The Tumultuous Life of Motown's Mary Wells

Jan 24, 2013

WAMC's Ian Pickus speaks with Peter Benjaminson, author of Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar.

She might not be as well known as Motown greats like Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson and Diana Ross, but without the trailblazing career of Mary Wells, those artists might not be the household names they are today.

Wells was a Detroit teenager, a firebrand who rose from the poverty of her youth to help bring international acclaim – and the sales that come with it — to Berry Gordy’s latest foray into the music business, Motown Records. But Wells wasn’t discovered from obscurity as much as she cornered Gordy in a club to sing him an original song.

Before long, Wells was Motown’s first female solo artist, and by 1964, she rose to the top of the charts with “My Guy.” Soon she was touring with the Beatles and singing duets with Marvin Gaye.

But the same artist who helped bridge the gap between black and white pop music would spurn Motown at just 21. To her dying day at just 49, through lawsuits and decades of acrimony, Wells felt she had been lied to and abused by Motown, even as she continued to sing her hits to appreciative crowds on the road.

Benjaminson has written extensively on Motown. Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar is published by Chicago Review Press.