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Motown's first consistant hit-maker
on 28 March 2009
In the UK, we tend to think of Mary Wells as a one hit wonder. 'My Guy' was Motown's first ever British hit in the summer of '64. In the US however, things were different. That song just about marked the end of a very worthy run of chart hits.
Mary went to an audition at Motown in 1960, with a song she had written with Jackie Wilson in mind 'Bye Bye Baby'. She could not write music or play any instrument, so they had her sing the song. They signed her as a performing artist there and then, and it became her first release. The record sold steadily for large parts of 1960 and 61, making the R&B top ten and just missing the pop top 40.
The next move was inspired. Mary was teamed with their top songwriter/producer Smokey Robinson. The results took America's charts by storm over the next few years. Eleven more sides made the R&B top 10 (including 3 No 1s). More significantly, all of them made the pop top 40, including a No 1 with 'My Guy', and three more top ten hits. This was the market that Motown wanted.
Other acts like The Miracles and The Marvelettes had broken through, but none of them had consistant pop success like Mary in those early formative years.
Mary's voice is a little hoarse and has an endearing seductive catch. This helped her to crossover to the pops. Mary did a duet album with Marvin Gaye in '64. This was truly the pairing of their top male and top female act at the time. It seems funny to realise that she was the bigger star of the two then. Both sides of a single they released made the charts and are included here.
Mary turned 21 in May of '64. Under the law at the time, her contract had to be renegotiated. She accepted an offer from 20th Century, including a $50,000 advance. It may sound like chicken feed now, but it was a fortune in 1964 dollars. There was some good music and chart success to come, but Mary never again reached the heights she had at Motown. Sadly it seemed she could never find sustained happiness in her personal life. She died of cancer at the age of just 49 in 1992.
This music stands as a testament to the power of Motown in the early 60s. There is so much more to Mary Wells than 'My Guy'.