Soul Serenade: Mary Wells, “My Guy”
It’s no secret that loving someone and being loved in return is the best experience we can have in our short time on the planet. One thing I’ve learned about myself, finally, is that knowing me is no day in the park. That’s why I’m incredibly grateful that after a lot of trial and error I’ve found someone who loves me, flaws and all. It’s great feeling to know that someone is there for you unconditionally. I hope it’s one that you are experiencing, or will experience one day.
One person who was sharing the love for sure was Mary Wells. All you have to do is listen to her 1964 smash “My Guy”. No, she didn’t write the song. That was Smokey Robinson, and who knows more about love than Smokey? But it’s Mary’s convincing delivery that puts the message of love and devotion across so well.
Like most of the Motown stars, Mary Wells grew up in Detroit. She fought off a bout of spinal meningitis and economic hardship and planned to have a career as a scientist. Right around that time news of the success of Detroit artists like Jackie Wilson and the Miracles was starting to spread, and based on the singing she had done in church choirs and local nightclubs Wells began to think that maybe she could make it in show business.
At first she thought she could get prominent artists to record the songs that she was writing. In 1960 she worked up the nerve to approach Berry Gordy, Jr. in the legendary Twenty Grand club. She knew that Gordy had worked with Jackie Wilson, and she wanted Wilson to record her song “Bye Bye Baby.” Gordy, however, had other ideas, and after insisting that she sing the song for him took her into United Sound Studios to record it.
Gordy signed Wells to Motown and released the single in 1960. It turned into a #8 R&B hit, and crossed over to the pop chart, reaching #45. The following year Wells became Motown’s first female artist to have a Top Forty pop hit when she scored with “I Don’t Want To Take A Chance.” Not only did Wells have that first hit by a female artist, she was really the first female solo artist to have a successful career for Motown. At some point she took on the title “First Lady of Motown” that had previously been held by Claudette Robinson of the Miracles.When her third single didn’t do as well, Gordy teamed her up with Robinson and the real hits started to come.
The first big hit that resulted from the Wells/Robinson collaboration was “The One Who Really Loves You,” which was a Top Ten hit on both the R&B and pop charts in 1962. That was followed by “You Beat Me To the Punch,” which garnered Wells her first #1 R&B single, and the Grammy nomination she got made her the first Motown artist to receive that recognition.
In 1962, “Two Lovers” became Wells’ third consecutive Top Ten single. Her singles weren’t the only thing that was happening either. Her album The One Who Really Loves You hit #8 on the pop chart in ’62. Mary Wells was a huge star, even headlining the legendary Motortown Revue shows of the time. And while her records were smooth and soulful, her stage presence was another story altogether, bringing a rougher, tougher, and more raw attitude to the material.
In 1963 there were four more Top 40 singles, “Laughing Boy,” “Your Old Standby,” “You Lost the Sweetest Boy,” and its B-side “What’s Easy For Two Is So Hard For One.” Of historical note is the fact that “You Lost the Sweetest Boy” was one of the first hit singles from the team of Holland-Dozier-Holland.
In 1964 “My Guy” became Wells’ trademark song. It was a #1 R&B hit, and made it to the top spot on the pop chart as well. The song it replaced at #1 was Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly.” “My Guy” was also one of the first Motown singles to become a hit in the UK. The Beatles said Wells was their favorite singer and invited her over to open their shows. It was another first for Wells, as she became the first Motown star to perform in the UK.To capitalize on the success Motown put Wells together with Marvin Gaye, and the resulting album, Together, was a #1 hit and spawned the hit singles “Once Upon A Time,” and “What’s the Matter With You Baby.”
Despite the massive success, Wells was not happy with Motown. She had signed her contract with Motown when she was just 17 years-old. She didn’t like the fact that Gordy was using the money that poured in from “My Guy” to promote the Supremes. Wells wanted out of her contract. A lawsuit ensued. She and Gordy went at it tooth and nail. Wells won the battle and left Motown in 1965, but based on what happened afterwards you’d have to say that no one won the war.
Wells signed with 20th Century Fox Records, but she was tired from the fight, and then bedridden with tuberculosis. Her first album for the label didn’t do well, with only one single “Ain’t In the Truth,” reaching the Top 40. There have been claims that Motown threatened radio stations that played her new music. Her career at 20th Century didn’t make it past 1965.
Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco was next, and it was there that Wells had her last Top Ten R&B hit with “Dear Lover.” But there was no follow up hit, and by 1968 Wells was recording for yet another label, Jubilee. There she had her last pop hit with “The Doctor.”
The ’70s weren’t a great time for Wells, although she managed a strong comeback when she signed with Epic Records and recorded the In and Out of Love album, which was recorded in 1979, but not released until 1981. The album included the disco hit “Gigolo,” which was popular in dance clubs. More label problems caused her to leave Epic in 1983.
In 1989 Wells got a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation, then in its first year. She was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice in the late ’80s, but to the eternal shame of that institution she has not yet been inducted.
The end came for Wells three years later when she was rushed to the hospital with pneumonia. She was only 49 years-old when she died, and her funeral service included a eulogy from Smokey Robinson.
Mary Wells was indeed a pioneer. She was a female artist who paved the way for the Motown stars who followed her. For a moment, she was one of the biggest stars in the world but unfortunately the success didn’t last. The music she left behind is unforgettable.