Mary Wells, considered the “Queen of Motown,” is one of the first singers responsible for defining the genre’s legendary sound in the 1960’s. She had an incredible amount of momentum entering the music industry, and likely would have outdone herself over the years had she not faced some of the struggles that she did. Even so, she had a variety of firsts and paved the way for not only women in the industry, but other Motown artists as well.
Mary Esther Wells started singing as a child. She was so good that by the age of 10 she was performing at nightclubs. (The 1940’s were different times indeed.) Despite being locally well received as a child singer, she initially thought she’d like to be a scientist, until she heard about the success of other local musicians and decided going pro might be for her as a songwriter.
After she was confident that she had a hit on her hands, the teen boldly approached Tamla Records’ Berry Gordy at a nightclub and told him that she had penned a tune he might be interested in. Berry asked her to sing the song to him and pretty much immediately signed the 17-year-old to the Motown subsidiary of Tamla as a vocalist. Her first single, “Bye Bye Baby,” hit the number eight spot on the 1961 R&B charts and landed on the pop singles chart.
From there, she started setting records with her catchy soulful-pop sound. Later on that same year, she became the first woman to have a Top 40 pop single with “I Don’t Want to Take a Chance.” Then she became the first Motown star to be nominated for a Grammy Award when “You Beat Me to the Punch” received a nod in the Best Rhythm & Blues Recording category.
By 1962 she became the first female solo artist to have three consecutive Top 10 singles on the pop chart. Two years later her song, “My Guy” also peaked on the UK charts, making her an international star. The Beatles caught wind of her talent, and proclaimed that she was their favorite American singer. They later asked her to come on tour with them, making Wells the first Motown star to ever perform in the UK.
While Wells’s career was flourishing, she was struggling with some technical aspects of her label contract on the back end. Wells found out that some of the money from “My Guy” was being used to promote The Supremes. Not being able to come to an agreement with Motown, she left the label that propelled her to stardom. It took some time to work out the details, but she was released by the label in 1965. However, in doing so, she had to agree to forfeit all royalties from her past work.
Wells immediately signed a new contract with 20th Century Fox Records, but her first album flopped. Rumors circulated about whether or not it was due to Motown paying radio stations to not play her new music. From there on out there were a variety of labels and a few hits. It was in 1990 when Wells was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer and subsequently forced to retire her voice for good. Without health insurance, the cancer treatments literally took her of house and home.
While Wells didn’t have the financial support leftover from her Motown years, she did have the emotional support. When the news of her struggle got out musicians like Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, Martha Reeves, and The Temptations jumped at the chance to help. Following that ordeal, she attempted to sue Motown for a million dollars, agreeing on a three-figure settlement. Just a year later she passed away at the age of 49.
You can’t help but think that Wells’s success was cut short in a number of ways, but her contributions to the music industry are undeniable. While the song “My Guy” was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, the singer has yet to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.