— Peter Benjaminson lived in Detroit for just six
years in the 1970s. But his tenure here has provided a
his new book, "Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of
Motown’s First Superstar" (Chicago Review Press,
$26.95), the former Detroit Free Press city reporter now
has three Motown books to his name, including a 2009
biography of the late Florence Ballard. His 1979 work,
"The Story of Motown," was the first book to
chronicle the Detroit label, and he already has his
sights on another Motown star: funk man Rick James.
all started with a chance heads-up from his Freep editor
in 1975: Ballard, the former Supreme, was on welfare.
Benjaminson’s lengthy interview with the struggling
star was his first foray into the Motown world, and
became the impetus for his books.
Wells, Benjaminson has produced the first biography of
the late singer, who became Motown’s leading female
star with hits such as "My Guy" in 1964. Her
momentum was soon cut short, as Wells’ contract
demands ultimately led to her Motown departure — and a
series of stymied comebacks before her 1992 death.
67, who lives in New York, talked with the Free Press
about his work.
What made Mary Wells a compelling subject to tackle?
There were several reasons. First, she paved the way for
all the other female stars at Motown. She showed the
women who followed her how to be a success as a female
I admired her for her absolute determination, in
everything. She was absolutely determined to be a big
star, and wouldn’t let anything get in the way.
here was this determined singer and pathfinder — and
there had never been a book on her. There weren’t even
very many (press) clips, in fact. She had just moved so
fast, before Motown got its PR operation in full gear.
That was bound to make your research a bit tougher.
I was getting really discouraged in the beginning. I
called a lot of the people I’d dealt with on previous
Motown books. "So, Miss Jones, you knew Mary
Wells?" "Sure, I saw her backstage a couple of
times. She was a very nice person." And that would
be it. I had five of those interviews.
dam broke when I discovered this guy named Steve
Bergsman, who lives in Arizona. He had recorded four
hours of interviews with Mary while she was on her
deathbed. At that time — 1992 — he’d been unable
to sell the book. There wasn’t much interest. We
arranged so I could get the tapes, and so this is based
in part on those deathbed tapes.
I ran into people like her third husband, Curtis Womack,
who was a great source, and from him I got a lot of
other names, so it became much easier.
were very few people who knew Mary Wells for her entire
life. It was a really interesting task stitching
together all these recollections from different times
and making it a smooth, flowing story about her growth
Mary Wells is an interesting character if only because
of her rebellion against Berry Gordy — one of the few
blotches on the public version of the Motown fairy tale.
From our perspective in 2013, it looks like a mistake to
have left Motown, and I’m pretty sure it was. She
would have taken all those songs that the Supremes made
into hits, starting with "Where Did Our Love
Go," on and on. She could have been not just a
star, but a super-super-star.
was the first major person to leave. In a way, she
helped other Motown artists by showing them what they
You’ve made a pretty fruitful career as a Motown
author. But finding that niche was kind of happenstance,
I came to Detroit in 1970 and I was there through ’76.
I wrote a book with David Anderson while I was at the
Free Press — the first how-to book about investigative
reporting. And it sold really well. Definitely a big
book, in print 20 years, two editions. So I thought
there’s got to be some other subject in Detroit for a
book. The obvious thing was the auto industry, but that
had been done to death already by other qualified
was at the Free Press city desk one morning with nothing
going on, and my editor assigned me to do a story about
Florence Ballard being on welfare.
I went to Grove Press trying to sell a biography of Flo
Ballard, they pointed out that nobody had even written a
book about Motown. I was really surprised. This was
1977. You know how well-known Motown was. I figured,
here’s my big chance. And I wrote ("The Story of
was still trying every few years to sell the Flo Ballard
idea, but wasn’t successful until 2007 after "Dreamgirls"
came out. And that did so well, it was easy to get a
contract for this Mary Wells book.
Who’s the audience for a Motown book in 2013?
It’s an interesting mix. There are a lot of older
people who remember Mary and "My Guy." It’s
still a very popular song, part of the American culture
because it’s so well written, so well sung. It’s
really punched through the time barricade.
there are a lot of younger people who have heard about
her and want to find out what happened to her.
Motown is still so popular. "The Story of
Motown" was the first book published in this
country on Motown Records. There have been more than 180
since. And they’ve all sold — otherwise publishers
wouldn’t continue. If you look at other record
companies, there are probably one or two books on
Atlantic Records, one or two on Stax, maybe one on
Columbia. I’d bet my life there aren’t more than two
books on any other record company in America.
EXCERPT: THE RECORDING OF ‘MY GUY’
Wells had become a Motown goddess: its premiere female
vocalist, a position she would hold without challenge
from 1962 to 1964. Our story picks up there, as Wells
and Smokey Robinson are collaborating on what would
become Wells’ signature hit and one of the defining
songs of Motown’s Detroit era.
and Wells, sensing they were on the roll of their lives,
marshaled their best talents for a maximum effort.
Robinson wrote the music and lyrics for Mary’s next
song, which he called "My Guy." A rare upbeat
and jaunty song about love and loyalty, its tune is
light and catchy and its lyrics memorable. It’s hard
to write more classic rock lyrics than these:
you can say
tear me away
you could do
I’m stuck like glue
sticking to my guy
a stamp to a letter.
birds of a feather
telling you from the start,
can’t be torn apart from my guy."
remaining lyrics contained Robinson touches best
described as "where polite language meets the
street," including such lines as "You best be
believing/ I won’t be deceiving my guy."
