Tuesday, July 26, 2011

July 26: "The Queen of Motown," Mary Wells died on this date in 1992...

... she was 49 years-old when she died from cancer.

Known as "The Queen of Motown" Mary Wells was one of the Detroit-based labels first singing superstars until her departure from the company in 1964, at the height of her popularity.

With a string of hit singles composed mainly by Smokey Robinson, including "Two Lovers," the Grammy-nominated "You Beat Me to the Punch" and her signature hit, "My Guy," Wells was part of the charge in black music onto radio stations and record shelves of mainstream America.
Mary Esther Wells was born in Detroit. Wells used singing as her comfort by age 10 had graduated from church choirs to performing at local nightclubs in the Detroit area. Wells graduated from Detroit's Northwestern High School at the age of 17 and set her sights on becoming a scientist, but after hearing about the success of Detroit musicians such as Jackie Wilson and The Miracles, she decided to try her hand at music as a singer-songwriter.

In 1960, 17-year-old Wells approached Tamla Records founder Berry Gordy at Detroit's Twenty Grand club with a song she had hoped Jackie Wilson would record. Gordy insisted Wells sing the song in front of him. Impressed, Gordy had Wells enter Detroit's United Sound Studios to record the single, titled "Bye Bye Baby." Gordy signed Wells to the Motown subsidiary of his expanding record label and released the song as a single in late 1960; it eventually peaked at No 8 on the R&B chart in 1961, later crossed over to the pop singles chart, where it peaked at number 45.

In 1961, Wells became the first Motown female artist to have a Top 40 pop single with "I Don't Want to Take a Chance." In the fall of that year, Motown issued her first album and released a third single, the bluesy ballad "Strange Love." However when that record failed to chart, Gordy set Wells up with The Miracles' lead singer Smokey Robinson.

The collaboration paid dividends; Wells' became the label's first female star and its first fully successful solo artist.
Wells' teaming with Robinson led to a succession of hit singles over the following two years. Their first collaboration, 1962's "The One Who Really Loves You," was Wells' first smash hit, peaking at No. 2 on the R&B chart and No. 8 on the Hot 100.

Next Motown released the similar-sounding "You Beat Me to the Punch" a few months later. The song became her first R&B No. 1 single and peaked at No. 9 on the pop chart. The success of "You Beat Me to the Punch" helped to make Wells the first Motown star to be nominated for a Grammy Award when the song received a nod in the Best Rhythm & Blues Recording category.

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Definitive Collection

In late 1962, "Two Lovers" became Wells' third consecutive single to hit the Top 10 of Billboard's Hot 100, peaking at No. 7 and becoming her second No. 1 hit on the R&B charts. This helped to make Wells the first female solo artist to have three consecutive Top 10 singles on the pop chart. The track sold over one million copies, and was awarded a gold disc.

Wells was their favorite American singer

Wells' second album,  titled The One Who Really Loves You, was released in 1962 and peaked at No. 8 on the pop albums chart, making the teenage singer a breakthrough star and giving her clout at Motown. Wells' success at the label was recognized when she became a headliner during the first string of Motortown Revue concerts, starting in the fall of 1962.

Wells' continued to consistently hit the top 20, then in 1964, Wells recorded and released "My Guy." The Smokey Robinson song became her trademark single, reaching No. 1 on the Cashbox R&B chart for seven weeks and becoming the No. 1 R&B single of the year. The song successfully crossed over and became Wells' second million-selling single.

To build on the song's success, Motown released a duet album recorded with fellow Motown singing star Marvin Gaye, Together. The album peaked at No. 1 on the R&B album chart and No. 42 on the pop album chart, and yielded the double-sided hits "Once Upon a Time" and "What's the Matter With You Baby."

Mary's relationship with Motown soured, mostly over royalties. . Angry that the money made from "My Guy" was being used to promote The Supremes, and meager royalties from the contract she signed when she was 17, the singer siled a lawsuit. Wells won and accepted a $200,000 contract with 20th Century Fox Records.

Wells' eponymous first 20th Century Fox release only had one top 40 hit, "Use Your Head." The album was considered a flop.

In 1966, Wells signed with Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco where Wells scored her final Top 10 R&B hit with "Dear Lover," which also became a modestly successful pop hit, peaking at No. 51. However, much like her tenure with 20th Century Fox, the singer struggled to come up with a follow-up hit, and in 1968 she left the label for Jubilee Records, where she scored her final pop hit, "The Doctor."

Though Wells has been eligible for induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame - she was nominated twice in 1986 and 1987 - she has yet to achieve it.


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