July 26, 1992 – Mary Esther Wells was born in Detroit on May 13, 1943. When she was three years old, she contracted spinal meningitis and had to remain in bed for two years. Wells also suffered from tuberculosis as a young woman. Her family was poor, and at the age of 12 she began to help her mother with housecleaning work. “Daywork they called it,” Wells was quoted as saying in Nowhere to Run: The Story of Soul Music. “And it was damn cold on hallway linoleum. Misery is Detroit linoleum in January–with a half-froze bucket of Spic-and-Span.”
Nevertheless, Wells found time to perform solos with the choir at Detroit’s Northwestern High School, from which she graduated when she was 17. Shaken by the illnesses she had survived, she thought about trying to become a scientist. But the new Motown Records studio was not far from where she lived, and music seized her imagination. “I could sing, and all the entertainers looked so glamorous and wonderful, so I started writing songs,” she was quoted as saying in People. When she was 16, she met an assistant to Motown owner Berry Gordy Jr., and wangled an appointment to pitch one of her songs to Gordy in person.
Wells had composed the song, “Bye Bye Baby,” with R&B vocalist Jackie Wilson in mind, but Motown founder Gordy, tired and irritated, told her to sing the song herself after which he quickly brought Wells into the studio to record it. It required 22 takes to coax a usable rendition from the nervous young vocalist, but Gordy’s judgment was vindicated when “Bye Bye Baby” rose to the R&B top ten and even cracked the pop top 50 in 1960. Wells signed a contract with Motown, and as she gained experience, the label began to put its top creative people behind her career. The most important of these was Smokey Robinson, who wrote many of her songs and produced her recordings between 1962 and 1964.
Her voice, gentle and coy and subtly playful at unexpected moments, was the perfect foil for Robinson’s songwriting, and the combination yielded for Wells and for Motown a consistent string of hits. In 1962, “You Beat Me to the Punch” and “Two Lovers” both topped R&B charts, with both of those songs and “The One Who Really Loves You” making it into the pop top ten. “Laughing Boy,” “Your Old Stand By,” and “What’s Easy for Two Is So Hard for One” all reached upper chart levels the following year, and by 1964, “Mary Wells was our first big, big star,” former Motown sales executive Lucy Gordy Wakefield told the New York Times. Her personal appearances with the touring Motown Revue confirmed her popularity.
Wells’s high-water mark as a chart-topper came in 1964 with “My Guy,” which topped the pop charts for two weeks in May at the height of the “British invasion.” The song even did well in Britain and Wells became the first Motown artist to appear across the Atlantic, when she opened for the Beatles on a 1964 British tour. Despite the chart competition between them, Wells got along well with the mop-topped British sensations and always maintained a friendly relationship with them.
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When she turned 21 in 1964, however, Wells left Motown, spurred on by promises of greater riches to come by her husband, backup vocalist Herman Griffin. Already having undergone two abortions at Griffin’s behest, she signed a $500,000 deal with the Twentieth-Century Fox label in Hollywood that included promises of starring film roles. Motown took her to court, but Wells and her lawyers maintained that she had been deceived by the contract she had signed when she was just 17. Gordy angled to prevent other labels from signing Wells, but she eventually prevailed.
Wells would be succeeded by a long line of other Motown vocalists, predominantly female, who would tangle with the label in court. Some would move on to stardom with other labels, but Wells proved to be dependent upon the synergy between her own talents and those of Robinson and the rest of the Motown assembly line.
Except for the forgettable Catalina Caper (1967), Wells’s film career came to nought, and her recordings for Fox fared little better. Moving to the Atco label in 1965 she notched a few top ten R&B hits, but her days at the top of the charts were essentially over. She later recorded for Epic, Reprise, Warner Brothers, and a host of smaller labels, all without notable success. Her marriage to Griffin ended in divorce.
Then Wells married R&B vocalist Cecil Womack; she had three children with him and one, after the couple’s 1977 divorce, with his brother Curtis. For a time in the 1970s, she dropped out of the music business altogether to concentrate on raising her children, but as nostalgia for the golden age of Motown grew among baby-boom music lovers, Wells returned to the road. She became a fixture of Motown retrospectives, such as the 1983 television special mounted on the occasion of the company’s 25th anniversary. Around that time, possibilities surfaced that she might return to the label, but a deal was never struck.
The last chapters of Wells’s life were tragic ones. A heavy smoker who also battled heroin addiction for a time, Wells was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1990. Like many other musicians, she had no health insurance, and the illness wiped her out financially. Through the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, established partly to assist musicians who encountered financial problems in later life, various entertainment figures, including Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, and fellow Motown star Diana Ross, donated money for Wells’s medical treatment. Her life might have been saved by removal of her larynx, but that would have meant that she would never sing or talk again. Instead Wells chose the dangerous and painful option of radiation therapy, but it did not save her life. She died in Los Angeles on July 26, 1992, at age 49.
At 15, she boldly walked into the office of Motown’s founding father, Berry Gordy, to sell a tune she had written for Jackie Wilson called “Bye Bye Baby.” Gordy insisted that she sing it herself, pushing her through 22 takes. The song became an instant R&B hit.
As others quickly followed, Wells became an inspiration to a generation of black female artists struggling to bridge the barriers to mainstream audiences. “Mary was the established star,” says Mary Wilson, the ex-Supreme who became her friend. “She was a hometown girl made good. And she was the first female there in a man’s world, so she really gave us initiative.”
To escape an unhappy home life, Wells married a backup singer at Motown named Herman Griffin when she was 17. By the lime she divorced him two years later, she had had two abortions. Griffin, she said, “made me [have the abortions] because of my career.” In 1964, on her 21st birthday, she quit Motown and signed with another label. “I had made a lot of money for the company, and I had nothing to show for it,” she said. But the mega-hits stopped coming, and her career began a long decline from which it never recovered.
Wells’s second marriage, to Cecil Womaek, one of the gospel-singing Womaek brothers, produced three children: Cecil Jr., now 24, Stacy, 23, and Harry, 17. Sugar, 6, was born after Wells divorced Cecil in 1977 and moved in with his brother Curtis. Wells, who had attempted suicide during her marriage to Cecil, had developed a heroin habit by the time she left Curtis in 1990.
Two years ago, after learning that the polyps doctors had found on her throat were malignant, Wells began a painful course of treatment that included radiation therapy and a tracheotomy that made even talking—by pressing closed the breathing tube in her throat—an ordeal. Still, “she never complained,” says daughter Stacy. But there were tears. “She only cried,” says Stacy, “because she couldn’t do what she liked to do, which was sing.”