Mary Wells (May 13, 1943 – July 26, 1992) was an American singer who helped to define the emerging sound of Motown in the early 1960s. Along with The Miracles, The Temptations, The Supremes, and the Four Tops, Wells was said to have been part of the charge in black music onto radio stations and record shelves of mainstream America. With a string of hit singles composed mainly by Smokey Robinson, she became recognized as “The Queen of Motown” until her departure from the company in 1964, at the height of her popularity. She was one of Motown's first singing superstars.
Wells began singing as a child, and by age 10 had graduated from church choirs to performing at local nightclubs in the Detroit area. Wells graduated from Detroit's Northwestern High School at the age of 17. In 1960, 17-year-old Wells approached Tamla Records founder Berry Gordy at Detroit's Twenty Grand club with a song she had intended for Jackie Wilson to record, since Wells knew of Gordy's collaboration with Wilson. However, a tired Gordy insisted Wells sing the song in front of him.
Impressed, Gordy had Wells enter Detroit's United Sound Studios to record the single, titled “Bye Bye Baby.” After a reported 22 takes, Gordy signed Wells to the Motown subsidiary of his expanding record label and released the song as a single in September 1960. It eventually peaked at #8 on the Billboard R&B chart in 1961, later crossing over to the Billboard Pop Singles chart, where it peaked at #45.
Wells' early Motown recordings reflected a rougher R&B sound that predated the smoother style of her biggest hits. Wells became the first Motown female artist to have a Top 40 pop single after the Mickey Stevenson-penned doo-wop song, “I Don't Want to Take a Chance,” hit #33 in June 1961.
In the fall of that year, Motown issued her first album and released a third single, the bluesy ballad “Strange Love.” However when that record bombed, Gordy set Wells up with The Miracles' lead singer Smokey Robinson. Wells' early hits as one of the label's few female solo acts made her the label's first female star and its first fully successful solo artist.
Wells' teaming with Robinson led to a succession of hit singles over the following two years. Their first collaboration, 1962's “The One Who Really Loves You,” was Wells' first smash hit, peaking at #2 on the R&B chart and at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100 Singles chart. Known for releasing songs with a repetitive sound, Motown released the similar-sounding “You Beat Me to the Punch” a few months later. The song became her first R&B #1 single and peaked at #9 on the Pop chart. The success of “You Beat Me to the Punch” helped to make Wells the first Motown star to be nominated for a Grammy Award when the song received a nod in the Best Rhythm & Blues Recording category.
In late 1962, “Two Lovers” became Wells' third consecutive single to hit the Top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100, peaking at #7 and becoming her second #1 hit on the R&B chart. This helped to make Wells the first female solo artist to have three consecutive Top 10 singles on the Pop chart. The track sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.
Wells' second album, also titled “The One Who Really Loves You,” was released in 1962 and peaked at #8 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, making the teenage singer a breakthrough star and giving her clout at Motown. Wells' success at the label was recognized when she became a headliner during the first string of Motortown Revue concerts, starting in the fall of 1962.
Wells' success continued in 1963 when she hit the Top 20 with the doo-wop ballad “Laughing Boy” and scored three additional Top 40 singles, “Your Old Standby,” “You Lost the Sweetest Boy” and its B-side, “What's Easy for Two Is So Hard for One.” “You Lost the Sweetest Boy” was one of the first hit singles composed by the successful Motown songwriting and producing trio of Holland-Dozier-Holland, though Robinson remained Wells' primary producer.
Also in 1963, Wells recorded a session of successful B-sides that arguably became as well-known as her hits, including “Operator,” “What Love Has Joined Together,” “Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right” and “Old Love (Let's Try It Again).”
In 1964, Wells recorded “My Guy.” The Smokey Robinson song became her trademark single, reaching #1 on the R&B chart for seven weeks and becoming the #1 R&B single of the year. The song successfully crossed over to the Billboard Hot 100, where it eventually replaced Louis Armstrong's “Hello, Dolly!” at #1, where it remained for two weeks. The song became Wells' second million-selling single.
To build on the song's success, Motown released a duet album recorded with fellow Motown singing star Marvin Gaye, “Together.” The album peaked at #1 on the R&B Albums chart and # 42 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart, and yielded the double-sided hits “Once Upon a Time” and “What's the Matter With You Baby.”
"My Guy" was one of the first Motown songs to break on the other side of the Atlantic, eventually peaking at #5 on the U.K. Singles chart and making Wells an international star. Around this time, The Beatles stated that Wells was their favorite American singer, and soon she was given an invitation to open for the group during their tour of the United Kingdom, thus making her the first Motown star to perform in the U.K. Wells made friends with all four Beatles and later released a tribute album, “Love Songs to the Beatles,” in mid-decade.
