It’s hard to imagine, but there was once a time when the Motown sound did not yet exist. Thanks to the expressive, blues- and gospel-influenced singing of people like Mary Wells, the popular music of Black artists landed squarely in the center of the American musical map, where it belonged.
Born into poverty in Detroit and plagued by poor health as a child, Wells started writing songs in her teens. As a 17-year-old in 1960, she had the temerity to bring a song to record producer Berry Gordy, founder of Tamla Records and its subsidiary, Motown. Wells hoped her song “Bye Bye Baby” would be given to heartthrob Jackie Wilson. But Gordy wanted to hear Wells sing it. Blown away by her voice and delivery, he offered her a contract.
The resulting single of “Bye Bye Baby” reached No. 8 on the R&B charts. The logical next step for Gordy was to help the teen amass enough material to build an album around the song. Bye Bye Baby I Don’t Want to Take a Chance came out in 1961, with songs written mostly by Gordy. Or at least, he took credit for them. Who knows how many grew out of Wells’ own songwriting ideas? Gordy and Mickey Stevenson wrote the album’s other hit single, “I Don’t Want to Take a Chance.”
Those great backup singers you hear on Gordy’s “I’m Gonna Stay” are none other than the Supremes. That’s what things were like at Gordy’s Hitsville USA Studios. On any given day, some of the best names in soul and R&B music were sure to be wandering the hallways, happy to help out their colleagues.
On her first record, Wells has an unusually raw style that sounds extemporaneous and unpracticed. It’s emotionally effective, but not ideal for superficial listening. It’s a market reality that pop hits are the result of music becoming accepted background noise, a radio soundtrack to everyday life. Gordy knew this, so he worked with Wells until she had a smoother, less individualized sound.
You can already start to hear the change in The One Who Really Loves You (1962). That album is also important for marking the beginning of one of soul’s best collaborations: Wells and Smokey Robinson. During 1962, Robinson would compose a bunch of hit singles for Wells, starting here with “You Beat Me to the Punch,” which earned a Grammy nomination. His “The One Who Really Loves You” is also from this album.
The song “I’ll Be Around” is an exception, composed by Janie Bradford (best known for co-writing “Money,” which was recorded by both the Beatles and the Rolling Stones) and Richard Wylie.
Robinson continued to write for Wells on her next album, Two Lovers and Other Great Hits (1963). All three of the tracks by him became hit singles: “Two Lovers,” “Laughing Boy,” and “Operator.”
This album was the first time since her debut single that Wells got a writing credit, collaborating with Melvin Franklin for “Stop Right Here.” Wells uses her voice like a trumpet, singing in a more extroverted style than on her earlier releases. Since the energetic arrangement is so much fun, now is the perfect time to acknowledge the Funk Brothers, a group of ace session musicians who played on nearly all of the Motown records from 1959 to 1972. There would be no Motown sound without them.
In 1964, Wells scored her biggest hit ever, the single “My Guy,” also by Robinson. From the outside, it probably looked like she was flourishing at Motown, but the reality was much different. She entered into a big legal dispute over her contract with Gordy. While that battle raged, she made one more album for the label, Together (1964), a collection of duets with a little-known singer called Marvin Gaye. Gordy had put them together hoping Wells’ popularity would be good for Gaye’s career. And it was.
One of the joys of this album is the material chosen for it. Instead of ten soul numbers, which would have been perfectly fine, somebody had the good sense to look for a wider range of material, including Duke Ellington’s delightful “Just Squeeze Me (Don’t Tease Me).”
Not long after the album with Gaye came out, Wells won her bid to break her Motown contract by pointing out that she’d been a minor when she’d signed it. She landed on her feet, with a nice deal from 20th Century Fox Records. One of her first projects there was very personal to her, an homage called Love Songs to the Beatles (1965). Not only was Wells a huge Beatles fan, but she also considered them friends, having toured briefly as their opening act.
The menu of songs ranges from “Help!” to “Ticket to Ride.” Wells’ version of Lennon/McCartney’s “Yesterday” is especially moving, buoyed by Joe Mazzu’s lush orchestrations.
20th Century Fox gave Wells two chances, but neither album had good sales. They reneged on their promised to put Wells in a movie, so she moved on to Atco Records. There she was assigned to the production talents of Carl Davis, who had worked with Jackie Wilson among others in the R&B world. Despite Gordy’s intensive efforts to stop radios from playing her music, she managed a decent-sized hit with “Dear Love,” from her The Two Sides of Mary Wells album (1966).
As the title suggests, the record was promoted as showing that Wells could do more than sing in the Motown style. It was rare for her to venture into Broadway standards, but she makes good use of the soaring melody in Alan Jay Lerner’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”
Wells’ time as a superstar was over. She jumped to another label briefly, and then another, before taking a 13-year break from the studio to raise her kids and navigate a divorce. Her comeback in 1981 on the Epic label was In and Out of Love, written almost entirely by Greg Perry, who also co-produced with Fonce and Larry Mizell.
“These Arms” opens the album with a soft R&B feel. Despite the synth-driven accompaniment with way too much high-frequency sheen, Wells seems to be in good voice with a relaxed and confident sense of phrasing.
Not much happened in terms of sales, but Wells was happy to be singing again. She made a few more albums over the years, with the final one in 1990. Her health was beginning to fail at that point, and two years later she died of cancer. She was 49 years old.
Today, Mary Wells might not be as much of a household name as the Supremes or Marvin Gaye, but she showed up at Motown at a critical juncture, and her recordings served as a stepping stone for other artists to build on.