It’s oft the story that Mary Wells is the forgotten Queen of Motown. She is that, for sure, but there’s a lot to be said about her career that spanned nearly 30 years past her exit from the label as well. She’s sort of the mythological Lilith of Motown in that way. She made the choice to exit the Hitsville Garden of Eden, and forged her way through a remarkably unkind world.
The drive to do things *her* way stemmed from a rough and tumble childhood. She was born Mary Esther Wells May 13th, 1943. She contracted Spinal Meningitis when she was young, and struggled with partial blindness and paralysis. Nonetheless, singing brought comfort and attention to Wells, to the point by her teen years she had fast moved on from singing in church to nightclubs.
Like most Black Detroit teenagers of the 1950’s she wanted something better and brighter than what her mother suffered through as a domestic. Initially she wanted to focus on Science, but the ease that music came to her became her way out.
It’s oft forgotten that Mary intended to be a songwriter. Perhaps that Taurus business savvy already knew the real money was in writing for yourself and holding the publishing rights to your music (more on that later).
However when she approached Berry Gordy with “Bye Bye Baby” at the end of 1960, he insisted she’d demo the song herself. Impressed, he brought her into the studio through 22 takes that November, toughening up her recording persona to match the grittier side of R&B, to make Mary an in-house Etta James that Berry had direct control over. The clarion call of typical “get lost” R&B full of banshee-like howls on the fade garnered Wells a Top 10 R&B debut, and a conspicuous #45 pop audience peak at the beginning of 1961. Just as female orientated pop music started to cluster around team efforts like The Shirelles and Motown’s own Marvelettes, Wells proved there was still space of Solo Soul Sirens.
The eventual softening of her work started with the string laced “I Don’t Want To Take A Chance.” After the baroque bomb of “Strange Love” she was paired with the poet laureate of Motown himself, Smokey Robinson. From there she rarely looked back at her gritty germination and found herself in flowers of Woman-Lady Soul that portrayed her as the quite, perhaps more accurately as the urbane almost adult she was. Her blast of 3 Top Ten Pop (and 2 R&B Chart toppers) through 1962 should be looked back upon as part of the cadre of proto-feminist leanings for R&B female vocalists in the early 60’s.
She’s no fool on “The One Who Really Loves You,” “You Beat Me To The Punch” or “Two Lovers.” Alongside Gladys Horton’s assertions as the front woman of The Marvelettes, Motown’s early ladies weren’t really here for acquiescence in the way Shelly Fabares, Little Peggy March or even The Shirelles & Crystals were starting to be during ’62. By staking this vinyl territory, it gave safe space for more female singers to state their own self determination, on vinyl at least.
Granted, even Wells fell victim to patriarchal softening, as her lesser two early 1963 hits attest. Her focus went from knowing the game to coddling her catch with “Laughing Boy” and “Your Old Standby.” It is notable that the shift away from her self-assertive focus of the previous year came as a pop chart liability. As the year drug on she found her brightest spot in gossip-y shade throwing “You Lost The Sweetest Boy.” Because who doesn’t love being outrightly petty, and having 8 people (there’s The Supremes and Temptations behind her) goading the loser. Perhaps it’s my favorite Mary Wells at Motown moment. However, the charting B-side that warmed the transition between 1963 and 1964 points the direction towards her zenith.
She’s most remembered for “My Guy” but few remember that in the wake of the success of the record that finally held back some of the British Invasion empowered her to stick up for herself, with mixed results. Wells was Motown’s most consistent money maker since 1962. However, Wells didn’t see much of the pay-off. Don’t fuck with a Taurus (with an analytical Virgo Moon) and their money. It didn’t help that peers and partners told her of her worth as a performer, nor did advance offers from other labels, nor did the fact that she signed her contract alone without the supervision of an adult as a minor back in October of 1960 either.
May 11th, 1964, she finished her last recording for Motown; her chilling rendition of “When I’m Gone.” As heard when released 2 years later against the version Brenda Holloway released in 1965, it’s clear that the Wells version is a sparse, unfinished question. On May 13th her lawyers informed Motown she wanted out. What was Motown going to do when Mary was gone? Through the summer of ’64 into early ’65 Brenda, Kim Weston and Carolyn Crawford vied for “the next Mary Wells” status with various Smokey composed numbers.
