Wells, Mary, the first artist to score a Top Ten and #1 hit for Motown Records; b. Detroit, Mich., May 13, 1943; d. Los Angeles, July 26,1992. Wells was born in a fatherless home; her mother was a domestic. By the time Mary turned 10, she had started performing at talent shows around the Detroit area. In her teens, she brought the song “Bye Bye Baby” to Berry Gordy, hoping to land it with Jackie Wilson. Gordy not only liked the song, he liked the singer. “Bye Bye Baby” became her first hit, rising to #8 R&B.
The teen had a great image for Motown, one that created the mold for the label’s female roster through the 1960s: she was shy but sexy, demure but with a big voice. She became the mouthpiece for some of Smokey Robinson’s best compositions, taking his tune “Two Lovers” to the top of the R&B charts and #7 pop, “You Beat Me to the Punch” to #1 R&B and #9 pop, and “The One Who Really Loves You” to #8 pop. Her biggest hit, “My Guy,” topped the charts in the summer of 1964, when she toured England with the Beatles. She was just 21 years old at the time.
She was wooed away from Motown and signed to 20th Century-Fox, who promised her not only to continue her music career but also to expand it into film. As it turned out, they couldn’t deliver either. Through the late 1960s and early 1970s, she continued to perform and record, but without Robinson’s material, it just didn’t work as well. Even her husband Cecil Womack couldn’t help, although the songs they recorded together had a very un-Motown funkiness. By the mid-1980s, she was pretty much relegated to the oldies circuit.
In the early 1990s, Wells, a heavy smoker, was diagnosed with cancer. Attempts to treat it left her destitute, unable even to pay the rent. The Rhythm and Blues Foundation came through with $50,000, and artists ranging from Diana Ross to Rod Stewart to Bruce Springsteen donated funds. She died of the illness in 1992.
Bye, Bye Baby, I Don’t Want to Take a Chance (1961); The One Who Really Loves You (1962); Two Lovers (1962); Live onStage (1963); Together (1964); My Guy (1964); Mary Wells Sings “My Guy” (1964); Mary Wells (1965); Love Songs of the Beatles (1965); Vintage Stock (1966); Ooh Movietone (1966); My Baby Just Cares for Me (1966); Two Sides Of...(1966); Servin’ Up Some Soul (1968); In and Out of Love (1981); Keeping My Mind on Love (1990); You Beat Me to the Punch (1995).