Before the Supremes, before The Jackson 5, and before The Temptations, there was Mary Wells. In the early 1960s, the young Detroit native earned the nickname “the Queen of Motown” when she scored multiple hits for the legendary record label, including her signature song, “My Guy.”
Peter Benjaminson’s new book, Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, catalogues the highs and lows of the troubled singer’s life.
Wells rose to fame primarily through sheer confidence and perseverance. She signed to Motown after cornering Berry Gordy and forcing him to hear a song that she wrote. As Motown and Wells both developed in those early days, she developed her unique style.
“She was a sexy person apparently,” says Benjaminson, and she added her own sort of sexy overlay on top of the girl group sound, which made the songs very irresistible.
Behind the success of hits like “The One Who Really Loves You,” “You Beat Me To The Punch,” and “My Guy,” she became Motown’s most popular female voice.
However, money got in the way. After figuring out how much other members of the Motown family got paid, Wells decided to leave the label for a company that could pay her more.
“It made a certain amount of limited sense,” says Benjaminson. “But when she left, she had to leave Smokey Robinson behind. He turned out to be a much better songwriter than she turned out to be. She really should have stayed there and continued to partner with Smokey.”