Skip to content

Something about Mary Wells

Mary Wells book cover

In the hearts of the first generation of Motown fans, there’s a special place for Mary Wells. During the period between 1960 and 1964 she became Berry Gordy Jr’s first female star, lending her voice to a series of songs, the majority of them written and produced by William “Smokey” Robinson, that helped define the company’s sound – and that of soul music itself.

From those days I have precious memories of owning “Two Lovers”, one of Smokey’s masterpieces, on the old black, white and yellow Oriole label, and the later Stateside coupling of “You Lost the Sweetest Boy” and “What’s Easy For Two”, which stands in my estimation alongside Elvis’s “His Latest Flame”/“Little Sister” and the Beatles’ “Strawberry Fields Forever”/“Penny Lane” among the greatest double A-side 45s in pop history.

“You Lost the Sweetest Boy” was an early product of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, as were like Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave”, Marvin Gaye’s “Can I Get a Witness” and the Miracles’ “I Gotta Dance to Keep from Crying”, all of which which burst on to the airwaves at around the same time in the glorious year of 1963 to demonstrate how Gordy’s writers and producers were blending their gospel and R&B ingredients with a new pop sensibility.

Yet I finished Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, a new biography by Peter Benjaminson (Chicago Review Press), with very mixed feelings. I knew that Wells’s career had not gone well following the fateful decision to leave Motown after “My Guy” had given her a worldwide smash in 1964. I was aware, too, of a couple of marriages, including one to the man who encouraged her to switch labels from Motown to 20th Century, and another to Cecil Womack, who died earlier this month. And I knew that she had been treated for throat cancer in the 1980s, and had died in 1992, aged 49. But I had no idea of the extent to which a part of her life had been controlled by her various addictions to heroin, cocaine, methadone and alcohol.

Although I’m grateful to Benjaminson for compiling the details of her life, however distressing they may be, I wish he’d also been able to say something interesting about the music that made her famous. So it was with a sense of something like relief that I found a different way of remembering Mary Wells by putting on Something New, a two-CD collection of her obscure and unreleased Motown recordings compiled by Harry Weinger for Universal’s Hip-O Select imprint.

Some of these tracks, shelved when she left Motown and Gordy turned his attention to Diana Ross, turned up in 1966 on an album called Vintage Stock, but most people still won’t be familiar with such treats as “I’ve Got a Story”, a slice of pop-soul heaven written by Marvin Gaye, William Stevenson and Hank Cosby; Holland-Dozier-Holland’s plaintive “Guarantee (For a Lifetime)”; and Smokey’s “To Lose You” and his Miracles colleague Ronald White’s “Forgive and Forget”, both underpinned by light Latin rhythms (as had been “Two Lovers”).

It’s not all great. A couple of unreleased duets with Gaye are hardly spectacular, while the lacklustre versions of 13 standard songs originally intended for an album to be titled The Second Time Around demonstrate that Gordy’s judgement was by no means infallible. But there’s enough here to show that the Beatles were right in 1964 when they invited Wells to join them on tour, making her the first Motown artist to appear on a UK stage.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. Philby #

    Fascinating blog, superb clip. Intrigued by Richard’s nominations for the best double A-side. The picture has been blurred by certain tracks being re-packaged over and over with different flip sides (I have three different releases of ‘Green Onions’, for example), but may I suggest these as great couplings:

    The Beatles – ‘Paperback Writer’/’Rain’ and ‘Day Tripper’/’We Can Work It Out’; Buddy Holly – ‘Everyday’/’Peggy Sue’; Elvis Presley ‘Don’t Be Cruel’/’Hound Dog’; Sam Cooke ‘Shake’/’A Change Is Gonna Come’; The Showstoppers ‘Ain’t Nothin But A Houseparty’/’What Can A Man Do’ (a personal favourite); plus two slightly more modern dual delights: The Smiths ‘William, I Was Really Nothing’/’How Soon Is Now? ‘ and Kraftwerk ‘The Model’/’Computer Love’. Oh, and just about every one of Chuck Berry’s early singles….

    February 26, 2013
    • Dear Phil

      There are hundreds of possibles. Barbara Lewis’s “Hello Stranger” / “Think a Little Sugar” comes to mind — but we’re taking authentic double-A-sides, not just great 45s with great B-sides. And the only authentic B-side of “Green Onions” is the fantastic “Behave Yourself”…



      February 26, 2013
  2. Daniel Shaw #

    Enjoying the writing and subjects/contexts in thebluemoment, Richard, and the videos are interesting too. Mary Wells was on at the Shaw Theatre in the mid 80s, when I worked in the same building for Camden Arts which ran the Shaw at the time. Jean Davenport was the Assistant Director at the Shaw, and programmed some interesting music including post-Jam Weller in what I think was the first proper Style Council gig, and Terence Trent Darby’s first big gig [okay…].

    Jean cut her teeth at the Albany in Deptford, and was responsible for the first real rap event in the UK, as far as I am aware – Rap Attack at the Shaw Theatre, with Afrika Bambaataa and other US rap artists, and emerging graffiti artists like Brim. I organised graffiti, beatboxing and breakdancing workshops around Camden borough. Needless to say, most of the older natives hated it at the time, and there was a massive stink in the local press. There was a great film of the event made by Dick Fontaine, which very occasionally sees the light of day on television. It was the first and last time I have spent a night in Piccadilly, clubbing with ‘Bam’ as we knew him, that’s for sure…

    Anyway, Jean Davenport presented Mary Wells at the Shaw; unfortunately though predictably all the talk was about how messed up Mary was. I didn’t meet her or bother going to see her, though now I wish I had. I have a photo of the Camden Arts team on the steps of the Shaw, with Mary Wells posters in the doors and windows behind us, think it was most likely 1984 and we had just returned from a lunch to celebrate a successful end to the Camden Festival in March of that year. I’m pretty sure Rap Attack was the same year, around Spring/Easter 1984, and Mary Wells appeared around the same time.

    February 27, 2013
  3. Hello Richard, finally, after 43 years to be precise, this is a chance to say hello again.
    Remember? Back then, in September 1970 I appeared as a freshman at the MM office in Fleet Street and asked for a type writer I coud use for my reports from London to Cologne.
    Though I have followed you on and off over the years via some quality newspapers, it was thanks to Sebastian Scotney´s blog that I could contact you directly.
    I am grateful for your Soft Machine link, but – sorry Richard – “at their very best” they became shortly afterwards, when Kevin Ayers had been replaced by Hugh Hopper.
    Cheers from Cologne

    February 27, 2013

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: