Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar

by Peter Benjaminson

Benjaminson writes somewhere in this book that “everybody” knows the words to My Guy (1964), and it would be hard to gainsay this—although I would hedge my bets if we were to include those among us under twenty. Thirty? That said, let’s agree that many, many people could in fact sing the song the whole way through, and even as I write, I would not be surprised to learn that somebody somewhere is soloing “Nothing you could do, ‘cause I’m stuck like glue . . . in the shower this very moment. The song was released in 1964 on Berry Gordy’s iconic Motown label, and, in this case, this overused adjective is justified. Mary Esther Wells’ (1943–1992) artistry and popularity helped very much to bankroll the young, struggling company. You have heard her story several times over: Superstar leaves her/his homey, nurturing record label to find she had signed self-damaging, company-friendly contracts, and after years of false starts with dead-end recording contracts from other labels, plays the oldies circuits and the grueling motel rounds because she had signed away, in the flush of excitement, ignorance and youth, royalties and other monetary dispersions. You have read about multiple lovers, spouses and affairs, the drug and alcohol situations, the various lawsuits, the ongoing love of loyal fans, the loyalties and disloyalties of managers and handlers, family and friends. Health problems, benefit concerts, funerals that are mini-concerts in their own right, and belated awards and eulogies from all over. The story of Mary Wells is quintessential.

Wells was one who could never, despite years of countless concerts performed before countless adoring fans, rise anywhere near the level of her initial Motown success, the start of which was formidable. She underwent continuous financial setbacks. Using many interviews with family, friends and business associates, reliance on other music biographers, and the grunt work of in-depth research, Benjaminson, a long-time practitioner and teacher of journalism with a number of books to his name including the first-ever US book about the Motown Record Company (1979), has created a journeyman’s biography. Importantly, the book introduces into the record previously unreleased and unpublicized deathbed interviews with Wells. His prose is adequate and his ability to relate a story is proficient. The b/w photographs are welcome. Wells is a fast read, and the book’s star by turns comes off as wholesome, compassionate, unbalanced, hard to live with, easy to live with, happy, depressed—but always talented, nearly always devoted to her art. Considering all of the circumstances of her life, she appears as a good and loving mother. There were times, we learn, that Wells would take her baby Sugar with her while performing, sometimes walking out on stage with Sugar on her hip. We learn that although there was never a full-blown addiction, Wells dabbled in heroin, liked a methadone high and had the usual bouts with cocaine and booze; and we feel some regret at this as Wells’ persona always suggested one of innocence laced with a certain ingeniousness. We learn of her fight with throat cancer, and although Benjaminson has shied away from the practice, he could not resist titling the chapter describing Wells’ last stages of her illness, her death and funeral “You Beat Me to the Punch.”

The book ends with an epilogue describing posthumous awards and synopsizes the lives of those involved in Wells’ business and personal affairs. There is a US and UK discography, a list of unreleased tracks, a list of TV and film appearances, a record of a 1991 lawsuit, Mary Wells v. Motown Record Company, a decent bibliography and index. If you are a popular music fan in general or a Motown fan in particular, Benjaminson’s story is worth your time. If you are a longtime admirer of Mary Wells, perhaps singing her classics as you bathe, you will not want to let this book go by.

Copyright 2013, Bill Wolf (speedreaders.info).

Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar
by Peter Benjaminson
Chicago Review Press, 2012
304 pages, b/b illustrations, hardcover
List Price: $26.95
ISBN-13: 978-1569762486
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