By DAVID KIRBY, Wall Street Journal, November 16, 2012

"Mary Wells" By Peter Benjaminson
Chicago Review Press, 304 pages, $26.95

Books about pop musicians' lives rarely talk about the music. Most-including, oddly, memoirs by the musicians themselves-focus on the sex and the drugs and never say much about the rock 'n' roll.

There is plenty about hanky-panky and substance abuse in "Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown's First Superstar"; apparently Wells never ran into a man or a narcotic (or a highball or a cigarette) she didn't like. And though Peter Benjaminson reports on all that, he also tells us where the music came from and how it went away, doing justice to his fallen angel of a pop star.

There are dozens of books on Motown already, notably Nelson George's 1986 "Where Did Our Love Go?: The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound," which describes how Berry Gordy Jr.'s enterprise changed the music we listen to forever in the 1960s and then, in the end, "became just another record company."

But to get inside a story, there is nothing like looking at it through a key player's eyes. You want to know about the Civil War? Pick up a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. Radioactivity? Marie Curie. And to find out where Motown came from, what made it tick and then tumble, you could do a lot worse than to slip into a pair of Mary Wells's pumps and follow her into the "Hitsville USA" studio on West Grand Boulevard.

Born in Detroit in 1943, Wells was a natural singer and entertainer. Her father was a shadowy figure, and her mother worked as a cleaning woman to raise a daughter who suffered as a child from both spinal meningitis and tuberculosis. By the time Wells was a teenager, she was a big-eyed beauty who worked her way into any musical group that would have her.

She was one of the most persistent of the many singer-songwriters to pound on the young promoter Berry Gordy's door. When she didn't get the results she wanted, she wrote a song called "Bye Bye Baby" and cornered him in the hall of a Detroit nightclub. He walked away, and she stayed in step until he turned on her and said, "Sing it right now." She did, and Mr. Gordy told her to show up at the studio the next day. She was 17 and brought her mother along to sign the contract.

Berry Gordy Jr. wanted Motown songs to be hits not only on the rhythm-and-blues chart but also on the pop chart. To that end, he insisted that the songs tell stories and tell them in the present tense (not "my girl broke up with me" but "my girl is breaking up with me"). He groomed Mary Wells to produce what Mr. Benjaminson says "came to be known as the Motown sound, essentially a black idiom stripped of the heavier parts of its soul and lightened with the air of innocence."
Thus Wells's greatest hit, "My Guy" (1964), wasn't the sound of black America but of young America. "My Guy" was one in a string of hit singles written and produced by Smokey Robinson (who was also responsible for Wells's hits "Two Lovers" and "You Beat Me to the Punch") that helped to get songs by black artists onto mainstream radio stations and into record stores.
But despite the schoolgirl innocence of "My Guy," Wells knew how to slather a bouncy pop tune with sex appeal. In one of those juicy little moments that makes the book get up off the night stand and start dancing, Mr. Benjaminson relates how Wells was clowning around in the studio when she made a stuttering sound toward the end of a take of "My Guy." The producers told her to do it again, and Wells said she was just kidding, that she was imitating Mae West trying to entice a lover upstairs. But those come-hither hiccups made it into the final version. Listen to "My Guy" (which you can do easily on YouTube) and you'll think "Gee, that's kind of sexy." Now you know why.
The Beatles, of course, were the masters of looking and sounding like singing teddy bears as the sex oozed under and through the lyrics. In 1964, they dominated the pop chart. When "My Guy" held the No. 1 spot for two weeks before the quartet from Liverpool knocked it out with "Love Me Do," a Motown publicist issued a press release proclaiming Wells "The Girl Who Beat the Beatles."
They were certainly smitten with Wells, whom they invited to join them on their fall 1964 tour. They followed her around slavishly and, in a culture where sexual escapades were the norm, innocently: "Lennon and the other Beatles remained reverent toward Mary after meeting her," writes Mr. Benjaminson. "Mary said all four Beatles would visit her in her dressing room before every show," content merely "to talk to her and look at her." John told jokes, and Paul styled her one night while George, the notoriously "shy" Beatle, worshiped her silently. As a British journalist quipped, Mary Wells had "the highest-paid publicists in the world."
From 1962 to 1964, Wells had been Motown's premier female vocalist. But the Motown business model also involved using the revenue from successful artists to support the careers of developing ones, such as, at that time, the Supremes. Dissatisfied, Wells announced her intention to leave the label; incredibly, she claims Mr. Gordy offered her 50% of the company, which meant that, if she had stayed, she would have had a stake in the rising careers of artists like Diana Ross. It was a decision that damaged both parties.
Without Smokey Robinson and Berry Gordy, Wells's hits dried up. Motown struggled to replace their top female vocalist and other artists followed her in her wake. Years later, Mr. Gordy confessed, "I would not always pay what it would take them to stay. That might have been a mistake." Wells was less hesitant, telling a reporter, "I should have stayed at Motown."
The rest of the story isn't happy. Wells bounced from label to label, but no one could duplicate Motown's formula, and she supported herself mainly through touring. There were a couple of suicide attempts and a bizarre invented "kidnapping" supposedly staged by a couple of overeager fans in 1986. Never in the best of health from childhood forward, she had a two-pack-a-day habit from her teen years and later turned to crack and heroin. She grew more and more sickly and died of cancer in 1992.
Even in her last years she put on dazzling shows and stayed around afterward for hours talking to fans, but Wells never struck anyone around her as happy. Fellow Motown artist Brenda Holloway recalls that "there was a sadness about her from the first day I met her to the last day I saw her," and another friend says that Wells "had a lot of hurt bones, but no mean ones," even in her last days.
Yet accounting for her sorrow is a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum. Yes, she grew up without a father, but so have a lot of people. Maybe hers is a case of life imitating art. Mr. Benjaminson quotes singer and producer Ken Frowley saying that "pop music is music for lonely people made by other lonely people," and perhaps Wells took that too much to heart. The "My Guy" lyrics ("nothing you can say / can tear me away from my guy") become an uneasy refrain after a while; her relationships with men suggest a near-pathological clinginess. (The story of a false kidnapping came from Wells's panic when her then-companion Curtis Womack couldn't accompany her to a show in Toronto.)
In the end, Wells's story is the stuff of great art. Operas like "La Traviata" and "La Bohème" are centered on such characters; Edgar Allan Poe said that the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical topic in the world. When you finish this book, you will mourn Mary Wells, sure, and be grateful for the music she left. But don't be surprised if you find that, like John, Paul, George and Ringo, you are more than a little in love with her as well.
-Mr. Kirby is the author of "Little Richard: The Birth of Rock 'n' Roll."