Born in Detroit, Michigan on May 13, 1943, the woman who was to be crowned the Queen of Motown, Mary Esther Wells, experienced the difficulties of growing up without a father, with her mother doing domestic work to meet the needs of the family.
Mary’s hometown was near Wayne State University, and as a child, she was temporarily paralyzed for some time during her childhood due to spinal meningitis. Complications worsened her physical condition – loss of hearing and partial blindness in one eye. She had to learn to walk again when she regained good health.
As young as three or four years, Mary already sang in the church. She joined talent contests and sang in local clubs at age ten, and she had started writing songs by the age of 16 which gave her the opportunity to become known as a talented singer. Robert Bateman introduced her to his boss Berry Gordy, Jr., and when she was unable to write down the song she has written for Jackie Wilson Gordy asked her to sing it to him, and he immediately signed her up upon listening to her voice.
Under Motown with William “Smokey” Robinson, she released her debut single “Bye, Bye Baby” in 1960. It claimed no. 45 in the pop and no. 8 in the R&B charts that year. Her first successful single was followed up with a second one, “I Don’t Want to Take a Chance”, which also did well in both the pop and R&B Charts. However, her third single “Strange Love” gave Gordy the signal to change Mary’s packaging.
She was teamed up with Smokey Robinson, a move that proved to be a wise decision as evidenced by the successes of her 1962 singles “The One Who Really Loves You”, “You Beat Me On The Punch”, and “Two Lovers”. These were followed up in 1963 with “Laughing Boy”, “Your Old Stand By”, and “What’s Easy For Two Is So Hard for One” with its flipside “You Lost the Sweetest Boy”. In 1964, “My Guy” became her biggest hit ever when it topped the pop charts.
Her popularity at that time earned her several recognitions from the music world. She was attributed the titles “The Queen of Motown” and “The First Lady of Motown”. She was the first female singer at Motown who was considered a superstar, and she became an instant international star in 1964 with the worldwide success of “My Guy”.
She was so popular that she was able to capture the attention of even ‘The Beatles” who declared her to be their favorite American singer. They invited her to tour England, and before returning to the USA she had established a firm friendship with the band. So much so that she recorded an album entitled “Love Songs to the Beatles”.
It was at the peak of her brief super stardom when Wells had a problem with Motown. Two issues were involved – the contract that she signed when she was not yet seventeen and the royalties out of the big hit “My Guy”. Finally, after many legal debates, she left Motown in early 1965, coinciding with her acceptance of a $500,000 contract with 20th Century Fox Records.
Contrary to her expectations, her career with 20th Century Fox was not as sunny as it was with Motown. Her single releases were not able to climb very high in the charts, and she also has a problem with her health. I addition, the promise she was given of some film projects under her new company did not materialize. She signed with Atlantic Records in 1966 working with producer Carl Davis, and that collaboration produced some barely successful hits including “Dear Lover”.
She married Cecil Womack in 1967 with whom she had three children. The two of them co-wrote “the Doctor” in 1968 which became her final pop hit, this time under Jubilee Records. She was able to release two songs produced by Bobby Womack, her husband’s brother, then decided to retire from music in 1974 to focus on her family, particularly on her children.
She was not heard of for a number of years, and then she returned to the music scene with her 1981 single “In And Out Of Love” under Epic Records. This was followed by “Gigolo”, not only her final hit, but her final chart single.
A deeper glimpse at her personal life would reveal that she married twice. Her first marriage was to Herman Griffin in 1960, and ended up in divorce in 1963. Her second was Cecil Womack in 1967 that lasted until 1977. She had an affair with Curtis Womack, Cecil’s brother, which ended in 1990. By this time Wells was already a chain smoker with a heroin habit, and suffered from bouts of depression. With the determination to focus on raising her children, she was able to quit her heroin habit but in that same year she was diagnosed with cancer.
Her cancer of the larynx was attributed to her smoking two packs a day. Not long after she was diagnosed the disease reached the stage where she was unable to sing. She spent her final days working with funding for cancer research. At one time she testified before a Congressional Committee where she said: “I’m here today to urge you to keep the faith. I can’t cheer you on with all my voice, but I can encourage, and I pray to motivate you with all my heart and soul and whispers.”
She died on July 26, 1992 at the Kenneth Norris, Jr. Cancer Hospital in Los Angeles, California. The First Lady of Motown, whose sultry voice helped to get black music into the charts and onto the shelves, not only in America, but the world over.