Meanwhile all of that mythical accounting and settling with Mary meant a *lot* of the revenue generated by “My Guy” alone was able to fund other people, but notably The Supremes amazing rise, as the year closed out. But hey, when you’re the Queen of Soul, more or less, and have a Quarter Million advance from 20th Century Fox Records with the promise of acting roles, you might leave the Mom & Pop shop that might have been overworking you and not paying you quite right too.
There’s a lot of half century later quarterbacking on what went wrong with Mary’s career starting with 20th Century Fox. Some would say it’s the actual songs (sometimes I agree), some say Motown blacklisted her. I don’t agree there. Motown didn’t have the promotional might to promote their stars and cause that much ill blood between them and their former Queen. Berry Gordy took Mary’s departure super personally, but the ones that paid a heavy price were those who had been at Motown almost as far back as Mary but stayed through the Golden Era. Florence Ballard, Martha Reeves and Brenda Holloway faced most of Berry Gordy’s misdirected rage.
Although moments like “Use Your Head” and “Never Never Leave Me” sparkle, other singles like “Ain’t It The Truth” and “Me Without You” for Fox try to keep Mary in step with what Motown was doing, without the Funk Brothers, Andantes or strength of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s writing and production perfectionism. Wells wasn’t *of* the Golden Motown of 1965 in the first place, as her calypso meets jazz orientated soul that still blares from Lowriders today indicates.
That’s the biggest irony of a great bulk of her post-Motown work; it either tries to recreate the specific brand of Motown magic she was known for, or shoe-horn her into what Motown was doing at that point. The most epic disparity is shown on her debut for Atlantic, as both “Dear Lover” (sounding all of like “My Guy” part II) and “Can’t You See You’re Losing Me” (sounding like a parody of Kim Weston’s “Take Me In Your Arms”) found themselves on the Billboard charts. The single proved to be a swansong though, as the top side brought Mary her last Top 10 R&B hit.
The biggest heartbreak is despite her clout and celebrity, most large labels didn’t quite know what to do with her. She was offered the big time, in a fashion not dissimilar to Ray Charles. But Ray Charles was always afforded as a man more leeway to have control over his career to dictate his direction. Though Mary started as a singer-songwriter, the bulk of her Motown success was full of production she had little voice or control over. The movie roles never came. After all, we *are* talking about 1965 America. Although Wells was the Queen of Soul, even new Queens like The Supremes were hustled in and out of Television performances, rarely to interact on personal levels with their co-stars.
It seems the Atlantic years….although longer than the 20th Century stint by a few months, were the most challenging. With relief, Mary, with new husband Cecil Womack, took up pen and paper and production and headed to the small Jubilee Records. There’s a subtle brilliance to her debut for the label, something of a cure in “The Doctor.” It was the inhibited Wells healed on vinyl at least, self-assured in her talents in front of and behind the Microphone. The rub being Jubilee was a pretty small, not all that profitable label. There was the Catch-22 of having artistic freedom (with some indulgences) but having far fewer resources to promote your work. “The Doctor” climbed to #22 R&B, and gave Mary her last Hot 100 entry in 1968.
Demoralizing yes, and there’s also Mary’s turbulent personal life that sidetracked her through most of the 1970’s. It can probably be summed up by one of her releases of that period: Never Give A Man The World, ya’ know? Still the star, always the star though, when she started touring again at the turn of the decade, she caught the eye of CBS executive Larkin Arnold. The momentum was stalled, however. Although the majority of what would compromise In And Out Of Love was recorded (and would have sounded fresh) in 1979, the lead single “Gigolo” didn’t appear until the end of 1981.
There, in the homophobic early AIDS panic anti-Disco sweep of Morning In America, “Gigolo” found itself a huge hit within the limited reigns of Dance Clubs. The #69 R&B showing and total miss of the Pop charts proved a disappointment. The “Where Did Our Love Go” referencing “These Arms” (again confusing *her* Motown legacy with the Motown many knew) sank any hopes of a rebirth. Not proud, she fully embraced the Oldies nostalgia of the 80’s, and made a profitable run of touring, based on the glory of her 1962-64 years.
If only her years of cigarette smoking wouldn’t eventually catch up to her. And they did, epically, stealing her voice alongside a Cancer diagnosis in 1990. From there, she dedicated herself selflessly to Cancer research advocacy, using what remained of her voice to advocate, while, well, having absolutely no income coming in. The Queen of Motown died basically as broke as the world she tried to escape, supporting her family, trying to save herself and the collective from her own missteps.
So, in these hours of her biggest accomplishment, just existing, we remember the Royalty that is Mary Wells.