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 Press).

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."



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