Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown's First Superstarby Peter Benjaminson
Years before Diana Ross, Mary Wells was the first Motown solo superstar, the internationally popular songstress who sang the megahit “My Guy.” Her songs consistently and repeatedly reached huge audiences in America and England, both black and white. She captivated the Beatles, toured with them, and was briefly more popular than they were on the pop
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Years before Diana Ross, Mary Wells was the first Motown solo superstar, the internationally popular songstress who sang the megahit “My Guy.” Her songs consistently and repeatedly reached huge audiences in America and England, both black and white. She captivated the Beatles, toured with them, and was briefly more popular than they were on the pop charts. But Wells left Motown at age 21 and spent the rest of her life trying to fight her way back to the top. She also had a series of tumultuous affairs and marital attachments with several well-known singers and songwriters. And near the end of her life, Wells fought a drawn-out and courageous battle with throat cancer, giving perhaps her gutsiest performance. Peter Benjaminson has spent years interviewing Wells’s friends, lovers, and husbands, and obtained an amazingly detailed unreleased taped interview with Wells herself. In Mary Wells, he tells her whole story, complete with never-before revealed details about the sex, the violence, and the drugs in her life—and about her Motown hits that captivated the world.
“A fascinating biography. Relentless research has resulted in not only a riveting tale of Wells’s many personal battles but also a gripping snapshot of the music industry in which she worked. Motown’s first superstar is given top-of-the-charts treatment in this terrific book.” —Gerald Posner, author of Motown, Why America Slept, and Case Closed
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The Tumultuous Life of Motown's First Superstar
By Peter Benjaminson
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2012 Peter Benjaminson
All rights reserved.
LITTLE MARY WELLS
We know that Mary Esther Wells was born in Detroit, Michigan, on May 13, 1943. Her birth certificate identified her mother as Geneva Campbell Wells, a "housewife," although she worked cleaning houses. It listed Mary's father as Arthur Wells, and identified both parents as black. But Arthur Wells is a shadowy figure.
The birth certificate said Arthur was an employee of the Fisher Body Company, which made car bodies for General Motors.
But except for his name on Mary's birth and death certificates, and Mary's claims that he was brutal to her mother, little else is known about Arthur Wells. His birth and death records can't be found. Mary always referred to him as her stepfather, never as her father. For most of her life, she told her friends that her real father was "a handsome black man" named something like George Windell or Wendell. He also cannot be found, nor can any records pertaining to his life or death.
Those who believe this account point to the real name of the man known as Shorty Wells, the third of Mary's four children: Harry James George Womack. Harry James was the name of a deceased uncle. But the name George, according to another of Shorty's uncles, Curtis Womack, was given to the child as a nod to Mary's biological father.
In 1981, however, when Mary was thirty-eight, she told several interviewers that her biological father was a white man whose family had employed her mother as a housemaid. Mary said her grandmother had recently revealed this information to her and she found it deeply disturbing. She told Sharon Davis, who was interviewing Mary for Blues & Soul, a UK magazine, in 1989, that after her grandmother's revelation, "I went into the bathroom and sat there for a long while all cut up because I always thought this other man was my father. ... My father is a Sicilian, he's more famous than 'The Sicilian,' as in the movie. Some say he died in jail, some say he made a big score a couple of years ago and moved to Florida and changed his identity." As far as is known, Mary did not reveal her alleged white father's actual name.
Randy Russi, a friend of Mary's who is of Italian heritage, said Mary was so obsessed with the supposed Italian origin of her alleged white father that she wanted to talk to Russi's grandmother to see if that lady knew anything about the man. (Russi's grandparents had lived in Detroit at the same time as Mary's alleged white father.) Randy said such a meeting was never arranged.
Mary informed her bandleader during the second half of her career, Will Porter, that she was of mixed race and didn't know who her real father was. (Porter, who is considered white, speculates that he himself is of mixed race.) She'd heard that she had white relatives in either Virginia or Washington, DC, who were coming to see her in concert when she performed in the area but without saying hello.
Curtis Womack's recollection of what Mary said about her "real" father is consistent with what Wells told interviewers and slightly more detailed. Mary told him her father "was this Italian man that her mother used to work for," Curtis said. "He brought her momma home on a motorcycle one time and on the way he stopped ... and he took her [Geneva] into a park somewhere [to have sex]."
Curtis thought the story of a white father made sense in at least one way. "You knew her daddy had to be white, Italian, or something, because Mary's tall and Mom is short and Mom looks like a real African. She was a real dark, little short woman. You would say, 'That's Mary's mother?'"
