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.