If I could change just one event in pop music history, it would be Mary Wells’ abrupt, acrimonious departure from Motown in 1964. The company was already basking in a level of success unheard of for a black-owned concern, musical or otherwise. In a business whose perceived capitals were New York, L.A. and (thanks to recent events) London, Motown was putting Detroit on the map as a major player. The firm was not just successfully riding musical and cultural trends but was - rather unexpectedly - guiding and growing them. And even in a roster that included future legends Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, The Temptations, The Four Tops and The Supremes, Mary Wells was firmly established as the company’s top star, the one whose singular success had helped usher Motown into the big leagues. Company head Berry Gordy had built the firm into a powerhouse presence in the niche R&B market. But dreamed of expanding that success into the white mainstream, making music that would captivate not just R&B fans, but the larger market as well. And the first Motown artist to repeatedly scale the upper reaches of the pop chart was Mary Wells, with a series of Top 10 singles in ’62 and ‘63. Neither she nor her songs were quite like anything America had heard before. But the public did hear the records, loved them and – most importantly - bought them in huge quantities. Then, near the beginning of ’64, came Mary’s single “My Guy”, a record that joyously retooled her sound in exciting new ways. The song was an immediate, world-shaking success. A rocket that promised to take Mary to the heights and beyond. But, as things panned out, Mary’s rocket ride turned very bumpy. She sued Motown for release from her contract, won the battle – and lost the war. Inundated with offers, Mary decamped to another label. But the mega-hit days were suddenly over. Record after record was released to steadily diminishing returns. Within a couple of years, she was a fringe figure in the music business. One who could only sit and watch as Motown (whom many observers felt would falter without its biggest star) went on to ever more resounding success on the world stage. Had Mary stayed with Motown, there’s no doubt she would have continued to be a major part of that success. Joining so many of her label-mates as mainstream music legends. She is a legend – but on a cult level. You either “get” Mary’s greatness or you don’t. I always think of the onscreen words at the beginning of “The Song of Bernadette” – “For those who believe, no explanation is necessary. For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.” Mary Wells fans are a fervent lot. But for the world at large, as far as the Motown story’s concerned, she’s not a keynote, just a footnote.
I was 14 when I first heard Mary Wells. The song was “Two Lovers”; I knew it was her third consecutive Top 10 single in the States. But our small-town Canadian radio station had never played the earlier ones so I’d not heard them. Yet somehow “Two Lovers” had broken the door down. Maybe the frenzied popularity of the Twist had suddenly made it easier for black artists to penetrate resistant white-bread markets. Not that “Two Lovers” was a twist record. Nor was it gospel shout or doo-wop. This was sombre, focused and intimate. Emanating from some strange acoustic chamber. The first seven seconds alone transport you somewhere. The thick stutter of drum beats, a single blast of horns, followed by what sounds like the kerplunk of something disappearing into a deep pool. Then a grave fanfare of harmonizing brass and tom-tom percussion, sounding for all the world like the establishing shot of an Apache village in an old Hollywood western. And yet it all works. Even before Mary starts to sing. When she does, the deal is sealed. The voice floats like sweet smoke rings, weaving into a beckoning blend with male background voices that seem to be performing under hypnosis (The Love-Tones, prominent on many of Mary’s early records). Spectral presences conjured up just for the occasion. Or acolytes, intimately attuned to the movements of their priestess. Some writers have attributed the record’s popularity to its then “daring” lyrics which at first suggest the singer’s seeing two men at once, before revealing its supposed kicker : the two lovers are just opposite sides of her boyfriend’s personality. Whatever. The record’s real magic comes not from its lyrics but from the stately ceremonial swirl of musical effects and the exquisite, trance-like vocals they embellish. For me, it was love at first sound. Love at first sight followed when I saw the “Two Lovers” LP. In those days (when you lived on an allowance) album purchases were few and far between. But I had to have this one! The cover mesmerized me, an alluring blend of yellow-based tones. Each side of the image featured a seated male silhouette (for me these were the Love-Tones). And in the center Mary herself – an apparition that not only lived up to that magic voice but intensified the spell. There she stood. Strikingly posed in front of a strange textured paper background, working a dramatic gold rush of a dress to the max. Honey mustard hair-do supplying a final wallop. In those days it never even occurred to me this might be a wig. It was just one more facet of Mary’s bird of paradise exotica. Every part of the picture was perfection - the sheer essence of Mary Wells’ music, captured in one extraordinary image. After all these years, it’s still my favourite album cover.
