A Rockapaedia Obituary
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Mary Wells died aged forty-nine of pneumonia and cancer on 26th July 1992 at the Kenneth Norris Jr. Cancer Hospital in Los Angeles, California, U.S.A.. She was survived by sons Cecil, Jr. and Harry, and daughters Stacy and Sugar.
After her funeral, which included a eulogy given by her old friend and former collaborator, Smokey Robinson, Mary Wells was cremated, and her ashes were laid to rest in Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial Park, in a Womack family crypt.
In 1966, Mary Wells married singer-songwriter Cecil Womack, the younger brother of star Bobby Womack. Prior to divorcing Cecil Womack she dated Curtis Womack and attempted suicide when word had spread of that relationship. After the failed suicide attempt, Mary sought other methods of what she called "meditating", including using cocaine and over time, she developed a heroin habit. However,her drug habit ceased after she became pregnant with Curtis' child. After splitting from Curtis in 1990, Mary focused on raising her youngest daughter until her cancer appeared.
Mary was born Mary Esther Wells near Detroit's Wayne State University on 13th May 1943, to a mother who worked as a domestic, and an absentee father. One of three children, she contracted spinal meningitis at the age of two and struggled with partial blindness, deafness in one ear and temporary paralysis then at age ten Mary contracted tuberculosis. During her early years, Mary Wells lived in a poor residential Detroit district. By age twelve, she was helping her mother with house cleaning work.
Mary Wells used singing as her comfort from her pain and by age ten had graduated from church choirs to performing at local nightclubs in the Detroit area. Mary graduated from Detroit's Northwestern High School at the age of seventeen and set her sights on becoming a scientist, but after hearing about the success of Detroit musicians such as Jackie Wilson and the Miracles, she decided to try her hand at music as a singer-songwriter.
In 1960, seventeen-year-old Mary Wells approached Tamla Records founder Berry Gordy at Detroit's Twenty Grand club with a song she had intended for Jackie Wilson to record, since Mary knew of Gordy's collaboration with Wilson. However, a tired Gordy insisted Mary Wells sing the song in front of him. Impressed, Gordy had Mary Wells enter Detroit's United Sound Systems to record the single, titled "Bye Bye Baby". After a reported twenty-two takes, Gordy signed Mary Wells to the Motown subsidiary of his expanding record label and released the song as a single in September 1960; it peaked at number eight on the Rythm&Blues chart in 1961, and later crossed over to the pop singles chart, where it peaked at number forty-five.
Mary Wells' early Motown recordings reflected a rougher Rythm&Blues sound than the smoother style of her biggest hits. Mary Wells became the first Motown female artist to have a Top 40 pop single after the Mickey Stevenson-penned doo-wop song "I Don't Want to Take a Chance" hit number thirty-three in June 1961. In the fall of that year, Motown issued her first album and released a third single, the bluesy ballad "Strange Love". When that record slumped, Gordy set Mary Wells up with the Miracles' lead singer Smokey Robinson. Though she was hailed as "the first lady of Motown", Mary Wells was technically Motown's third female signed act: Claudette Rogers, of Motown's first star group the Miracles, has been referred to by Berry Gordy as "the first lady of Motown Records" due to her being signed as a member of the group, and in late 1959 Detroit blues-gospel singer Mable John had signed to the then-fledging label a year prior to Mary Wells' arrival. Nevertheless, Mary Wells' early hits as one of the label's few female solo acts did make her the label's first female star and its first fully successful solo artist.
Mary Wells' teaming with Robinson led to a succession of hit singles over the following two years. Their first collaboration, 1962's "The One Who Really Loves You", was Mary Wells' first smash hit, peaking at number two on the Rythm&Blues chart and number eight on the Hot Hundred. The song featured a calypso-styled soul production that defined Mary Wells' early hits. Motown released the similar-sounding "You Beat Me to the Punch" a few months later. The song became her first Rythm&Blues number one single and peaked at number nine on the pop chart. The success of "You Beat Me to the Punch" helped to make Mary Wells the first Motown star to be nominated for a Grammy Award when the song received a push in the Best Rhythm & Blues Recording category.