Ironically during her most successful year, Wells was having problems with Motown over her original recording contract, which she had signed at the age of 17. Though Gordy reportedly tried to renegotiate with Wells, the singer still asked to be let go of her contract with Motown.
A pending lawsuit would keep Wells away from the studio for several months, as she and Gordy went back and forth over the contract details, Wells fighting to gain larger royalties from earnings she had made during her tenure with Motown. Finally, she invoked a clause that allowed her to leave the label, telling the court that her original contract was invalid since she signed while she was still a minor. Wells won her lawsuit and was awarded a settlement, leaving Motown officially in early 1965, whereupon she accepted a lucrative contract with 20th Century Fox Records.
A weary Wells worked on material for her new record label while dealing with other issues, including being bed-ridden for weeks suffering from tuberculosis. Wells' eponymous first 20th Century Fox release included “Ain't It The Truth,” the B-side “Stop Taking Me for Granted,” the lone Top 40 hit, “Use Your Head” and “Never, Never Leave Me.” However, the album flopped, as did the Beatles tribute album she released not too long after. After a stressful period in which Wells and the label battled over various issues after Wells' records failed to chart successfully, the singer asked to be let go in 1965 and left with a small settlement.
In 1966, Wells signed with Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco. Working with producer Carl Davis, Wells scored her final Top 10 R&B hit with “Dear Lover,” which also became a modestly successful pop hit, peaking at #51. However, much like her tenure with 20th Century Fox, the singer struggled to come up with a follow-up hit, and in 1968 she left the label for Jubilee Records, where she scored her final pop hit, “The Doctor,” a song she co-wrote with then-husband Cecil Womack, of the famed Womack family.
In 1970, Wells left Jubilee for a short-lived deal with Warner Music subsidiary Reprise Records and released two Bobby Womack-produced singles. In 1972, Wells scored a U.K. hit with a re-issue of “My Guy,” which was released on the Tamla-Motown label and climbed to #14. Despite this mini-revival, Wells decided to retire from music in 1974 to raise her family.
In 1977, Wells divorced Cecil Womack and returned to performing. She was spotted by CBS Urban president Larkin Arnold in 1978 and offered a contract with the CBS subsidiary Epic Records, which released “In and Out of Love,” in October 1981. The album, which had been recorded in 1979, yielded Wells' biggest hit in years, the funky disco single, “Gigolo.”
The song became a smash at dance clubs across the country. A 12-minute mix hit #13 on Billboard's Hot Dance/Club Singles chart and #2 on the Hot Disco Songs chart. After the parent album failed to chart or produce successful follow-ups, the Motown-styled “These Arms” was released, but it flopped and was quickly withdrawn, and Wells' Epic contract fizzled. She still had one more album in her CBS contract, and in 1982 released an album of cover songs, “Easy Touch,” which featured a more adult contemporary flavor.
Leaving CBS in 1983, she continued recording for smaller labels, gaining new success as a touring performer. In 1990, Wells recorded an album for Ian Levine's Motorcity Records, but her voice began to fail, causing the singer to visit a local hospital. Doctors diagnosed Wells with laryngeal cancer. Treatments for the disease ravaged her voice, forcing her to quit her music career. Since she had no health insurance, her illness wiped out her finances, forcing her to sell her home.
As she struggled to continue treatment, old Motown friends, including Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, members of The Temptations and Martha Reeves, made donations to support her, along with the help of admirers such as Dionne Warwick, Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin and Bonnie Raitt. That same year, a benefit concert was held by fellow fan and Detroit R&B singer Anita Baker. Wells was also given a tribute by friends such as Stevie Wonder and Little Richard on “The Joan Rivers Show.”
In 1991, Wells brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Motown for royalties she felt she had not received upon leaving Motown Records in 1964 and for loss of royalties for not promoting her songs as the company should have. Motown eventually settled the lawsuit by giving her a six-figure sum.
In the summer of 1992, Wells' cancer returned and she died on July 26, 1992 at the age of 49. After her funeral, which included a eulogy given by her old friend and former collaborator Smokey Robinson, Wells was laid to rest in Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial Park.
Though Wells has been eligible for induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame - she was nominated twice in 1986 and 1987 - she has yet to achieve it. Wells earned one Grammy Award nomination during her career, and in 1999 the Grammy committee inducted Wells' "My Guy" into the Grammy Hall of Fame, assuring the song's importance. Wells was given one of the first Pioneer Awards by the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1989.