Mary Wells, a.k.a. “The First Lady of Motown” died today (July 26, 1992) from throat cancer.
Mary Wells was just 17-years-old when she auditioned her self-written tune “Bye, Bye Baby.”
Wells originally wrote to tune for Jackie Wilson, but Berry Gordy liked her voice so much during her audition at the 20 Grand Club, that he signed her on the spot.
After “Bye, Bye Baby” peaked at #45 on the Pop charts, Berry Gordy aligned Mary Wells with Smokey Robinson and the hits began.
Smokey penned the tunes “The One Who Really Loves You,” which was a hit in 1962.
That same year “You Beat Me to the Punch,” and “Two Lovers,” reached the Top 10, with two lovers being Motown’s first Grammy nomination.
During the period, Mary Wells also recorded a number of memorable duets with Marvin Gaye.
But it was Mary Wells’ 1964 single “My Guy,” which was written by Smokey Robinson, that took her career and Motown into the stratosphere, hitting #1 on the R&B and Pop Charts.
She became involved in a dispute with Motown and left the label in 1964, at the urging of her husband Motown songwriter, Herman Griffin.
Wells signed with 20th Century Fox’s division for a $500,000 advance, although 20th Century had to pay Motown a percentage of Mary Wells’ royalties, for three years.
The association produced one substantial hit, “Dear Lover,” which was produced by Chicago soul Master Carl Davis (her final Top 10 hit).
After Mary Wells left Motown, the hits stopped coming in and she experienced personal turmoil in her life.
In July 1964, Herman Griffin, now her ex-husband, shot Robert West, Wilson Pickett’s former manager and owner of the legendary Lupine Record label.
The incident occurred in Mary Wells’ Plaza Apartment building in New York and it took out one of West’s eyes, causing him to retire from the business.
In 1966, Mary Wells married Cecil Womack, brother of Bobby Womack. By the 70’s, Mary Wells experienced a resurgence, when a reissue of “My Guy” hit the Top 10 in the UK.
In 1977, she divorced singer Cecil Womack and signed a contract with Epic Records. She managed to hit the Pop charts again with a Disco song named “Gigolo.”
By 1990, Mary Wells’ voice was fading due to her 40-cigarette-per day habit. She visited a hospital, where she was diagnosed with cancer.
Mary Wells was forced to abandon her music career, due to the strains of the treatment, in addition to the expenses associated with it.
Fellow musicians and Motown friends held a benefit concert for Mary Wells in 1990, in order to raise money for her.
Artists like Stevie Wonder, Little Richard, Dionne Warwick, Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt and Aretha Franklin all hosted benefits or made donations.
In 1991, Mary Wells emerged victorious in another lawsuit against Motown where she recovered hundreds-of-thousands of dollars in back royalties.
Tragically, in 1992, Mary Wells died from cancer at Kenneth Norris Jr. Cancer Hospital in Los Angeles.