MW: Oh Mr. Gordy! Mr. Gordy! Have I got a song for you!
BG: Oh, fine. Sing it for me.
MW: Eh? Um.
Mary Wells sings.
Hitsville, the next day.
Thus began the vocal career of Motown's first female megastar.
The girl herself had entered the world more privately on May 13, 1943. She'd barely passed toddler-hood when she started singing gospel with her missionary family.
Her youth wasn't as carefree as it could have been. Spinal meningitis partially paralyzed, deafened, and blinded her for a spell. She had to relearn how to walk, but her musical instincts never left her.
By age 17, she'd certainly recovered enough to bound over to Berry Gordy and hound him about her song, "Bye Bye Baby." She'd written it for Jackie Wilson, but it ended up becoming Motown's first Mary Wells hit in 1961.
As it was wont to do, the company refined her R&B technique, making it easier for the masses to swallow. But it didn't completely grind down her personality. The public became very familiar with her soft but knowing vocals.
Writer-producer Smokey Robinson spun out winning songs for her like the Grammy-nominated "You Beat Me to the Punch" and the twisty "Two Lovers." But it was Wells's defiant devotion in the moseying "My Guy" that shot her and Motown to #1 in 1964. She managed to top the pop charts amid the Beatles craze of all things!
Not that she lacked attention from her colleagues. One of her albums contained duets with Marvin Gaye. She was also apparently on the cusp of a multimedia conquest.
But at the height of her fame, another wide-eyed gal and her friends (beginning with "Sup," ending with "Remes") burst onto the scene. For one reason or another, Mary Wells became less synonymous with Motown than before.
She and her manager-husband had been putting out feelers for better compensation for her achievements. When 20th Century Fox included film roles in its offer, it was time to make the break.
Wells got less out of her departure. The movies never happened, and she bounced between five different labels over several years, including Atco and Jubilee.
By the late '60s, she'd wed again, to R&B artist Bobby Womack's brother, Cecil. She also refreshed herself professionally by writing and producing more soul-soaked works.
Those efforts did yield chart rankings in R&B, but not so much for pop. Wells's opportunities only got rarer through the 1980s.
That trickle dried up permanently when she found she had throat cancer in 1990.
But just as she couldn't keep still at Motown, she continued to travel. At the nation's capitol, she used what was left of her voice to promote not recordings of her old triumphs, but new funds for cancer research.
On July 26, 1992, following hospitalization for pneumonia, Mary Wells died at age 49.
Better-known Motown singers have left inspiring legacies with their talents and successes. But Mary Wells, that shyly, slyly purring soul, deserves special honors as the one who really did it first.
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