This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.
This is album retro-review number 139 in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl and Cd albums in my collection.
The series is called “Cream of The Crate” and each review represents an album that I believe is of significant musical value, either because of it’s rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of music or because there is something unique about the group or the music.
The first fifty reviews were vinyl only, and the second fifty reviews were CD’s only. Links to these reviews can be found at the bottom of this page. From review 101 onward I have mixed vinyl and CD albums and, try and present an Australian album every fifth review!
Links to all these reviews can be found at the bottom of the page.
Recently I have retro-reviewed a number of Motown Girl groups, where the lead singer had the support of backing singers, thus making up a group. This week I feature a Motown singer, who was a solo act.
This is a vinyl album and while it is a compilation it was bought out in the early 1960’s by Motown to showcase the music of one of their star acts.
The album is simply titled The Best Of and it is by Mary Wells. It was released on the Motown label with the code – M5-233V1.
The album features what Motown saw as the best of Mary Wells recordings made up until 1964, when this album was released. The album has 12 tracks on it.
The story of Mary Wells is a bitter/sweet story.
She was born on May 13, 1943 in Detroit Michigan, and was in a family of three children, including herself and a mother, but she had an absentee father. Life wasn’t easy for the families and they probably fell right into the category of a “poor black family.
Compounding the misery that came from her circumstances, she contracted spinal meningitis at the age of two and struggled with partial blindness, deafness in one ear and temporary paralysis. In order to cope with the pain, she used to sing, mostly to herself, or in the local church choir.
At ten years of age she began singing in Detroit-area clubs and talent contests. When she was 17 (1960) she wrote a song she wanted to give to Jackie Wilson, a favorite singer of hers.
Motown head Berry Gordy was holding open auditions at his studio and Mary showed up with the song, Bye Bye Baby“, and performed it for him.
Gordy not only bought the song but signed her to a recording contract, and instead of giving the song to Jackie Wilson, it became Mary’s first single, in 1961.
It landed in the top 50 on the R&B charts.
This began a tumultuous association with what was, the top studio for the local music, especially for female singers.
Working with Smokey Robinson, she became the first Motown female artist to have a Top 40 pop single after the Mickey Stevenson–penned doo-wop song, I Don’t Want to Take a Chance, hit No. 33 in June,1961.
In 1962 she released The One Who Really Loves You, another Smokey Robinson penned track, and had better success with it reaching number 8 on the US charts.
Flushed with that success released to more top tracks, You Beat Me To the Punch– charting at number 9 and Two Lovers, charting even better at number 7.
But many around her thought she was getting stuck in a “sound-rut”, and when her first two tracks in 1963 went in the wrong direction, it seemed to reflect that those fears might be realised.
When the track Your Old Standby just scraped in at number 40 as it failed to gain acceptance by audiences. Smokey had then suffered the indignity of having the Mary Wells Project opened up to outside competition, leading to what was essentially a double A-side single, pairing Smokey’s What’s Easy For Two Is So Hard For One with Holland-Dozier-Holland’s sassy contribution, You Lost The Sweetest Boy.
Neither side charted particularly well and to be honest it’s probably because both songs cannibalised each other’s airplay, and so when we come to look at the careers of Mary Wells and Smokey, they were by their standards, on a considerable cold streak.
Ideas abounded on how to revive Wells’ career.
New material was recorded with Smokey and with Holland Dozier, Holland, venerable standards and old Jobete catalogue numbers [Jobete was a publishing entity set up to be used by Motown’s writers] were then dusted off for reinterpretations.
In fact an album of duets with Marvin Gaye was recorded throughout the spring of ’64, but none of this freshly-cut stuff passed muster with Quality Control as a potential hit single, and so all of it ended up back on the shelves.
By the beginning of March 1964, Motown were considering trying to recoup some costs by releasing a cobbled-together LP made up of the various unreleased bits and pieces Mary had stockpiled, and Smokey was tasked with coming up with some more filler to bulk out the proposed album.
THAT’S how My Guy came into the world: a throwaway “End Of Side One” cut for a half-hearted album release.
This was her crowning glory at Motown, and little did anyone realise, it would also be her last 7″ release for the label.
Ironically right in her most successful year, Wells was having problems with Motown over her original recording contract, which she had signed at the age of 17.
Though Gordy reportedly tried to renegotiate with Wells, the singer still asked to be freed from her contract with Motown.
A pending lawsuit kept Wells away from the studio for several months, as she and Gordy went back and forth over the contract details, Wells fighting to gain larger royalties from earnings she had made during her tenure with Motown.
Finally, she invoked a clause that allowed her to leave the label, telling the court that her original contract was invalid since she had signed while still a minor.
Wells won her lawsuit and was awarded a settlement, leaving Motown officially in early 1965, whereupon she accepted a lucrative ($200,000) contract with 20th Century Fox Records.
