AM-NY and Newsday Interview Author Peter Benjaminson about
"Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown's First Superstar"
and Preview His First Book-related Appearance:
Q&A: Peter Benjaminson pens bio on troubled life of Motown's
AM-NY and Newsday Interview Author Peter
Benjaminson about "Mary Wells: The Tumultuous
Life of Motown's First Superstar."
By Sheila Anne Feeney
Peter Benjaminson, author of "The Story of Motown" and "The
Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard," has just
published his seventh book, "Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life
of Motown's First Superstar." Benjaminson, who recently retired
as a labor standards investigator for the New York State
Department of Labor, lives in Harlem, with his wife, Susan
Q: What made you want to write about the woman famous for
singing "My Guy" and "You Beat Me to the Punch"?
A: I lived in Detroit and worked at the Detroit Free Press for six
years (in the 1970s). I had written a story about Florence Ballard,
one of the original Supremes, going on welfare and she liked it.
She suggested I write her biography, which I thought was a great
idea. None of the publishers I took it to wanted to publish it, but
one wanted me to write about Motown because no one had done
any books about it. So I wrote The Story of Motown, and it was
published in 1979 -- there have been 130 books on Motown since
then, and maybe more. Florence had died by then (in 1976) and I
was still trying to sell a book about her! The tapes took up one
cubic square foot of space in my New York apartment and at one
point I was going to throw them all out but my wife physically
restrained me: She wouldn't let me throw it out! When Dream
Girls came out in 2006, I was finally able to sell it and it was
published in 2008. Finally, publishers realized there was a
market for books and movies about black people that were not
blaxploitation type things, books about their trials and
tribulations and every day lives. Mary was the first Motown
superstar, but no one had ever done a book on her. Winston
Churchill was my hero. He said, "never, never, never, never f-----g
give up. You just can't do it!" Wells is my ideal in that sense. She
had an absolute determination to never give up. She was like a
tank, rolling on through life. She never stopped working. On her
deathbed, she was telling her doctor what songs she was going
to sing on her next tour.
Q: But at what cost!? She died in 1992 at the age of 49, leaving
behind four children, one of whom was very young. What is the
moral to be drawn from her life?
A: She smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and never stopped
until she got cancer. She laughed at people who told her to stop.
And she refused to see a doctor.
Q: Not to mention her use of heroin. Why did so many of the
Motown greats die so young?
A: I don't know if the longevity of the Motown artists is worse than
anyone else's at other labels: It would be interesting to chart. But
rock stars have always been rebels. They drink heavily, take
drugs and drink, and then drive all through the night to get from
gig to gig -- and the combination of drinking and driving at night
is not a good one. There is plane travel, and all that available sex.
And a lot of them are not all that stable in the first place.
Q: How many Wells' troubles can be traced to being insanely
successful at a very young age, before she was grounded with
experience and perspective?
A: Exactly. Who makes great decisions at 21? Her chutzpah
served her very well when she was 16 and she buttonholed Gordy
in a club. She was from nowheresville -- the ghetto, basically --
and told him she had written a song for Jackie Wilson. He told
her to sing it for him right there, and she did. But she never
dropped the chutzpah and failed to realize how Motown was such
a good fit for her. At age 16, she became a big star and that was
her whole identity. Her mother wanted her to stay with Motown,
but she associated her mother with Motown and had a great need
to break away, like most young people do. She wasn't even a real
music consumer: She didn't go and see other acts. You should
grow gradually throughout your life and maybe have your big
success at 85.
Q: Berry Gordy exploited Wells, yet Motown had a magic other
labels lacked. They both had so much to lose by parting, but only
Gordy saw that.
A: At one point, Wells had Gordy by the throat. She was his first
big star and she had signed her contract when she was a minor
(leaving her free to renegotiate or walk away when she turned 21).
Her departure put the company in almost fatal danger. Gordy
came over to her (before she left in 1964) and pleaded, "what can
we do to keep you here?" She should have sent her lawyer over
to say, 'I want 48% of all my royalties,' or '$100,000 a year,' or
whatever she wanted! Instead, she insisted she wanted to leave
because she felt she wasn't being paid enough, which was
probably true. But the smart stars, like Diana Ross, got their own
lawyers and accountants and renegotiated their contracts when
they came up. They got really rich.
Q: Was the problem that the non-soul labels didn't know how help
Wells crossover or that no one had Motown's magic with its great
writers, singers and arrangers?
