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The Queen of Motown and the label’s first superstar, Mary Wells is as big as Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder in the early days of Motown. And to the Motown fan, maybe even bigger. In her short time at the label she accomplished many firsts, paving the way for the solo artists that came after her, and by the time she left the label she had multiple top 10 hits, a Grammy nomination, and an internationally popular song. Out of all the songs from Motown’s golden era, Wells’s songs like “You Beat Me To The Punch” and “Two Lovers” are the ones that continue to tantalize with their relationship twists and turns. They are indelible, grafted to our collective eardrum, played millions of times and will be played for millions more.
Wells’s talent, her verve, and her determination to dream big and make it happen got a 17-year-old girl in 1960 to write a song and, so the story goes, take it to Berry Gordy in hopes that he’d pass it on to her teen idol, singer Jackie Wilson. In a rush, Gordy made her sing it there on the spot and soon after Wells recorded that song, “Bye Bye Baby,” and began her singing career.
Second single “I Don’t Want To Take A Chance” became a top 40 hit in 1961, the first female Motown star’s to do so, and not long after that Wells would have songs like “The One Who Really Loves You” dominating the airwaves. The first solo artist at Motown to score a top 10 hit on the pop chart, Wells could handle the rougher R&B cuts as well as the lighter pop-oriented numbers, helping to ensure her mainstream crossover appeal. In other words, she could belt it out in a bluesy style and she could rein it in with soft sensuality. Even though she was young when she started, her voice implied a knowing maturity and she hit her stride when paired with the songwriting talent of Smokey Robinson. Her popularity extended over the Atlantic and she even toured with the freaking Beatles!
The lure of money and the desire to be in movies made Wells decide to leave Motown at the age of 21 and, unfortunately, that hurt her career. Despite those setbacks, Wells kept going. Bouncing from label to label, dropping hidden gems along the way, Mary Wells died at age 49 in 1992 from cancer, never recapturing the stardom she achieved at Motown but her name lives on in her music. Since you’re already getting Bye Bye Baby — Don’t Want to Take A Chance, here are some other albums by Mary Wells to dive into.
Mary Wells had already released a couple of successful singles by the time her 1961 debut album was released but it was rough around the edges. Gordy decided to get Smokey Robinson to work with her and write some songs. The result was pure magic. Her second album, The One Who Really Loves You, includes other songs written or co-written by Robinson as well as one by Wells and, while the album didn’t chart, it really sets the tone for her other Motown records. The blues is still there on “Two Wrongs Don’t Make A Right,” Wells goes doo-wop torch singer on “Strange Love,” and the bubblegum-popping sweetness is strong on “The Day Will Come.” But those singles! Recognizing her appeal with a softened vocal delivery, Robinson added playfulness with a seductive calypso beat on the title track and “You Beat Me To The Punch” and the male backup singers, The Love Tones, add just the right amount of doo wop flavor. Listeners were entranced, sending these two singles to the top 10 on the pop and R&B charts, earning a Grammy nomination for “You Beat Me To the Punch,” making Wells the first Motown artist to earn a Grammy nomination, and achieving crossover stardom.
Wells’s third album was the first of hers that charted on the album charts but back then, how the singles performed was still more important to Motown. The two Robinson-penned singles (“Two Lovers” and “Laughing Boy”) were released in 1962 and both charted with “Two Lovers” hitting the top 10. The brilliance of the Robinson and Wells combination is on display here with “Two Lovers.” Listeners were shocked by Wells’s discussion of loving two men, one good to her, the other bad, and it’s only in the reveal at the end that we understand they’re the same guy. Wow. Wells’s voice has this ability to meld innocence and weathered experience, which appealed to fans both young and old alike. Fans wanted her to be their girlfriend or their cool best friend. She also deftly handles teen pop on her fun cover of The Teenagers’ “Goody, Goody” and soulful blues on “Looking Back.”
