Detroit News Calls Book "Dramatic"
There are few more dramatic rags to riches stories in the
history of Motown than that of singer Mary Wells, the subject of
a new biography by Peter Benjaminson, "Mary Wells: The
Tumultuous Life of Motown's First Superstar" (Chicago Review
Until now, Wells' story has been told in bits and pieces in
various books (including, full disclosure, my 1998 book
"Women of Motown") and in a 2011 episode of TV One's
celebrity biography show "Unsung," but Benjaminson's
biography is the first full-length book about Motown's early
superstar, the female singer who, had she stayed at Motown,
arguably might have "been" Diana Ross.
A Rough Start in Detroit
Born in 1943, Wells grew up in Detroit helping her mother as a
domestic, scrubbing floors in downtown office buildings.
"Misery is Detroit linoleum in January, with a half-froze bucket
of Spic and Span," Wells told an interviewer years later. She
wasn't sure who her father was. She didn't do well in school —
Jefferson Junior High, then Northwestern High School.
But not long after the 17-year-old rushed up to Berry Gordy at
a sock hop and insisted that he listen to a song she'd written,
she became the queen of Motown, his fledgling label. Wells
opened tours for the Beatles and scored hits as its most
famous solo artist. She became the sweetheart of the pop
charts with her lilting, innocent yet sexy voice on such hits as
"My Guy," which appealed to the growing teenage
record-buying demographic Gordy so cannily understood. She
also was the first major artist to leave Motown in 1964,
believing she was underpaid.
Motown may have paid her less money than other record
companies were willing to, but the hometown label had
nurtured her career with the perfect songs written and
produced for her by Smokey Robinson, and the perfect music
backing her up. (One of the most famous opening riffs ever to
"My Guy" was a sly takeoff on the melody to "Canadian
Sunset" tossed off by Motown's Funk Brothers.)
No less than Atlantic Records' Ahmet Ertegun described the
difficulty in replicating the sound made in that tiny West Grand
Boulevard studio to his biographer, Robert Greenfield: "We
didn't understand how to write it; we didn't understand how to
play it; we didn't understand how to sing it."
Admitting her mistake
Wells career never recovered from her separation with
Motown, and she later admitted it was a mistake to leave.
She died in 1992, at 49, of a cancer that robbed her of her
voice, her only livelihood. She hadn't been entirely forgotten,
but attempts to get her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame had
been abandoned. At the time of her death, she was a widely
publicized charity case whom prominent music figures such
as Bruce Springsteen and Rod Stewart — and her old boss
Gordy — helped with money to cover medical expenses.
Benjaminson's book came out a month ago, but between the
presidential election and Superstorm Sandy, it's been a little
under the radar. The New York-based author, whose previous
book was "The Lost Supreme, The Life of Dreamgirl Florence
Ballard," thought it would be done earlier, but he had to spend
more time researching Wells' complicated life than he thought.
"It was a tremendous amount of research," Benjaminson says
by phone. "My previous book was about Flo Ballard, and her
career was relatively short compared to Mary. One of the
things that impressed me about Mary was that she went on
and on after she left Motown.
"I felt someone owed it to her to write a book," Benjaminson
says. "She was such a big influence here and England and
around the world."
And that influence continues — just last year the J.C. Penney
spring TV ad used "My Guy" in the background.
Her many loves
After Motown, Wells recorded for a variety of record
companies, including 20th Century Fox, Atlantic and Reprise,
supported herself and a growing family (four children and an
entourage) doing numerous gigs, and pursued a romantic life
so complicated it begs for one of those Rolling Stone "family
tree" type charts the magazine used to print showing the
intricate love lives of rock stars.
After the usual (for the Motown family) entanglements with
colleagues and other singers (among them Otis Williams of the
Temptations and Jackie Wilson), Wells became infatuated with
one of the singing Womack brothers (Curtis), married another
one of the brothers (Cecil), then had an affair with the one she
liked originally (Curtis).
After she took up again with Curtis Womack, she and husband
Cecil divorced, and Cecil married older brother Bobby
Womack's former step-daughter and paramour Linda Cooke,
daughter of Sam Cooke.
Womack/Cooke family reunions had to be interesting.
While being interviewed for the "Unsung" episode on Wells,
Benjaminson even tripped himself up explaining it, and had to
start all over again.
Drugs remained a problem
Despite Wells' dependence on often-unreliable men and a
descent into drug addiction that really only ended with her
death, Benjaminson admired the singer, which drove him to
write the book.
"I identified with Mary's determination to, first, crash into a very
restricted industry, then after she left Motown and realized she
had made a mistake, the whole thing of continuing. Flo Ballard
took the less-demanding route of going on welfare. Mary had
more children than Flo did, but she was determined to be
independent. On her deathbed she was talking about what she
was going to sing on her next tour."
While Wells' ex-husband Cecil declined to be interviewed, his
brother Curtis, whom she never married, did. Wells had three
children by Cecil; her fourth child, a daughter, Sugar, was by
Curtis. (Today her grown children have all changed their last
names to Wells.)
One interesting tidbit Curtis Womack brings up is a claim that
Wells turned down an offer of $1 million from Gordy in the early
1990s, at a time when she was sick and desperate for money,
and her plight was being publicized in the press.
It seems Wells felt she deserved $10 million, and she also
could see that Womack really wanted the money, so she turned
it down almost to tease him.
While Gordy didn't agree to an interview with Benjaminson and
so couldn't confirm or deny the story, and her attorney at the
time doesn't believe it happened, the author leans toward
thinking it did.
"The story doesn't show Curtis in the best light," Benjaminson
says. "When people tell stories in which they're not the hero,
you tend to believe them more."
From The Detroit News: