Love”, intended for Mary’s edition in the series, was recorded in the ballroom with a full band but no real spectators present; canned audience effects were meant to be added later. That never happened. Somebody at Motown decided 23 minutes was quite long enough for the LP, thank you. So “Strange Love” didn’t make the cut. But it was worth waiting fifty years to hear. I don’t much like the original single. But this is a whole new animal. A mellow, bluesy big-band arrangement, sprawled out under a hovering vapor of horns and piano runs. Mary settles in – no fuss, no muss – and stakes her claim. Johnnie Ray cut a great big- band track in the 50’s called “To Know You is to Love You” (not the Spector song with the nearly identical title). It’s a rarity well worth tracking down. Mary’s “Strange Love” takes me to the same beautiful, late night place. Classy, confident, unhurried, compelling. Mary Wells never did anything quite like it again. Nelson Riddle on a slow hot griddle. Finding it on the “Lost and Found” collection was like discovering a new planet.
So there you are: The Benjaminson book, the “Unsung” documentary, the “Lost and Found” CD
collection.The past year or so’s been a good one for Mary Wells fans. But, for me, there was one more development. About a month ago, I stumbled onto an online site called “Motown Junkies”. It’s the brainchild of Cardiff-based music maven Steve Devereux. The man has set himself the task of reviewing every Motown single ever released (A and B sides). A massive challenge – but, boy, is he up to it! He’s got a lovely writing style, a spectacular knowledge of his subject and employs a magnificently welcoming approach throughout. As I say, I only twigged to the site recently – and he’s been at it since 2009. Using a chronological approach, he’s reached 1965. Which means the site’s already brimming with a wealth of fascinating material (including of course, essays on both sides of every 45 Mary Wells did for the company). For anyone who’s a serious Motown fan (or thinks they’re ready to become one) this is the place you want to be. It was reading Devereux’s marvelous insights and reflections that finally ignited a spark in me. I suddenly knew I wanted to convey something of what Mary Wells and her music meant to me. So, thanks, Mr. Devereux. And I’ll close with a quote from his review of “Whisper You Love Me, Boy” (actually ear-marked as a post-“My Guy” single, assigned a catalogue number and everything – then pulled when Mary vamoosed).
“It’s another super Motown record … and it shows that Mary was still at the peak of her powers right up until she walked out of Hitsville for the last time. We’ll never know what might have been had she clocked back in the next day.
As Motown’s mid -Sixties Golden Age continues here on Motown Junkies , as more and more of the best are invited to music’s top table, as the gold records stack up and the corks pop and the champagne flows, it’ll always be a jarring experience to glance at the empty seat forever reserved for Mary Wells.
Thanks for everything, Mary. We’ll miss you.”