1964 was a big year for Mary Wells. In March she released the monster single “My Guy” (we’ll talk more about that later) and in April she had two successful album releases with Greatest Hits and Together, a duets album with Marvin Gaye, whom Motown felt at the time was struggling and hoped pairing him with its biggest star would improve his image and career. Top 20 single “Once Upon A Time,” about two lonely people who find happiness with each other, is wistful and pretty, while the b-side “What’s The Matter With You Baby” also became a top 20 pop hit. Other album highlights include the title track and the suggestive “After The Lights Go Down Low.” Together allowed Wells and Gaye to sparkle, Wells’s sensual tones balancing Gaye’s enthusiastic shouts. Knowing what we know about Gaye’s subsequent success with other duets albums, there’s no doubt that Wells and Gaye would’ve done well together on future duets.
Capitalizing on the international success of 1964’s hit single “My Guy,” Wells’s signature song, Motown released Mary Wells Sings My Guy in May, her fourth and last studio album released while still at Motown. The Robinson-penned song went to No. 1 on both the R&B and pop charts, knocking out the Beatles off the top spot for a time. The Beatles were such huge fans they invited her to open for them during their fall ’64 U.K. tour, making Wells the first Motown artist to tour the U.K. The album didn’t chart as high as Together, but that’s probably because everyone already spent the money on Greatest Hits the previous month, which also included “My Guy.” The first side is a mix of songs written by Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Mickey Stevenson and then Wells goes on a tear of pop standards on side two. Album opener “He’s The One I Love” can soundtrack a dreamy summer night and “Whisper You Love Me Boy” sounds like a finger-snapping, hand-holding stroll down the beach. Even as packaging for a killer single, this album really cooks. Superstar and super talented, Wells was on top of the world.
Wells’s 1965 eponymous album was her first album to be released after leaving Motown. Wells initiated legal action in late 1964 to disaffirm her contract with Motown and in 1965 signed with 20th Century Fox. While her new label had little knowledge of how to promote her, Mary Wells puts together those early post-Motown singles and is actually a great album. It includes the Motown-sounding “Use Your Head,” the gospel-tinged “Ain’t It The Truth,” and soft pop “Stop Takin’ Me For Granted.” Another album highlight is album opener “Never, Never Leave Me,” a big beautiful ballad that’s like a blend of Motown and Dusty Springfield but better because it’s Mary Wells. It’s obvious that 20th Century was trying to replicate the Motown sound but Wells really pours herself into the music, determined to prove she can stand on her own.
Wells left 20th Century and signed with Atlantic Records in 1965, which seemed a good move for her because Atlantic had more experience promoting black artists. And with the late 1965 release of single “Dear Lover,” which did well on the pop chart and hit the top 10 on the R&B chart, things looked good. The song showed that those working with Wells still felt that trying to replicate her sound at Motown would be their best bet; it even hits two notes that sound similar in style to “My Guy.” And they got it right because the whole thing just sounds like warm sunshine, with a comfortable and confident Wells. Subsequent singles did not meet expectations, so when the album The Two Sides of Mary Wells was released, the only single that had been included was “Dear Lover.” It wasn’t a knock out at the time, and by 1968 she would leave Atlantic, but in terms of showing Wells’s ease with covering the Rolling Stones (“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”), Wilson Pickett (“In the Midnight Hour”), and the Supremes (“My World Is Empty Without You”) as well as doing a soulful take on the classic “The Boy from Ipanema,” the album is worth the listen.
Now at Jubilee Records, Servin’ Up Some Soul was an all-out R&B/soul effort co-produced by Wells and then-husband Cecil Womack, with half the songs co-written by Wells and Womack. It’s funky and playful and includes the hit song “The Doctor.” Friends, if you haven’t heard this album, get thee to your preferred streaming platform, ASAP. That soulful guitar intro on “The Doctor” leading into a soft, sultry Wells vocal is worth it alone. Again, the album didn’t chart, but it stands up because it really shows Wells’s personality. As a co-producer and songwriter she had a greater hand in shaping her sound and delivery, making Servin’ Up Some Soul her most cohesive album up to that time. Other album highlights include “Two Lovers History,” a song about her and her husband which also features Cecil on vocals, and her poignant version of the folk standard “500 Miles.” There would be other singles recorded at Jubilee and subsequent labels, none finding the commercial success to which Wells aspired. Taking a break from recording to focus on performing and raising her family, Mary Wells wouldn’t release another album until 1981.
Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.
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