Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1943, singer Mary Wells signed with Berry Gordy Jr.'s Motown Records in 1960. She became Motown's first superstar artist, recording several Top 40 hits before peaking with the No. 1 single "My Guy" in 1964. Although unable to replicate her early commercial success after signing to 20th Century Fox, Wells continued touring until a diagnosis of larynx cancer in 1990, and died in 1992.
Early Years and Career
Mary Esther Wells was born on May 13, 1943, in Detroit, Michigan. Her father largely absent from her life, she and two older brothers were raised by their mother, Geneva, who cleaned homes to support the family.
Wells's childhood was not an easy one: At 3 years old she was bedridden for two years with spinal meningitis, which impaired her hearing and vision, and at age 10 she contracted tuberculosis. Those bouts with serious illnesses had her considering a career as a scientist or doctor.
But Wells was most gifted as a vocalist, and she was performing in clubs before her teen years. She starred for the Northwestern High School choir and joined local doo-wop groups, even writing a song titled "Bye Bye Baby." Aggressive in the pursuit of her career, the 17-year-old Wells tracked down up-and-coming record producer Berry Gordy Jr. and belted out "Bye Bye Baby" on the spot. Gordy signed her to a contract the following day, and worked on making her the focal point of his fledgling Motown Records label.
'Queen of Motown'
Berry had Wells record "Bye Bye Baby" through a grueling 22 takes, producing a track that reached No. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Motown chief then placed her in the hands of singer and songwriter Smokey Robinson, who penned three songs for the talented young vocalist—"The One Who Really Loves You," "You Beat Me to the Punch" and "Two Lovers"—that cracked the Top 10 in 1962.
Wells reached her apex in 1964 with another Robinson work, "My Guy." Hitting the airwaves amid the British invasion, the song topped the Billboard charts for two weeks until it was bumped by the Beatles' "Love Me Do." The Fab Four themselves were huge fans of the "Queen of Motown," and invited her to join them on tour that autumn.
However, Wells was unhappy with the label's methods of using profits to launch the careers of other artists and she sought to extricate herself from her contract. She eventually won a lawsuit on the grounds that she had signed as a minor, earning her release with the stipulation she would abdicate the royalties from her earlier hits.
Signs Deal With Fox
Wells signed a lucrative deal with 20th Century Fox Records, believing she would get to star in the parent company's feature films. However, the movie career never materialized, and without the help of Robinson and Motown's production talent, her star as a bestselling artist also faded. She scored a Top 40 hit with "Use Your Head," but her other works failed to chart and she left 20th Century Fox for the Atco label in 1965.
Wells landed on the R&B Top 10 with "Dear Lover" in 1965, and she collaborated with then-husband Cecil Womack to produce another minor hit, "The Doctor," for Jubilee Records in 1968. But despite earning continued praise for her vocal excellence, Wells failed to achieve sustained commercial success in those years, and she stopped recording in 1974 to concentrate on her family.
Late Career, Death and Legacy
After divorcing Womack in the late 1970s, Wells sought to revive her career by performing. She landed a recording deal with Epic Records and scored a disco hit with the release of her single "Gigolo" in 1981. She also performed on Motown's 25th anniversary television special in 1983, which featured the likes of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Robinson and Stevie Wonder, among others.
Having surrendered the royalties from her biggest hits, Wells continued touring even as she struggled with drug abuse. However, a longtime smoking habit resulted in the diagnosis of larynx cancer in 1990, reducing her once powerful voice to a whisper. Unable to perform, she was evicted from her Los Angeles home, though she received financial support from friends in the music industry and eventually earned a settlement from Motown.
In the fall of 1991, Wells testified before a Congressional Committee to push for more funding for cancer research. Less than a year later, on July 26, 1992, she passed away at the Kenneth Norris Jr. Cancer Center of the University of Southern California.
Although not as well remembered as some other performers of her era, Wells helped pave the way for African-American artists to draw mainstream appeal. Her biggest hit, "My Guy," was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. She also received posthumous recognition with the 2012 release of Peter Benjaminson's well-received biography, Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown's First Superstar.
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