A: There might have been the hangover of racism. And Wells and
Smoky Robinson had an absolute mind meld in the studio. But
the record business depended in large part on promotion and
building relationships with the people who would play the music
and giving them records. Motown had a publicity department that
was excellent at that. It had really good relationships with all the
black stations. After she left Motown, some of the black stations
didn't even know she had records coming out. Some of her new
records weren't as good, but the white promoters didn't know how
to promote black artists to white djs, either. Soon people stopped
remembering her as a crossover artist and just as an r & b artist.
After she left the label in 1964, she recorded Stop Takin' Me for
Granted, which rose to number 88 on the pop charts, Everlovin'
Boy, which was number 34 and Ain't it the Truth which rose to
number 45. It's just that as time passed, these songs faded from
the public memory because My Guy was, after all, number one.
The Motown hits stayed popular for much longer than anyone
Q: Her hunger for a man seemed so sad and her personal life
such a mess.
A: Other female vocalists at Motown like Mary Wilson had much
more secure family lives. That's really the key. Wilson wasn't
desperate for men or having a father-type companion. She and
Diana Ross are still performing! They go through husbands and
their husbands die or whatever, but it doesn't matter: They're still
pushing their careers. Mary Wilson is a great business woman
and is still exhibiting gowns the Supremes wore all over the
world. Wells was crippled by not having a father.
Psychologically, she needed to find a man who loved her and
didn't beat up on her.
Q: Her husband Cecil Womack truly adored her, but she hooked
up with his brother Curtis Womack in a mess that was positively
A: She just really liked Curtis. He seems like a very nice guy: I
interviewed him for the book.
Q: Berry Gordy: good or evil?
A: It depends on whether you want to write counter history. There
was a ton of musical talent in Detroit in the 1960s. Detroit then
had a lot of middle class black people and the kids went to
schools that were affluent enough to have music programs.
Gordy had the money and the entrepreneurial ability to know
what to do with all that talent. He underpaid a lot of people, but
where on earth would they have been without him? Gordy built a
hit-making machine. He recruited people for relatively little
money and had them make records, which he knew how to print
and distribute. Also, all the record companies -- all the white
record companies -- did the same thing (in terms of contracts
that benefited themselves at the expense of artists). Gordy
started Motown at a time of revolution in black music and any
kind of revolution brings up all kinds of creative energies that
have been suppressed for a long time. When people suddenly
have an outlet for their frustration and creativity, you get works of
Q: Why didn't Wells ever become a movie star as she wanted to
A: She could have been. She was attractive and intelligent. There
were so few black movie stars then -- she was sort of on the cusp.
If 20th Century Fox had pushed her, she might have been, but
they didn't want to do it. Motown was beating the pants off 20th
Century Fox Records (and Wells was perceived as more of a
strategic acquisition than a valued investment). They thought all
they had to do was buy away Motown's biggest star.
Q: You've written a textbook on investigative reporting. Did that
knowledge come in handy when tracking down articles from all
these defunct magazines and hard to find sources?
A: I did a lot of what you're doing: Interviewing! You find the
people who are still alive and you get them to talk. And I have
tapes of her deathbed interviews. Most newspapers have their
archives on line now, but I did have to rifle through some
newspaper archives for some of the stories. A lot of fans in
England sent me things in the mail. You can find them all on
soulfuldetroit.com. One guy, David Bell, in England, saw Mary
perform there when he was 17. His girlfriend was sitting on his
lap and got jealous because he was so googley eyed over Mary.
He had never seen a black person before in his life. England
didn't have a lot of black people living there in the 1960s, but the
Motown performers were very favorably received.
Q: You're white, yet you've carved out a niche writing about black
musicians. Has your race played a role in researching or writing
A: I was worried about that: 'Who are you to write about Florence
Ballard?' But she asked me to write a book about her. And then I
found out no one had written a book about Motown! The Motown
music was unique, but it appealed to both black and white
people. Motown really integrated the ears of America. My interest
is not necessarily a racial commitment: I just thought (the
Motown stars) were tremendously interesting with their up and
down lives. Even Berry Gordon rejected the slogan, 'The Sound
of Black America.' He said it had to be 'The Sound of Young
Q: He opted for ageism over racism.
A: That's right!
If you go: Peter Benjaminson will be discussing his book
Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Jackie Robinson Recreation Center,
85 Bradhurst Ave., at W. 146th St., 212-234-9607, FREE.