Mary Wells (May 13, 1943 - July 26, 1992) was a highly acclaimed R&B/soul singer with a great deal of crossover appeal who became Motown's first and biggest female star during the early 1960s. With her distinctive expressive vocals that could be at once shy and playful, she helped establish the then-emerging label's sound with such era-defining classics as "The One Who Really Loves You" (1962), "You Beat Me To The Punch" (1962), "Two Lovers" (1962), and the bouncy, finger-snapping "My Guy" (1964).
Born in Detroit, Michigan into a poor single-parent family, Wells began singing in church as a young child before moving on at age 10 to local nightclubs. Her mother worked as a house cleaner, and by age 12, Wells was assisting her in that capacity to help make ends meet. In 1960, after graduating high school, the 17-year-old Wells approached Tamla/Motown founder Berry Gordy with a song she had written with Jackie Wilson in mind titled "Bye Bye Baby." Instead of passing it on to Wilson, Gordy had Wells perform the song herself, and impressed with her delivery, signed her to his label. Although she became Motown's first artist to have a Top 10 hit and a #1 song, her rising star was extinguished when she and the label parted ways acrimoniously around mid 1964 over contract and royalty disputes. Wells then joined 20th Century Fox before signing with Atlantic-Atco and later Jubilee and other labels but was never able to recapture her early success.
Mary Wells debuted in 1961 on both the R&B and Pop/Rock charts with "Bye Bye Baby," the self-penned song she had introduced to Motown. Her many hits included a long string of Smokey Robinson-penned and produced works: "The One Who Really Loves You" (1962), the Grammy-nominated "You Beat Me To The Punch" (1962), "Two Lovers" (1962), "Laughing Boy" (1963), "Your Old Stand By" (1963)), "What's Easy For Two Is So Hard For One" (1963), and her greatest hit, "My Guy" (1964), which topped both charts. Other hits included the Berry Gordy-penned "I Don't Want To Take A Chance" (1961) and the Holland-Dozier-Holland-penned "You Lost The Sweetest Boy" (1963), the latter of which features backing vocals by members of The Supremes and The Temptations. Wells had her final hits on Motown in 1964 with two duets performed with Marvin Gaye: "What's The Matter With You Baby" and "Once Upon A Time." Later hits on both charts included "Ain't It The Truth" (1964), "Use Your Head" (1965), "Never, Never Leave Me" (1965), "Dear Lover" (1966), and "The Doctor" (1968), the latter of which she co-wrote with then-husband Cecil Womack. Her final charting song came in 1982 with "Gigolo," a minor R&B hit.
After her commercial peak in the early 1960s, Mary Wells continued to perform and record actively to 1990 when she was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer, which ended her career and soon after led to her untimely passing at age 49. She was honored in 1989 with a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, which later also raised over $50,000 to help offset her expenses after her illness had left her destitute. Wells' signature song, "My Guy," was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999, and she was inducted posthumously into the Michigan Rock & Roll Legends Hall of Fame in 2006 and the National Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame in 2017.
- The New York Times remembers Mary Wells.
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- Bye Bye Baby 1961
- I Don't Want To Take A Chance 1961
- My Guy 1964
(This song topped both the R&B and Pop/Rock charts and later also became a hit for Petula Clark (1972), Amil Stewart & Johnny Bristol as "My Guy/My Girl" (1980), and Sister Sledge (1982).)
- The One Who Really Loves You 1962
- Two Lovers 1962
- Use Your Head 1965
- What's Easy For Two Is So Hard For One 1963
- You Beat Me To The Punch 1962
- Your Old Stand By 1963
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