Books: Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar (2012)

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In this excerpt from Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, we join Wells at her big-bang moment: The night she auditioned for Berry Gordy, transforming herself instantly from aspiring performer to singing sensation.

Just 17, Wells sought out the legendary Motown mogul at a local music venue, belting out a tune acapella, and found herself with a new recording contract the very next day. From there, Wells would score a series of memorable hits (including “Two Lovers,” “You Beat Me to the Punch” and “My Guy,” her signature hit) in quick succession before leaving Motown. Wells never again reached such heights elsewhere, however, and eventually succumbed to cancer in 1992 at just 49.

On this memorable night at Detroit’s 20 Grand nightclub, however, all of that was in the distant future. Wells stood ready not only to sing for Gordy, but to sing a song she’d written herself …

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Excerpted from Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar by Peter Benjaminson, with permission from Chicago Review Press. Copyright 2012.

Having been brought up religious, the teenage Mary was used to talking to God. So, she later related, “I went into my closet, my secret closet” and asked God to help her write a song for Jackie Wilson. The song “Bye Bye Baby” entered her mind, and she wrote it down. “Mary was a very mystical woman and a spiritual little soul,” Curtis Womack said years later.

Looking for a way to get the song to Wilson, she remembered that Robert Bateman of the Satintones had told her to keep asking for membership in his singing group. She also realized she was friendly with a girl Bateman wanted to date, so she offered to introduce Bateman to the girl if he would arrange for Mary to sing the song for Motown Record Company president Berry Gordy Jr. She knew that Wilson recorded for the established Brunswick Record Company, not the struggling young Motown, but Gordy had written several pop hit singles for Wilson, including “To Be Loved” (which
eventually became the title of Gordy’s autobiography), “That’s Why (I Love You So),” “I’ll Be Satisfied,” and, in 1958, “Lonely Teardrops,” which not only hit No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart but rose to No. 7 on the Billboard pop chart as well. She wanted Gordy to pass her song to Wilson.

Mary didn’t realize that due to a change of executives at Brunswick and a dispute over royalties, Gordy no longer worked with either Wilson or his record company. Instead, he was searching for a female solo artist who could become a star of his new company. If any songs she brought to Gordy were going to be recorded, the Motown Record Corporation would record them.

After memorizing her song, Mary sang it for Bateman. He said he liked it and that he’d arrange to let her sing it for Gordy. Her opportunity finally came when, directed by Bateman, she caught up with Gordy at the 20 Grand, Detroit’s hottest nightclub.

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Gordy, busy directing a performance by vocalist Marv Johnson on one side of the club and on his way to direct the Miracles on the other side, literally walked away when the teenage Mary started talking, saying he was too busy to listen to her sales pitch. Mary followed him down the hallway almost in lock step, begging for an appointment so she could present him with the song she had written. Finally, annoyed, Gordy turned around and told her to “sing
it right now.” Mary immediately sang “Bye Bye Baby,” a capella, on the spot.

Several people have described Mary as “shy and winsome,” which is the way she often acted. But her actions in this case were anything but shy, and they are revealing. Throughout her life, she went straight toward any goal she wanted and did not stop until she had achieved it or had run out of time on earth. “She stood for all the courage and perseverance that any female should need to enter into show business and have a place in it,” said vocalist Martha
Reeves, who knew Mary at Motown and often performed with her later in life. What Gordy saw was a young doe-eyed black girl from the Detroit ghetto, who, author J. Randy Taraborrelli noted, favored tight gowns that fanned out at the knees. Her enormous eyes and the Lauren Hutton–like gap between her two front teeth enchanted Gordy and would enchant many others. At 17, Mary was physically an adult and an attractive one.

The voice Gordy heard one critic later described as “a unique, contrasting blend of intimacy and assertion, a softness and a forcefulness all rolled into one.” Wells also knew how to present a song as a result of her high school musical training: “I belted it out,” she told Bergsman.

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Mary impressed Gordy so much — he later called her “a soulful sounding chick” — that he told her to show up at Motown the next day. When she arrived, with her mother accompanying her, Gordy told Mary she would record her song herself. Wells was so excited she whooped loudly and jumped around the office. “I just had wanted to be in the record business. I didn’t think I could ever be an artist,” she said later. Gordy signed her as a Motown recording artist that day, July 8, 1960. The legal age for signing contracts in Michigan was 18 and Mary was 17, so her mother was required to cosign the contract.

Signing a record company contract was a real coup. “There were so many singers out there, but not many of them had record deals,” Mary Wilson of the Supremes told Unsung. However, the Motown contracts Mary Wells and her contemporaries signed were heavily loaded in the company’s favor. Motown vocalist Brenda Holloway told Unsung that a common failing among Motown recruits was that “We didn’t read the small print.” All they knew was that they needed money and “You put a record out, you get money. We didn’t know how much, but that was our motive.”

The company Mary had just joined would soon become legendary, and its name would eventually become a synonym for much
of the popular music produced by black Americans, whether they recorded for Motown Records or not. But when Mary joined it, it was in its early stages. Gordy, one of eight children of an African American couple who had migrated from Georgia to Detroit with business on their minds, had founded Tamla Records, Motown’s predecessor, just 18 months earlier.

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