Part of the terms of the agreement of her release was that she could not receive any royalties from her past works with the label, including use of her likeness to promote herself.
It was this clause that would forever haunt her as she received no royalties for subsequent sales of her music, including the incredibly popular My Guy.
Mary had released ten singles from that first release in 1960, through to My Guy.
Having left Motown for 20th Century Fox and then Atlantic records, she released a total of eight singles between 1964 (post My Guy) and 1981, of which only one, the 1966 Dear Lover, would chart in the Top 10.
Her album releases are indeed very thin in regard to Motown, with this album – Greatest Hits being her first release in 1964, and the other being Mary Wells Sings My Guy, also released in 1964.
Of course because of the clause in her release contract, she never received one dollar from these album sales. In later years, wracked with guilt, Berry Gordy Junior would make a payment to her out of his own pocket.
“Wells’ love life alone could fuel a daytime soap opera. She married Cecil Womack in 1966 and had three children with him and divorced him in 1977 to live with his brother Curtis. (They had a daughter named Sugar.)
She also had dated Jackie Wilson, Otis Williams of the Temptations and Wilson Pickett. Wells never abandoned songwriting or performing until she could no longer sing.
Always tenacious in her career, she suffered setbacks due to lack of promotion from her post-Motown record companies and bad personal decisions“. [ Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar by Marianne Moro)
As well as suffering from TB, she was a very heavy smoker. In the early 1990’s she was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. Treatments for the disease ravaged her voice, forcing her to quit her music career.
In 1991, Wells brought a multi-million dollar lawsuit against Motown for royalties she felt she had not received upon leaving Motown Records in 1964 and for loss of royalties for not promoting her songs as the company should have.
Motown eventually settled the lawsuit by giving her a six-figure sum. However, for her the end was near and sadly she passed away in 1992 from cancer, barely fifty years of age.
1. The One Who Really Loves You
2. You Beat Me To The Punch
3. Two Lovers
4. Your Old Stand By
5. What’s Easy For Two Is So Hard For One
6. My Guy
1. Laughing Boy
2. What Love Has Joined Together
3. Oh Little Boy (What Did You Do To Me)
4. Old Love (Let’s Try It Again)
5. You Lost The Sweetest Boy
6. Bye Bye Baby
I’m kicking off with track number 1 – The One That Really Loves You.
It was Mary’s first top 10 hit, reaching number 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and, number 2 on the Billboard R&B chart. and deservedly so.
It has a fantastic rhythm and pulse about it, and her voice just sounds like it was made for this track, showing a soft tonality but at the same time real power.
It featured the backing vocals of “The Love Tones”, who consisted of Stan Bracely, Carl Jones and Joe Miles. the musical backing is sweetly superb. So it should be as it’s the Hitsville Funk Brothers, who were largely responsible for what became known as the Motown Sound, and whilst the resultant track really has a “fake” calypso beat, it works well.
It’s no wonder that the buying public took to this great track, and it certainly seemed to indicate that Mary Wells could deliver, and would deliver for a long time. This is one fun-ky track!
The One That Really Loves You
Before I race through the next tracks, we need to acknowledge that track 2 is a very, very good track.
Beat Me To the Punch was released straight after The One That Really Loves You, and reached number 9, and again demonstrated Mary’s easy going but effective vocal delivery. It was composed by Smokey Robinson and Ronnie White, who like Robinson was a member of the Motown giants – The Miracles.
The track was constructed as an answer to another track released just prior, and that track was “You Threw A Lucky Punch“, which was recorded by Gene Chandler.
These days there might just be a court-case over the fact that in most respects the Mary Wells track, musically, is similar to the Gene Chandler track – but that didn’t stop the track by Mary from being nominated for a Grammy for the best R&B recording when it reached number 1 on the R&B charts.
The song is about a shy girl who is afraid to approach the boy she loves until he “beats her to the punch” and comes to her first. When she discovers her new boyfriend is a playboy, she decides to turn the tables on him:
So I ain’t gonna wait around for you to put me down
This time I’m gonna play my hunch
And walk away this very day
I’ll beat you to the punch, yes I will.
Beat You To The Punch
Next came Two Lovers which was Mary’s third consecutive hit. It’s a cleverly constructed song that features “two” lovers, one who treats her right, and one that treats her bad – but in the end they are the same boy!
From here we get into that period where her songs started lacking spark, and happily move past tracks four and five, coming to track six – which utterly demands attention.
First and foremost, it’s just a lovely song. You can read this song with cynicism! The words and indeed, the title, sound simplistic – even if you get the words right.
If the Internet is anything to go by, more than one person has apparently misheard a key line as I’m sticking to my guy like a snail to a letter).
You can approach it with caustic dismissal, but, really it’ll always disarm you; it’s an utterly heartfelt expression of love, real love, as piercing an examination in its way as any of Smokey’s earlier lyrics or Mary’s earlier deliveries.
