For every superstar, there’s a progenitor with a story that goes mostly untold. So it goes with the legendary label Motown Records. The female artist most identified with the label, Diana Ross, is a certified icon. However, she wasn’t the first female star spawned from Berry Gordy’s stable of artists. That honor would go to Mary Wells, whose smash singles “Two Lovers” and “My Guy” predated the rise of Diana & the Supremes by a couple of years.
Wells was also the first artist to acrimoniously depart from the label-alleging financial mistreatment, she left shortly after “My Guy” became a #1 pop and R&B smash (Motown’s first #1 pop hit, as a matter of fact.) By leaving, she set a trend that would be followed by almost every big name on the roster at some point. A new book, Mary Wells; The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, documents Wells’ rise, as well as her dramatic and tragic fall.
The headstrong Wells came to Motown as a teenager. She also came into contact with Gordy not as a vocalist, but as a songwriter. Gordy heard commercial potential in Wells’ voice, and managed to persuade her to step in front of the mic and keep the songs she had written for artists like Jackie Wilson for herself. So began her meteoric rise to the top of the charts. Along with artists like Smokey Robinson (who composed many of her biggest hits,) Wells was instrumental in establishing Motown as “The Sound of Young America,” a label that broke cultural barriers and went on to rule the pop, as well as the soul charts.
Mary’s reign as Motown’s first diva was short, and despite latching on to a bunch of other labels (20th Century-Fox, Atco, and finally Epic,) she was never able to regain the success that she’d established in the early Sixties. The book, authored by Peter Benjaminson, doesn’t pinpoint exactly why the hits stopped, but he does suggest several factors ranging from lack of strong, commercial songs to a potential Motown blacklist (something that’s been alleged by many of the artists who have departed the label.)
An enjoyable read throughout, the book is most interesting when discussing Mary’s life through the Seventies and Eighties, when she toured constantly just to pay the bills. It delves deeply into her troubled relationship with the musical Womack clan. Initially marrying Cecil Womack (writer-producer and brother of Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Famer Bobby Womack,) she ultimately divorced him and entered into a long-term relationship with Bobby & Cecil’s brother, Curtis. She bore children to both brothers (and the Wells/Womack/Cooke family line has got to be seen in detail to be believed.) Wells also struggled through bouts of depression (including two suicide attempts) as well as long-standing addictions to nicotine and harder drugs, including heroin. She was unable to stop using drugs even after being diagnosed with cancer of the larynx, an illness that robbed her of her ability to sing and ultimately cost her her life.
This book uses interviews with Wells (conducted during the last years of her life) as well as quotes from both Womack brothers and Motown legends like Martha Reeves and Brenda Holloway to create an in-depth look at Wells, something that had only been done previously during an episode of the documentary series UnSung. While the trials and tribulations of soul music greats are almost expected at this point, it’s still great to get the story behind the story of some of these artists. Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar would be a worthwhile (if slightly belated) gift for the music fan in your life.