Others say they never thought Mary's father was white. Annette Helton, one of the original Vandellas, while calling Mary a "lighter complected black woman," said Mary "never appeared to be mixed." Helton spent time on the road with Mary along with numerous other black female performers who routinely borrowed makeup and cosmetic tools from each other. She said that if Mary had appeared to be racially mixed, the matter would have come up in conversation. Sally Womack, whom Mary lived with for a year, also said that Mary's skin did not indicate any white parenthood. And photos of Mary don't help settle the matter.
Curtis said that the closest he and Wells came to meeting her alleged white father was in the 1970s when they met in Las Vegas with people who allegedly knew him. The father was said to be working for a casino there. These people gave Mary presents, and she and a man who said he was Mary's father talked on the telephone. But Mary and that man never actually met.
Because no one knows when this alleged father left Michigan or when he moved to Nevada — assuming that he even existed — tracing him is impossible.
Adding poignancy to these accounts was that they were told in the context of a city with a long history of racial tension. At the time of Mary's birth, Detroit was a majority white city with a substantial black minority. And, only a few weeks after she was born, murderous riots broke out between black and white Detroiters.
In 1943, Detroit was overcrowded with war workers. Hundreds of thousands of people, both black and white, mostly from the South, had immigrated to the city during World War II to help staff its booming war production industries. On Sunday, June 20, 1943, a hot and humid day, more than one hundred thousand people jammed onto Belle Isle, an island in the middle of the Detroit River.
Interracial brawls soon broke out. A rumor spread that white sailors had thrown a black woman and her baby off the Belle Isle Bridge. Black rioters began smashing the windows of white-owned stores in black districts. On the next day, white rioters, taking their revenge, pulled black commuters off buses and trolleys and out of cars on Woodward Avenue, the city's main street, and beat them senseless. By the third day, federal troops and the Detroit Police Department had finally restored order. Thirty-four people had been killed, twenty-five black and nine white. Seventeen of those twenty-five black people, and none of the white ones, had been killed by police. Hundreds of people were injured and eighteen hundred were arrested. It was the worst riot in the United States since the Tulsa race riot of 1921. A commission led by an army general later concluded that the police had overreacted in many instances.
Neither Mary nor any of her relatives were caught in this maelstrom, the first of two major racial conflagrations that scarred Detroit during the twentieth century (the second occurred in 1967 and forty-three people were killed). Considering that history, it's amazing that in 1959 Detroit spawned the Motown Record Company, which aimed at selling the same music to both black and white listeners, and that Motown, with Mary's help, succeeded.
Even though her family was unscathed by the 1943 riot, Mary wasn't particularly lucky in her upbringing. The first area she lived in was an African American neighborhood on Detroit's East Side called Black Bottom. (The name referred to the area's dark soil; the neighborhood had been home to various ethnic groups before becoming black in the twentieth century.) Wells told one interviewer that she was too young to remember this community in any detail but called it "the bottom of poverty." When Mary lived there it was a poor black residential neighborhood consisting mostly of wood-frame houses. Immediately to its north was the lively black entertainment district known as Paradise Valley, but Mary was too young to patronize it. (Both Black Bottom and Paradise Valley were demolished in the 1960s, and the area now hosts successful mixed-income housing developments.)
Mary's family soon moved to an area on Detroit's West Side now called the Cass Corridor. The new neighborhood was a working-class residential area of brick and wood-frame houses, many occupied by two families, interspersed with a number of small brick apartment buildings. It wasn't ritzy, but it wasn't as poor as Black Bottom.
In the 1920s and '30s, the area, which wasn't far from General Motors headquarters in Detroit's New Center neighborhood, boasted a car dealers' row. In the '50s, when Mary was still living there with her family, a furniture store, a florist supply company, an International Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF) Hall, and a vending machine company all operated near Mary's house. A public swimming pool, the Louis Stone Pool, operated by the Detroit Department of Parks and Recreation, was less than a block from Mary's address, although she never mentioned swimming there. (The pool has since been closed and is covered with graffiti.)
Mary lived with her stepfather and mother and two older brothers, Thomas and Fletcher, in one half of a two-family brick-veneered house at 4439 Fourth Avenue. Another family lived next to them in the house's other half. A structure that might have been a garage stood in the backyard. (Mary's house and some houses nearby have since been replaced by a low-rise apartment project. Others were demolished for the construction of the north-south John C. Lodge freeway during the 1950s.)
