In the early 1960s, Mary Wells was one the first stars to emerge from the Motown label, helping to define the “Motown sound” with a handful of hit singles including the enduring classic “My Guy."
Wells grew up in Detroit, Mich. She was raised by her mother who nursed her through bouts of spinal meningitis and tuberculosis. By age 12 Wells was helping her mother clean houses and singing as she worked. By her teen years she had graduated from her church choir to occasional nightclub performances and, encouraged by the success of local acts the Miracles and Jackie Wilson, set her sights on a career in music as her ticket out of poverty. At 17, Wells approached Motown founder Berry Gordy in a nightclub, hoping to sell him a song she'd written with Jackie Wilson in mind. Impressed, Gordy offered to record her, and "Bye Bye Baby,” peaked at No. 45 on the Pop chart in 1960.
Over the next four years Wells had 11 Top 40 hits, most written and produced by Smokey Robinson, who as a writer, producer and lead singer of the Miracles was just beginning his remarkable run as a Motown hit maker. Among them was 1964's “My Guy,” Motown’s take on the popular “Girl Group” sound of the day. With Wells’ cool vocal delivery, the tale of a girlfriend’s devotion reached No. 1 and spent 13 weeks in the Top 40, helping establish Gordy's fledgling label as a supplier of crossover hits.
Wells’ records were favorites of the Beatles, who asked her to be an opening act on a U.K. tour in 1964. Wells was riding high, but despite her success she was unhappy with her situation at Motown. Wells felt underappreciated and believed she could get a better financial deal elsewhere and so, at 21, she left the label.
Wells met with little success in her post-Motown years. She would record for seven labels throughout the rest of her career, but would never again reach the Top 10. Frustrated, she played the oldies circuit and fell in and out of trouble as she abused drugs and alcohol, attempted suicide and endured legal battles and tumultuous relationships. A longtime heavy smoker, she died in 1992 of throat cancer.