Analyzing the appeal of the song, (songwriter-producer)
Eddie Holland told (TV show) "Unsung" that
"You know how women think especially when they’re
young, there’s nothing you can tell those young girls
about their boyfriend."
delivery in "My Guy" was sweet and jaunty,
sophisticated and assured, and decidedly feminine.
Author David Ritz, referring to both the lyrics and to
Mary’s style, memorably called the song "a
fluttering study in fidelity."
the tune’s success was that while it was black music,
it was far from raw soul. It was directly aimed at pop
radio stations and pop record sales. This song, which
became the template for most of the other Motown
classics of the 1960s, was built on a strong melody, a
noticeable beat and accessibility for all. The beat, a
Motown trademark, was much stronger than those on the
rhythm tracks used by white singers during these years.
And the fact that Mary’s rendition of this song —
like Diana Ross’s delivery of later Motown hits —
was feminine, soft, sweet and romantic, added immensely
to its appeal.
dream for Motown, after all, had been to produce not the
sound of black America, but, in his words, "the
sound of young America." In "My Guy," he
certainly succeeded. "This song was the epitome of
the Motown Sound," Mary Wilson said.
the years, the tune and lyrics of "My Guy"
have come to be a symbol of what critics praised as the
"spellbinding simplicity" of early Motown.
"My Guy" also was boosted into
semi-immortality by something the Motown house band
added to it at the beginning, and a twist that Mary
inserted at the end.
the day of its recording, according to the book
"Standing in the Shadows of Motown" by
"Dr. Licks" (Allan Slutsky), the Motown studio
musicians had been working all day. With only a half
hour left in the session, they had become bogged down in
the intro section. As time and patience ran out,
trombonist George Bohanon turned to studio bandleader
and keyboardist Earl Van Dyke and pointed out that the
melody from the song "Canadian Sunset" fit
right over the chord changes of the "My Guy"
intro. Van Dyke not only took Bohanon up on his implied
suggestion, but added the left hand from Eddie Haywood’s
"Begin the Beguine." (The "Canadian
Sunset" beginning is easily recognizable in
"My Guy" once someone tells you about it;
otherwise, it just sounds like an unusual intro to a
were doing anything to get the hell out of that
studio," Van Dyke said. "We knew that the
producers didn’t know nothin’ ‘bout no ‘Canadian
Sunset’ or ‘Begin the Beguine.’ We figured the
song would wind up in the trash can anyway." Van
Dyke was usually right with such predictions. This time
he was way wrong.
came Mary’s part. As soon as Robinson had played the
song on the piano for Mary, she told herself "I
love this song. I hope it’s a Top 10. It’s a
completely beautiful melody." She decided she loved
it so much that she "had to put something real cute
on the end. And I thought about Mae West."
by the Andantes, Wells recorded the ending the way Mae
would have sung it were she trying to entice a lover
upstairs. She adopted a sexy musical stutter. "I
was really joking," Mary said. But the producers
said, "Keep it going, keep it going." She did:
not a man-n t-day (Mary stuttered)
could take me away
me more!") (from the Andantes)
not a man-n t-day (Wells stuttering again)
could take me away,
stuttering aside, (Motown vocalist Brenda) Holloway
insisted that Mary’s voice, especially in this song,
"had something in it that no one has been able to
come up with. It’s like Bette Davis. There’s not
another Bette Davis. There’s not another Marvin Gaye
and there never will be another Mary Wells."
March 13, 1964, "My Guy" rose to No. 1 on the
Billboard and Cash Box pop charts, Wells’ first time
at the very top of either of those charts. It remained
among the Top 40 hits on the Billboard pop chart for 13
weeks. Billboard ranked it as No. 17 among the Top 100
Songs of 1964. Among the top 1,000 most popular single
records released from 1955 through 1996, Billboard
ranked it No. 437. (In 1999, the curatorial staff of the
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in conjunction with a group
of rock critics and historians, voted it into the hall’s
permanent exhibit of "The Songs that Shaped Rock
and Roll.") Not only did it become Mary’s
signature song, it made her the nation’s most popular
April 1964, Motown issued Mary’s sixth album,
"Mary Wells Greatest Hits," in an effort to
capitalize on "My Guy." The effort was a
success. Loaded with popular Wells tunes, including
"My Guy," "The One Who Really Loves
You," and "You Beat Me to the Punch," the
album rose to No. 18 on the Billboard album chart, a
high-water mark for Wells.
Guy" caught on so fast with white fans that Curtis
Womack, who later became Mary’s long-term lover, was
briefly troubled. As a musician trying to cross the
racial barrier, Womack remembers thinking, "This
song ain’t like ‘Bye Bye Baby’ and it ain’t like
‘You Beat Me to the Punch.’ It sounded just like
something (white vocalist) Patti Page or one of them
ladies would be singing, and I thought it wasn’t going
to go with black people like it did. But it did. It went
Guy" has remained stuck in the minds of millions
over the years, even more so than other pop hits. Barney
Ales, Motown’s vice president and director of sales,
was quoted in 1992 as saying that there’s "no one
age 30 through age 50 who doesn’t know the words to
‘My Guy.’ " For once, he was exaggerating only
Guy" remains a favorite backup tune in Hollywood
movies and TV commercials to this day. It also remains
the music to which thousands of people continue to fall
in love. In 2010, one music business expert said that
not 24 hours go by without "My Guy" being
played on some radio station somewhere in the world.
"Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s
First Superstar" by Peter Benjaminson. Reprinted,
with slight trims for space, with permission of Peter
Benjaminson and Independent Publishers Group.