Mary attended and graduated from the neighborhood's grade school, Jefferson Junior High School, and Northwestern High School. She sang in the chorus in both junior high and high school.
Although Arthur Wells was often absent from the family home, Mary said that when he was present he often verbally and physically abused his wife. Mary told Curtis Womack that she never knew, especially on weekends, when her stepfather would start abusing her mother. When she was a little girl, she'd jump on Arthur's back in futile attempts to stop his aggression. Although Arthur "was the sweetest guy when he wasn't drinking," she hated him. His alleged abuse of her mother made her particularly sensitive throughout her life to the threat or actuality of such treatment.
Maye James-Holler (born Maye Hampton), Mary's best friend when both were teenagers, described Mary's mom as a "sweet lady, a limited sort of a fun lady." But Maye also called her a woman "who liked her drinks a lot." Several other friends of Wells said the same. In any case, Mrs. Wells worked as a domestic during the day and was home only in the evening. Mary "started being the mother and taking care of her own mother as soon as she could," Maye said.
Claudette Robinson of the Miracles described the young Mary as "poor but hard working," and in fact, by age twelve, Mary was helping her mother with her work as a house cleaner. "Day work, they called it, and it was damn cold on hallway linoleum," Mary told an interviewer. "Misery is Detroit linoleum in January, with a half-froze bucket of Spic and Span." According to Wells, her mother didn't have much choice of occupation. "Until Motown came to Detroit, there were three big careers for a black girl — babies, factories, or day work. Period."
Mary loved her mother dearly and, later in life, expressed deep sympathy for Ginny's hard life as a cleaning woman. "When it's just the two of you," she told Gerri Hirshey, who quoted her in her book Nowhere to Run, "a kid can see something going out of her mama's face, you know. Like a dress you can wash but so many times and it ain't going to size up so smart on the hanger. We were just two women alone, helping each other out ... but we were always clean and neat, and we had something." When Mary started making money from singing, she bought diamonds and minks for her mother before she bought them for herself. "I wanted to do something to help her because I had seen a lot of her youth fading away from not being able to enjoy life."
Mary also battled two serious illnesses in her childhood. Beginning at age three, she was bedridden for two years with spinal meningitis, a disease that left her temporarily paralyzed, partially deaf, and temporarily blind in one eye. According to one of her friends, it could have been worse: for a while Mary was not expected to live. But the doctors gave her a new medication, which saved her life. Her mother tried to cheer her up in the hospital by decorating her room with balloons, but when Mary recovered she had to learn to walk all over again. For the rest of her life, she bore a tiny scar on her forehead from falling out of a hospital bed when the nurses weren't watching her. And her vision in one eye was permanently damaged.
Then, at age ten, she almost died of tuberculosis. (She had another bout with TB in 1965, when she was twenty-two.) She spent so much time in hospitals and with doctors that her early ambition was to become a nurse, a doctor, or a scientist.
Geneva Wells returned Mary's trust and loyalty as best she could. Her attempt to cheer up her daughter in the hospital was characteristic: Mrs. Wells gave Mary the maximum support she could throughout her life, eventually living with Mary and helping to care for Mary's children.
Mary's uncle Clem, a preacher at the New Beulah Baptist Church, also supported her, both spiritually and morally. "He gave her life structure," Maye James-Holler said. Mary remembered happily attending Uncle Clem's church with her family and singing there from age three on. Mary also said church helped her mother: "She always stood better when she came out of there on Sunday." For a while, Mary even lived with her uncle and his wife. Her grandfather, who helped raise her, offered additional emotional sustenance. "Her grandfather and her uncle gave her moral and religious training," Maye said.
As a teenager, Mary also depended a great deal on her friendship with Maye. "Oprah and her friend Gayle King? That was me and Mary," Maye said. "Mary even had the exact same laugh as Oprah."
Despite this support, Mary never remembered her youth as happy. "My generation grew up pretty fast and alone," she told one interviewer. "They basically kind of grew themselves up."
Wells loved science in school, and she also played the clarinet and sang in the school choir. She dressed like her friends did, often wearing loafers, white bobby socks, a pleated skirt, and a pink sweater. But she was two years behind her fellow students due to her years in the hospital, and she once complained to her mother that other girls said bad things about her behind her back. Her mother replied, "If they're talking about you, it means you're going to be something in life."
The question was what that something would be. Mary wanted to be a scientist but knew that her parents couldn't afford to send her to college. And her grades were too poor to hope for a scholarship. "My mother fought with my stepfather, and there was a lot of confusion," she said. "I was very sensitive and it made me nervous, and my grades went down to a C average."
