Obituary: Mary Wells

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The Independent Online
Mary Wells, singer, born Detroit 13 May 1943, died Los Angeles 26 July 1992.

MARY WELLS, the first big singing star produced by the Motown label, will be particularly remembered for her 1964 hit 'My Guy'.

Wells began her career performing in high-school dances, talent competitions and singing in church. Her initial goal was to become a songwriter and she first approached Berry Gordy, the boss of the new Detroit-based Motown record label, with the idea of selling her songs, not her voice. Motown regularly held auditions for new hopefuls and was becoming a significant force in the rhythm and blues charts, gaining a reputation as one of the premier sources of outstanding musicians. Gordy (a former production-line worker) claimed that Detroit and Motown produced 'The Sound of Young America'. Certainly, the star quality which came from his stable has become the stuff of legends: The Supremes, Diana Ross, The Miracles and the Marvelettes to name a few. Wells was one of the very first.

Gordy not only liked Wells's songs but persuaded her to sing them herself. Her first record, 'Bye Bye Baby', was released in 1960. She was placed under the charge of Smokey Robinson, Motown's vice-president and the Miracles' lead vocalist, who worked as her producer and co-songwriter. Initially, she fell under Robinson's influence and re-created aspects of his vocal style on several of her own early recordings. Between 1962 and 1964 she enjoyed success with a string of hits, making the US Top 10 with 'You Beat Me to the Punch', 'The One who Really Loves You' and the very clever million-seller 'Two Lovers', with lyrics from Robinson. The 'two lovers' of the title turn out to be the two sides of a man's personality.

'The Sound of Young America' was a tag which Motown kept in mind, wishing to provide black music which appealed directly to American youth. Wells's sweet voice, with its joyous bouncy rhythm, was perfect for this purpose, as exemplified in songs such as 'What's Easy for Two is Hard for One' and 'Laughing Boy'.

In 1964, her recording of Smokey Robinson's 'My Guy' became the first Tamla Motown hit to reach No 1 in Britain. This success placed Wells on tour with The Beatles, who were self-declared admirers. She was particularly fond of John Lennon. In acknowledgement of this friendship she recorded an album titled Love Songs to The Beatles, and was the first Motown artist to visit England. In the same year, she recorded a duet with Marvin Gaye - 'Once upon a Time' - which made the US Top 20 and the UK Top 50.

Influenced by The Beatles' 'endorsement', Twentieth Century Fox offered her a new contract, with the promise of a film part which never materialised. Her then husband, Herman Griffin, encouraged her to accept the offer and she left Motown on the grounds that she had been under age when she first signed.

The move to Fox did not bring Wells anything near the success she had achieved with Motown: only 'Use Your Head' made the Top 20. She subsequently changed labels again, to Atlantic in 1966 - 'Dear Lover', and to Jubilee in 1969 - 'Dig the Way I Feel'. She also recorded for the Epic and Reprise labels. During this time she collaborated with her new husband, Cecil Womack, but they divorced in 1977, and she remarried Curtis, another member of the Womack family. In 1984, Allegiance released her re-recordings of the earlier hits, produced by the trombonist Wayne Henderson. Her reputation had clearly been established with her earlier songs.

She was diagnosed as having throat cancer in 1990 and had to give up her singing career. Benefit concerts were arranged following this news. The rift with Motown had long been mended and Berry Gordy (among others, including Bruce Springsteen) donated generously towards mounting medical bills in her fight against the disease.

Mary Wells's British producer from Motorcity records, Ian Levine, remembers her with deep affection as a great artist, a warm person with a generous sense of humour. At one of her last recording sessions she had casually commented that 'Motown has produced some of the greatest artists of all time - all disturbed geniuses.' Motorcity are to release a remix of one of her songs, 'Walk the City Streets', as a tribute.

(Photograph omitted)

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