The Two Lovers LP monopolized my turntable for weeks. ”Operator “, “Was It Worth It” and – above all – the enticingly peculiar “Laughing Boy” became addictive favourites. I’d spotted Mary’s earlier album “The One Who Really Loves You” in a shop in our neighbouring town. And as far as I could see, it was the only copy in Northern Ontario. So I hiked over there one Saturday and bought it. And finally got to hear Mary’s first two top 10 hits, both featured on the LP. I still have that copy, made all the more endearing for Motown’s front cover error, misidentifying one of those hits , “You Beat Me to the Punch” as “I Beat You to the Punch”(later pressings corrected the mistake). At least they spelled Mary Wells’ name right. The Marvelettes weren’t so lucky on one of their early 60’s albums, which the company sent out credited to “The Marveletts.”
As has been widely reported, seventeen year old Detroit schoolgirl Mary Esther Wells was an aspiring songwriter who cornered local record producer Berry Gordy at a club. She was pitching ”Bye Bye Baby” a song she hoped he could persuade Jackie Wilson to record. When she sang it on the spot to Gordy, he offered her a recording contract and a chance to cut the tune herself. A happy semi-accident that led to one of Motown’s first pop chartings (#45 pop, #8 R&B). A follow-up “I Don’t Want to Take a Chance”, slightly less raucous, did well too (#33 pop, #9 R&B). The first two outings had been up-tempo. Motown slowed things down for the next one. In “Strange Love”, Mary stalks her way resolutely through a kind of embellished doo-wop landscape. It’s a record that still has its proponents. But there weren’t many takers in ‘61. And it was the first Mary Wells single that failed to chart.
If I’d heard these first few Wells records when they were new, I wouldn’t have liked them much. Especially the first two. “Bye Bye Baby” ’s grating, a tuneless hullabaloo that Mary oversells with hoarse, unpleasant shoutiness. “I Don’t Want to Take a Chance” doesn’t offer much either. Zero originality, nothing that could be called a melody and Mary contributing some energetic but anonymous yelling. “Strange Love” ’s an improvement; at least it doesn’t sound like a hundred other records. And Mary seems to mean every word of it. Still, the record’s commercial failure prompted Gordy to try a new approach with Wells. And what happened next was a game-changer, finally producing the captivating sound that was to make Mary Wells Motown’s first superstar.
William “Smokey” Robinson was already something of a boy wonder at Motown. His group, The Miracles, had had some significant chartings (“Shop Around” hit #2 pop in 1960). And the group’s “I’ll Try Something New” (1961) remains one of the most exquisite of all Motown productions. He produced all of the group’s records and wrote most of them. Robinson was creative, ambitious and eager to produce music for other Motown acts. So Gordy decided to let him take a crack at getting Mary Wells back on the charts. When they started to work together, Smokey, astute and intuitive –with a gift for detecting and nurturing an artist’s special qualities - discovered things in Mary that her previous recordings had barely hinted at. A vulnerable, sensitive, engagingly mysterious personality and a higher softer singing voice than she’d ever revealed. Producer and artist were remarkably simpatico. Some observers feel Smokey found his female alter ego in Mary, grooming and guiding her to become his virtual second voice. To what degree that’s true is hard to pinpoint. But certainly the generic R&B shouting of “Bye Bye Baby” gave way to something decidedly more intimate – a special mix of reserve and conviction that added up to a different kind of soul , one that was to define the new Mary Wells. Smokey’d been experimenting with some Caribbean style rhythms and decided to go that route for Mary’s next single. What emerged was “The One Who Really Loves You” - and it set the template for Mary’s immediately subsequent string of triumphs. The record grabs you immediately with its echoey bathroom acoustics. (I could almost swear piano, horns, guitars and percussion are augmented by some deftly manipulated plungers). The Love-Tones are on board – their vocals delivered with a taut ebb and flow, like the satisfying spring of an elastic band. Listen to their alternating pronunciations of “put you down” and “put you dow-wun”. Irresistible! And they turn out to be the perfect complements, benignly bobbing and weaving behind and around Wells’ lead vocal. As for Mary, she’s a new woman; delivering the lyrics (warning a straying lover to mend his ways) with an I-may- sound-laid-back-but-I-mean-business approach, all the while getting comfortable with the new voice she’d explore and perfect over the next couple of years. “The One Who Really Loves You” was an instant smash( #8 pop, #2 R&B), immediately surpassing Mary’s earlier successes.