Mary enjoyed singing and remembered being enchanted by the movie musicals of the time she saw at local theaters, movies such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Funny Face, and Gigi. "Wow, they [the singers and dancers] were having so much fun and making money," she told Steve Bergsman in 1991. "It looked like an easy living ... almost like being in heaven."
Wells had discovered her goal in life. "I knew I could sing and I loved to perform, so I figured I could go this way," she said. "All the entertainers looked so glamorous and wonderful, so I started writing songs" in imitation of the popular songs she heard on the radio.
Informal bands and groups were springing up everywhere in Detroit those days, partly because the public schools offered an extensive program of music education. Also, as Motown vocalist Claudette Robinson pointed out to Unsung, "We didn't have computers. We didn't have phones. ... For entertainment, you played kick the can when you were very young and perhaps board games. ... And one of the ways of making entertainment was to make music." Robinson's failure to even mention television is characteristic of people born in the early 1940s. TV didn't become a regular feature in most American households until the 1950s, when the behavior patterns of people born earlier in the previous decade had already been established.
Mary sang as much as she could, performing pop songs of the day solo and in groups, some of them all-male except for her. "They didn't want me in there, but I was persistent," Mary said.
Robert Bateman, a member of the all-male Motown group the Satintones, remembers that when he and the group were performing, "Mary ... approached me out of nowhere and said, 'Why don't you guys get a girl in your group?'" Bateman put her off because some of the other group members "were just interested in getting into her pants," and he thought her membership would disrupt group solidarity. But he told her that he was considering her request and to keep asking.
At this moment, when Mary the sixteen-year-old high school student started pushing her way into groups that didn't necessarily want her, her youth was over. After she had spent her short childhood in loyal and serious support of her mother and in battles for her own health, she turned her fierce energy to loyal and serious devotion to her career.
Mary's talent and ambition soon led her to her first and only female boss: Detroit vocalist and music biz entrepreneur Johnnie Mae Matthews, later known as "the Godmother of Detroit Soul." As a vocalist, Matthews sang with a group called the Five Dapps, who recorded a single, "Do Wop A Do," on Detroit's Brax record label; as a solo performer, she ended up releasing more than twenty-five singles on various labels.
Excerpted from Mary Wells by Peter Benjaminson. Copyright © 2012 Peter Benjaminson. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this
"Superlative . . . Benjaminson attempts valiantly, painstakingly to resurrect the reputation of founding Supreme member Flo Ballard . . . [An] engaging biography." —Publishers Weekly on The Lost Supreme
"Peter Benjaminson pays tribute to the remarkable life of Mary Wells through a fascinating biography. His relentless research has resulted in not only a riveting tale of Wells's many personal battles but also a gripping snapshot of the music industry in which she worked. Motown's first superstar is given top-of-the-charts treatment in this terrific book." —Gerald Posner, author, Motown, Why America Slept, and Case Closed
"I thought I knew all there was to know about Mary Wells. I was wrong. Here, Peter Benjaminson tells Mary's story with great love and compassion in a way that informs even the so-called experts. I love Peter's work, and am happy to see Mary Wells finally be given the recognition she so deserves." —J. Randy Taraborrelli, author, Michael Jackson, After Camelot, and The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe
"Peter Benjaminson does an admirable job with Mary Wells, presenting thoroughly researched scholarship, but always going back to reminding the reader of the soaring voice, and wide heart, of Motown's first superstar." —Charles R. Cross, author, Heavier than Heaven and Room Full of Mirrors
"Mary Wells has finally found 'My Guy'—and it is her biographer Peter Benjaminson. This is a match made in music heaven." —Al Abrams, author, Hype & Soul: Behind the Scenes at Motown
"Peter exposes the raw truth contained in never-before-released audio interviews with Mary as she lay on her deathbed. This fascinating story hits bookstores everywhere on November 1." — Sister 2 Sister magazine
"Benjaminson (The Lost Supreme) delivers another excellent and fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the artists who made Motown Records a massive success in the 1960s." — Publishers Weekly
"A fascinating narrative of the life of a popular music icon." —Library Journal
Meet the Author
Peter Benjaminson is the author of The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard, The Story of Motown, and, with David Anderson, Investigative Reporting. He has written numerous stories for the Detroit Free Press, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and other publications. He lives in New York City.
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I chose this book based on the subject. I grew up on the Motown Sound and was a big fan! I loved Mary Wells' music and I am loving this book!