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Book Review: Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar by Peter Benjaminson

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With her classic song “My Guy,” Mary Wells (1943-1992) became Motown’s first superstar at the tender age of 21. Just one year later, she left the company for what looked to be greener pastures at Twentieth Century Fox Records. She later reflected that leaving Motown was the worst decision she ever made. For the general public, her Motown years–and “My Guy” in particular–is pretty much where the Mary Wells story ended, but there was much more to come. In his new book Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, author Peter Benjaminson details the incredible drama that was Mary Wells’ life, and it is a wild tale.

As Benjaminson notes in the Author’s Note that opens the book, a great deal of the source material came from four hours of recorded interviews done between 1990 and 1992. These were conducted by Steve Bergsman for a proposed biography which was never written. The interviews provided an invaluable resource for Benjaminson, who has augmented them with material from a variety of other sources for the book.

Wells grew up in Detroit, and her life was full of drama from the very beginning. There have been a number of conflicting accounts about who her biological father actually was. Arthur Wells is listed as her father on her birth certificate, but she always called him her step-father. She suffered two debilitating illnesses in her youth. Beginning at the age of three, she was bedridden for two years with spinal meningitis, and at ten she almost died of tuberculosis. Apparently her mother left Arthur early on, and Mary was shuttled between numerous relatives in her early years. Finding a stable father figure is a psychological trait that Benjaminson notes as being something she searched for her entire life.

By the age of 16 Wells was “pushing her way into groups that didn’t necessarily want her,” as Benjaminson puts it. She had decided on music as a career, and pursued this goal with everything she had.Wells signed with Motown in 1960. She was only 17, so her mother had to co-sign. Motown was still a very small operation in 1960, and Mary Wells would become their first superstar. That would not come until 1964, with the release of “My Guy.”

I found the period of 1960-1964 to be the most intriguing part of the book. Benjaminson details the lives of Wells and many other artists, and there was very little about being a Motown artist that was easy or glamorous. The Motown Revues are discussed, which were bus tours with multiple groups on board. The conditions the musicians were forced to deal with sound pretty rough, especially in the pre-civil rights South. I also found the details about the Apollo Theatre to be eye-opening. It sounds like the accomodations for performing artists were abysmal.

Wells was 18 when she married Herman Griffin, who would be the first of three husbands. He was 25, worked for Motown, and most importantly, “took care” of her. The marriage lasted less than two years, and apparently was rocky from the start.

After four years of varying success on the R & B charts, Wells recorded “My Guy,” her signature song. This was a period of incredible excitement for Wells, and the beginning of the ascendancy of Motown as a record label. Among other achievements during this time, she was invited to open for The Beatles on an English tour, and said that the Fabs watched her set from the wings every night.

Mary Wells may have been Motown’s first superstar, but she was also the first (but certainly not the last) to complain of being underpaid by the company. Her attempts to get Barry Gordy to answer as to why she was seeing no money seemed to fall on deaf ears. It seems his efforts to placate her were pretty lame, at least according to the book.

For her 21st birthday, Gordy gave her a $500 fur coat, but she still saw no royalties. For a record like “My Guy” that had reached the number one position on the Billboard chart, he claimed ridiculously low sales. Mary Wells was rightfully suspicious of what was really going on.

When Twentieth Century Fox Records offered her a $250,000 advance to leave Motown, Wells jumped. Due to some overlooked clause in her contract having to do with her age when she signed, Gordy had no legal recourse. According to her (in the Bergsman interviews), as a last ditch effort to hang onto his superstar, Gordy offered her 50% of the company to stay. Gordy denies this, but if it was true and she had accepted the deal, her life clearly would have taken a much different course than it did.

Then again, there was still the cancer, which may have been brought on by her two-pack a day cigarette habit. For a singer, the smoking was crazy, but somehow Wells maintained her voice for years, until the cancer took it away.

The second half of the book details her post-Motown life, and it is a tale of bouncing from label to label, and man to man. Her second marriage was to Cecil Womack, from 1966 to 1977. The couple had three children together. Talk about high drama though. Wells left Cecil for his brother, Curtis Womack. They had one child together, and he was with her until the end.

The diagnosis of throat cancer was devastating, and came very late. Even though she was having a great deal of difficulty with her voice, Wells refused to see the doctor. The delay probably allowed the cancer to spread through her body much more quickly than it would have if it had been detected, and treated earlier. In the interviews, Wells says that she feels that subconsciously she did not want to hear the truth.

Up to the very end though, Mary Wells remained a pioneer. She was supporting herself through gigs as “Queen of the Oldies,” and did not have the money to pay for the medical bills. This prompted her lawyer to “embarrass” Motown (and by extension many other labels) to redress the unfair contracts that were signed back in the ‘50s and ‘60s. A lot of artists were given settlements to make up for the huge, continuing catalog sales of their records over the years.

There are four appendices at the back of the book. “US and UK Discography,” “Unreleased Mary Wells Tracks,” “TV, Video, and Film Appearances,” and “1991 Suit Against Motown Records.” All of these provide deeper information about the subjects at hand, especially the appendix regarding the unreleased material, which Benjaminson claims Motown has held back from releasing purely out of spite. The list includes three unreleased duets with Marvin Gaye, and three songs with the Four Tops. There are 25 songs, and the release of this material would probably result in significant sales. At this late date, it seems bizarre that Motown is still holding these tracks back.

I was a little surprised to discover that Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar is the first biography of her to see the light of day. It is never really explained why Bergsman did not write his book, but thankfully those four hours of interviews he did with Wells at the end of her life have contributed significantly to the telling of her story. It is a fascinating tale, and one every
fan should read.

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