In late 1962, "Two Lovers" became Mary Wells' third consecutive single to hit the Top ten of Billboard's Hot Hundred, peaking at number seven and becoming her second number one hit on the Rythm&Blues charts. This helped to make Mary Wells the first female solo artist to have three consecutive Top 10 singles on the pop chart. The track sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc. Mary Wells' second album, also titled The One Who Really Loves You, was released in 1962 and peaked at number eight on the pop albums chart, making the teenage singer a breakthrough star and giving her clout at Motown. Mary Wells' success at the label was recognized when she became a headliner during the first string of Motortown Revue concerts, starting in the fall of 1962. The singer showcased a rawer stage presence that contrasted with her softer Rythm&Blues recordings.
Mary Wells' success continued in 1963 when she hit the Top twenty with the doo-wop ballad "Laughing Boy" and scored three additional Top forty singles, "Your Old Standby", "You Lost the Sweetest Boy", and its B-side, "What's Easy for Two Is So Hard for One". "You Lost the Sweetest Boy" was one of the first hit singles composed by the successful Motown songwriting and producing trio of Holland–Dozier–Holland, though Smokey Robinson remained Mary Wells' primary producer.
Also in 1963, Mary Wells recorded a session of successful B-sides that arguably became as well known as her hits, including "Operator", "What Love Has Joined Together", "Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right" and "Old Love (Let's Try It Again)". Mary Wells and Robinson also recorded a duet titled "I Want You 'Round", which was later re-recorded by Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston.
In 1964, Mary Wells recorded "My Guy". The Smokey Robinson song became her trademark single, reaching number one on the Cashbox Rythm&Blues chart for seven weeks and becoming the number one Rythm&Blues single of the year. The song successfully crossed over to the Billboard Hot Hundred, where it eventually replaced Louis Armstrong's "Hello, Dolly!" at number one , remaining there for two weeks. The song became Mary Wells' second million-selling single.
To build on the song's success, Motown released a duet album recorded with fellow Motown singing star Marvin Gaye called 'Together'. The album peaked at number one on the Rythm&Blues album chart and number forty-two on the pop album chart, and yielded the double-sided hits "Once Upon a Time" and "What's the Matter With You Baby".
"My Guy" was one of the first Motown songs to break on the other side of the Atlantic, eventually peaking at number five on the UK chart and making Mary Wells an international star. Around this time, the Beatles stated that Mary Wells was their favorite American singer, and soon she was given an invitation to open for the group during their tour of the United Kingdom, thus making her the first Motown star to perform in the UK. Mary Wells was only one of three female singers to open for the Beatles, the others being Brenda Holloway and Jackie DeShannon. Mary Wells made friends with all four Beatles and later released a tribute album, Love Songs to the Beatles, in the mid-sixties.
Former Motown sales chief Barney Ales described Mary Wells' landmark success in 1964 as Mary being our big, big artist.
Ironically during her most successful year, Mary Wells was having problems with Motown over her original recording contract, which she had signed at the age of seventeen. She was also reportedly angry that the money made from "My Guy" was being used to promote The Supremes, who had found success with "Where Did Our Love Go", just as "My Guy" was promoted, using the profits from another, earlier hit Motown song.. Though Gordy reportedly attempted to renegotiate with Mary Wells, she still asked to be freed from her contract with Motown.
A pending lawsuit kept Mary Wells away from the studio for several months, as she and Gordy brokered the contract details, with Mary fighting to gain a larger share of the royalties she'd earned during her tenure with Motown. Finally, Mary Wells invoked a clause that allowed her to leave the label, advising the court that her original contract was invalid, as she had signed while she was still a minor. Mary Wells won her lawsuit and was awarded a settlement, leaving Motown officially in early 1965, whereupon she accepted a lucrative two-hundred thousand dollar contract with 20th Century Fox Records.
Part of the terms of the agreement of her release was that she could not receive any royalties from her past works with the label, including the use of her likeness to promote herself.
