Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown's First Superstar
Fabulous Dead People | Mary Wells|
By CHRISTOPHER PETKANAS
New York Times November 23, 2010, 12:57 pm
THE SUBJECT OF A FORTHCOMING BIOGRAPHY BY PETER BENJAMINSON, Wells was in (1960) and out (1964) of Motown before she knew what hit her. Having reigned so briefly and disappeared from the charts so suddenly, she seems a distant figure, part of an earlier era — grainy, black and white, and crowned with bad wigs — than she actually was. Yet if Wells were alive today she would be only 67.
If her run was short at least she was first. When Wells had her own car and driver, the Supremes were literally hitching to gigs. Mary Wilson of the Supremes recalled how Wells would swan through the lobby of Motown with “her entourage behind her and we’re standing there like, ‘Wow, yea, that’s, that’s the way we want to be.’”
It meant nothing at the time, because the Supremes were nothing, but in the ’80s, when Wells’s career was on the skids and she was limping along on the oldies circuit, smoking two packs a day, there was some satisfaction in being able to say that the boss’s mistress had done her grunt work. Diana and company are behind Wells on “You Lost the Sweetest Boy” and, I’d bet because only one person sang through her nose so alluringly, “My Heart Is Like a Clock.” Because of Wells’s association with Robinson, I always assumed the men who sang backup with such suave complicity were the Miracles. In fact it was the in-house Love-Tones. Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations was a Love-Tone for the time it took to cut “Two Lovers” with Wells, filling in for a group member who couldn’t make the session. “The lead singer got stabbed to death, and they kind of fell apart after that,” Wells remembered.
She could claim other victories over the Supremes — and over the Motown founder Berry Gordy. In the label’s waste-not tradition of recycling musical tracks, Wells was there first with “Whisper You Love Me Boy.” Dying of throat cancer and evicted from her home, she took on Gordy, filing suit for breach of contract and infringement of right of publicity. For 25-plus years Motown, which Universal acquired in 1988, merrily operated on the belief that Wells’s contentious exit deal with the company included a name and likeness clearance, which it used to sell a monumental number of records. According to Wells’s lawyer, Steven Ames Brown, there was no such clearance. Mary’s third husband, the singer Curtis Womack, says the $100,000 out-of-court settlement she obtained was split 60-40 with Brown.
“Universal protected itself against any claims by demanding indemnity prior to buying Motown, so resolution was funded by Gordy,” says Brown, a royalty recovery specialist who has represented assorted Vandellas and successfully litigated for the return to Nina Simone of many of her masters. “I told Mary when we sued, ‘Don’t worry, sooner or later Berry will call me: My father was his podiatrist.’ And he did call. Some of the Motown artists were no better than their oppressor. But others were abused. Mary was one of them.”
Coached by her first husband, Herman Griffin, possibly the most minor act in Motown history, Wells sought to disaffirm her contract when she attained majority. Gordy paid her 3 percent of retail, less taxes and production and promotion costs. As an advance on a two-year deal, 20th Century wrote her a check for $250,000 — more than $1.7 million today. Accepting a portion of her royalties for the years remaining on her Motown agreement was maybe the worst business decision Gordy ever made. It’s fashionable for Motown partisans to dismiss “Never, Never Leave Me,” one of Wells’s two 20th Century releases, but with Wells turning up the pout, it’s a uniquely charismatic record.
Atco, the label she jumped to next, should have been a good fit. But when after one so-so album Wells was told to get in line behind Aretha Franklin and wait a year for studio time, she walked. “We could do nothing with her,” Jerry Wexler, the Atco chief, says in the notes to the excellent Wells compilation, “Looking Back.” “The fault wasn’t Mary’s. Nor was it ours. She was an artist who required the idiosyncratic Motown production,” which could not be duplicated. “Most importantly we didn’t have Smokey Robinson.”
Mary had a thing for the Womack men, and when she switched labels yet again, it was to work with her second husband, Cecil Womack, on two forgotten albums for Jubilee. Womack went on to eclipse Wells, writing the Teddy Pendergrass smash, “Love T.K.O.,” and teaming with his second wife as Womack & Womack.
By the time Wells was told she had cancer, she had burned through her 20th Century advance and more. With no health insurance, a trust was set up at the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, with contributions from, among others, Bruce Springsteen, Ross and Gordy, whose $25,000 check Wells singled out in an interview on “Entertainment Tonight.” “He did come through,” she said.
Wells “knew little about the trust,” Brown says, “except that someone else seemed to be using the funds for something other than Mary’s care. My reaction to the interview is that she was being gracious because of the settlement” Gordy made with her. Curtis Womack says Aretha Franklin insisted on bypassing the Foundation, sending $15,000 directly to Wells.
Doctors told Wells they could save her by removing her vocal cords, an option she rejected. “I miss my voice, you know, but hopefully it will come back,” she said in the same “Entertainment Tonight” appearance the year before she died. “I’ve been singing all my life. I don’t know any other trade.”
1. Tony R
November 23rd, 2010
I met Mary in 1962 when I was 11 & she was only 18, she was & still is my fave singer.She was always a good person & fun to be around. I miss her. She was truly an original superstar that all female singers from the 60's on "owe " a debt to. Every time she walked out on stage she proved the later saying "Black is Beautiful".She was a proud, honest woman & I Know she is in heaven. Love you, Mary... your friend Tony
November 24th, 2010
Yes, my brother & I met Mary in November 1962 in Miami at Sir John's Hotel when the Motortown Revue
stayed there during the tours stop at Miami's Harlem Square Club. We stayed friends always and
at one point in the early 70s Mary moved to Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
This is a nice article with great photos and we look forward to the forthcoming book on Mary
by Peter Benjaminson.
3. Peter Benjaminson
New York, NY
November 24th, 2010
Thank you very much for writing your column about the great Mary Wells. I really enjoyed reading it. I'm particularly pleased that you highlighted what I think was Wells' most attractive feature: her refusal to quit even when the going got awful. As you point out, "Dying of throat cancer and evicted from her home, she took on [Motown President] Berry Gordy, filing suit for breach of contract and infringement of right of publicty." Wells was like that all her life. At age 15, in Detroit, she tried to push her way into all-male singing groups and was never phased by the rejections she always received. At age 17, she approached Gordy while he was directing two separate Motown groups in two different parts of a bustling nightclub. When he said he didn't have time to see her in his office, she was courageous enough to immediately sing to him the song she was trying to sell him. Gordy was so impressed he hired Wells as as a Motown vocalist the next day. But it was in the long years after she left Motown that she was able to display her strength and her courage in the face of never-ending adversity. People with that strength of spirit deserve to be remembered. I'll be providing many further examples of this in my forthcoming biography of Ms. Wells.
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