Mary Esther 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 Supremes, the Miracles, the Temptations, 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, "bridging the color lines in music at the time."
With a string of hit singles composed mainly by Smokey Robinson, including "Two Lovers" (1962), the Grammy-nominated "You Beat Me to the Punch" (1962) and her signature hit, "My Guy" (1964), 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.
Early life and initial recordings
Mary Esther Wells was born near Detroit’s Wayne State University on May 13, 1943, to a mother who worked as a domestic, and an absentee father. One of three children, she contracted spinal meningitis at the age of two and struggled with partial blindness, deafness in one ear and temporary paralysis. During her early years, Wells lived in a poor residential Detroit district. By age 12, she was helping her mother with house cleaning work. She described the ordeal years later:
"Daywork they called it, and it was damn cold on hallway linoleum. Misery is Detroit linoleum in January—with a half-froze bucket of Spic-and-Span."—Mary Wells
Wells used singing as her comfort from her pain 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 and set her sights on becoming a scientist, but after hearing about the success of Detroit musicians such as Jackie Wilson and the Miracles, she decided to try her hand at music as a singer-songwriter.
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 peaked at No 8 on the R&B chart in 1961, and later crossed over to the pop singles chart, where it peaked at number 45.
Wells’ early Motown recordings reflected a rougher R&B sound than 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 No. 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". When that record bombed, Gordy set Wells up with the Miracles’ lead singer Smokey Robinson. Though she was hailed as "the first lady of Motown", Wells was technically Motown’s third female signed act: Claudette Rogers, of Motown’s first star group the Miracles, has been referred to by Berry Gordy as "the first lady of Motown Records" due to her being signed as a member of the group, and in late 1959 Detroit blues-gospel singer Mable John had signed to the then-fledging label a year prior to Wells’ arrival. Nevertheless, Wells’ early hits as one of the label’s few female solo acts did make 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 No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 8 on the Hot 100. The song featured a calypso-styled soul production that defined Wells’ early hits. Motown released the similar-sounding "You Beat Me to the Punch" a few months later. The song became her first R&B No. 1 single and peaked at No. 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 No. 7 and becoming her second No. 1 hit on the R&B charts. 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 No. 8 on the pop 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. The singer showcased a rawer stage presence that contrasted with her softer R&B recordings.
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)". Wells and Robinson also recorded a duet titled "I Want You ‘Round", which would be re-recorded by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston.
In 1964, Wells recorded "My Guy". The Smokey Robinson song became her trademark single, reaching No. 1 on the Cashbox R&B chart for seven weeks and becoming the No. 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 No. 1, remaining there 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 No. 1 on the R&B album chart and No. 42 on the pop album 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 No. 5 on the UK 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 UK. Wells was only one of three female singers to open for the Beatles, the others being Brenda Holloway and Jackie DeShannon. Wells made friends with all four Beatles and later released a tribute album, Love Songs to the Beatles, in mid-decade.
Former Motown sales chief Barney Ales described Wells’ landmark success in 1964: "In 1964, Mary Wells was our big, big artist, I don’t think there’s any audience with an age of 30 through 50 that doesn’t know the words to My Guy."
Text from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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