A weary Mary Wells worked on material for her new record label while dealing with other issues, including being bedridden for weeks suffering from tuberculosis. Mary Wells' eponymous first 20th Century Fox release included the first single "Ain't It The Truth", its B-side "Stop Taking Me for Granted", the lone top forty hit, "Use Your Head" and "Never, Never Leave Me". However, the album flopped, as did the Beatles tribute album she released not too long afterwards. Rumors have hinted Motown may have threatened to sue radio stations for playing Mary Wells' post-Motown music during this time. After a stressful period in which Mary Wells and the label battled over various issues after her records failed to chart successfully, the singer asked to be let go in 1965 and left with a small settlement.
In 1966, Mary Wells signed with Atlantic Records' subsidiary Atco. Working with producer Carl Davis, she scored her final Top ten Rythm&Blues hit with "Dear Lover", which also became a modestly successful pop hit, peaking at number fifty-one. However, much like her tenure with 20th Century Fox, she struggled to come up with a follow-up hit, and in 1968, she left the label for Jubilee Records, where she scored her final pop hit, "The Doctor", a song she co-wrote with her then-husband Cecil Womack, of the famed Womack family. In 1970, Mary Wells left Jubilee for a short-lived deal with Warner Music subsidiary Reprise Records and released two Bobby Womack-produced singles. In 1972, Mary Wells scored a UK hit with a re-issue of "My Guy", which was released on the Tamla-Motown label and peaked at number fourteen. Though a re-issue, Mary Wells promoted the single heavily and appeared on the British TV show Top of the Pops for the first time. Despite this mini-revival, she decided to retire from music in 1974 to raise her family.
In 1977, Mary Wells divorced Cecil Womack and returned to performing. She was spotted by CBS Urban president Larkin Arnold in 1978 and offered a contract with the CBS subsidiary Epic Records, which released In and Out of Love in October 1981. The album, which had been recorded in 1979, yielded Mary Wells' biggest hit in years, the funky disco single, "Gigolo".
"Gigolo" became a smash at dance clubs across the country. A six-minute mix hit number thirteen on Billboard's Hot Dance/Club Singles chart and number two on the Hot Disco Songs chart. A four-minute radio version released to Rythm&Blues stations in January 1982 achieved a modest showing at number sixty-nine. It proved to be Mary Wells' final chart single.
After the parent album failed to chart or produce successful follow-ups, the Motown-styled 'These Arms' was released, but it flopped and was quickly withdrawn, and Mary Wells' Epic contract fizzled. The album's failure may have been due to light promotion. She still had one more album in her CBS contract, and in 1982, released an album of cover songs, Easy Touch, which aimed for the adult contemporary radio format. But after leaving CBS in 1983, she continued recording for smaller labels, gaining new success as a touring performer.
In 1989, Mary Wells was celebrated with a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation during its inaugural year.
In 1990, Mary Wells recorded an album for Ian Levine's Motorcity Records, but her voice began to fail, causing her to visit a local hospital. Doctors diagnosed Mary Wells with laryngeal cancer. Treatments for the disease ravaged her voice, forcing her to leave her music career. Since she had no health insurance, her illness wiped out her finances, forcing her to sell her home. As she struggled to continue treatment, old Motown friends, including Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, members of the Temptations and Martha Reeves, made donations to support her, along with the help of admirers such as Dionne Warwick, Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Aretha Franklin and Bonnie Raitt. That same year, a benefit concert was held by fellow fan and Detroit Rythm&Blues singer Anita Baker. Mary Wells was also given a tribute by friends such as Stevie Wonder and Little Richard on The Joan Rivers Show.
In 1991, Mary Wells brought a multimillion-dollar lawsuit against Motown for royalties she felt she had not received upon leaving Motown Records in 1964 and for loss of royalties for not promoting her songs as the company should have. Motown eventually settled the lawsuit by giving her a six-figure sum. That same year, Mary Wells testified before the United States Congress to encourage government funding for cancer research.