This is what it’s all about, what it all boils down to. Part of that is the lyrics – Mary’s “narrator” coming up with great rhymes and metaphors before just completely running out new of words mid-verse:
As a matter of opinion, I think he’s tops
My opinion is, he’s the cream of the crop
As a matter of taste, to be exact
He’s my ideal, as a matter of fact…
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 became Wells’ second million-selling single. It’s a fascinating fact that right from the beginning Mary deliberately sang it with a husky Mae West type voice, first as a joke, but it knocked the producer out and he demanded that she continue to sing in that fashion.
The background vocals were by The Andantes: Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow, and Louvain Demps, and the music was of course, courtesy of the Funk Brothers.
Side 2 is mainly lesser known and B-side tracks. Yet hidden among them are some gems.
Track 3 – Oh Little Boy, is the B-side to that mega-hit, My Guy.
In retrospect it was a shame that this track wasn’t released in its own right – it has it all, although it lacks a little of the passion of My Guy.
One of the key features of the track is the offbeat, out-of-key chant of “Sh-bop sh-bop!”, a direct lift from the Flamingos’ equally otherworldly I Only Have Eyes For You (and almost as out of place on this record as on that one).
The track calls up a world now already disappeared: sock hops, soda fountains, class rings, the golden age of doo-wop.
The main difference between this track and the Flamingoes track is that the Flamingoes were setting out to create a surreal atmosphere for their track, whereas Mary, who was already delivering her lyrics like a consummate actress, had her “Sh-bop sh-bop’s” inserted to provide an atmosphere of a jangled woman on the edge.
She plays a woman who’s been unceremoniously dumped and is having trouble staying on the right side of crazy. Andre Williams who wrote the track and produced it, coaxes a brilliant performance out of Mary.
Dramatically and vocally; her voice is just out of this world on this one, it turns throaty, menacing, off the beat, flat, semi-spoken, semi-spat, alternately self-reliant and helplessly pleading.
Oh Little Boy
Old Love was released on the B-side of You Beat Me To The Punch. Whereas it was a delight to sell the virtues of the last track as a B-side, I can’t do the same with this track. Even though it was written by one of the great writing teams of the era, Holland, Dozier,Holland – the track is as close to a clunker as you can get!
The penultimate track – You Lost the Sweetest Boy, also written by Holland, Dozier, Holland, and somewhat made up for Old Love, released a year earlier.
It actually made it to number 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1963, at a time when Mary was singing well, and, the track had what was possibly, the greatest backing vocal lineup of the time, featuring both The Supremes and The Temptations.
I guess that would give most tracks the “wow” factor.
You Lost The Sweetest Boy
The final track on the album is the only track written by Mary Wells.
Bye Bye Baby was that first track recorded by her at Motown, when she ventured in with this track, that she had written. It is a rough and ready song, somewhat lacking in finesse. It was later re-released by Betty Everett who did a far better job.
When the track was released by Motown, interestingly Mary received no writing credit.
Mary Wells delivered a lot in her short career at Motown, but she could have, should have, delivered a lot more.
There is no doubt she had a great, almost at times a sultry voice, that could command a presence due to her excellence of delivery. Circumstances, both self-driven, and driven by Motown seemed to conspire against her.
Certainly she had powerful supporters. The Beatles declared Mary Wells their favorite American singer and invited her to England to tour with them, making her the first Motown star to perform in the UK.
Despite being nominated twice for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that recognition has yet to be granted. Quite a travesty!
However, in 1989 Mary Wells was celebrated with a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation during its inaugural year.
The fact that she only released two albums at Motown makes this, her first album, definitely a collectors item.
Subsequent albums were on other labels and while there is the odd great track, and despite the way things panned out at Motown – the tracks she recorded their were among her very best.
So back to Mary Wells: Greatest Hits – It is of mixed quality, but the five tracks I have featured on it more than declare that she was a singer that should be remembered
Again, it’s more than a shame that even 23 years after her death, and 51 years after she released My Guy, she has not been recognised in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
She deserves it!
The album has, of course, been re-released on CD, but an original copy of the album in the vinyl form on the Motown label, will cost around $30.00- $50.00 including postage.
I can’t conceive of any collection that has Motown recordings as part of it, would not have the Mary Wells album in it, and surely it would have to be the very best of her Motown recordings.
The following are the available live performances of Mary Wells. There are sadly far too few televised performances that have survived.
My Guy – Shindig 1965
Two Lovers – Apollo Theatre 1962
Bye Bye Baby – Apollo Theatre 1962
Previous Cream of The Crate Albums:
To view/listen the first 50 vinyl album reviews just click the image below –
To view/listen the first 50 Cd album reviews just click the image below –
Click to open the following Vinyl reviews from 101 onward:
#108: Paul Simon – Graceland