Mary Wells was an American singer signed with Motown in the early 1960s.
She was born in Detroit, and as a child suffered various illness and lived in a poor residential district. She used singing as a comfort and began to perform at local clubs. After briefly considering becoming a scientist, she decided to try and become a a singer-songwriter. Mary went to Motown founder Berry Gordy and gave him a song she had intended for Jackie Wilson to record. Berry insisted that she sing the song in front of him, and, impressed, had her sign with his label.
She at first achieved success with a rougher R&B style penned by William “Mickey” Stevenson, and then with soulful calypso-style songs written and produced by Smokey Robinson. Mary recorded with great success under the Motown label, hitting No.1 on both the R&B and Pop Charts with her signature song “My Guy” in 1964. Often known as “The First Lady of Motown”, she became the label’s first female star.
At this time, however, she was having problems with Motown over her original recording contract, and was angry that the money made from her song was being used to promote other artists (namely The Supremes). Berry Gordy tried to negotiate with Mary, but, wanting larger royalties from her tenure at the company, she still asked to be freed from her contract, and eventually (using the fact that she had signed when was 17, a minor) was able to leave in early 1965.
She went on to sign with several other labels, generally with less success, managing several R&B hits, and attempting a film career. After retiring from the music industry in 1974, she returned to recording in 1977 and enjoyed a brief resurgence on the disco scene with her 1980 song “Gigolo” and continued recording into the 1980s. Mary would never manage any further success, although she recorded an album for the Motown revival label Motorcity Records in 1990.
Mary had been a frequent smoker and went through bouts of depression in her marriage to both Cecil and Curtis Womack, even taking drugs and attempting suicide. Her voice soon began to fail, and after being diagnosed with lung cancer, subsequent treatments (which had cost her everything) meant she could no longer sing. Despite donations from old Motown friends like Diana Ross and Martha Reeves and a six-figure sum from Motown over a lawsuit about royalties, her cancer returned and she passed away in 1992.
Marvellous Motown currently recommends two songs by Mary Wells – click on the link above for our archive or click on a specific song below: