Full Name: Mary Esther Wells
Born: May 13, 1943
Died: July 26, 1992
Founder of the world famous "Motown Sound," Mary Wells is considered not only one of the best female singers in the music industry, but also a vital part of the success of the prestigious label. Wells' early years were not easy. As a small child, she suffered a bout of spinal meningitis, which left her temporarily paralyzed, with loss of hearing and partial blindness in one eye.
When she returned to good health, Wells suffered the hardship of learning to walk again. She was always grateful, however, to regain her hearing and sight. As a talented teenager, Wells auditioned for Berry Gordy's Tamla Records as a songwriter, but instead received a contract to be a performer. "Bye Bye Baby," a song written by Wells, was recorded in Gordy's new label, Motown Records. In 1961, the song became a hit. Wells stayed with Motown for five years.
During those years, and with the help of producer and songwriter Smokey Robinson, Wells made several recordings. Her intimate and assertive voice, mixed with a soulful urgency, gave Wells a distinctive sound. Three major singles, "The One Who Really Loves You" (no. 8, 1962), "You Beat Me to the Punch" (no. 9, 1962) and "Two Lovers" (no. 7, 1962), as well as her tours of the U.S. and Europe, turned her into one of the most popular singers in the Motown label.
In 1964, Wells' career reached a significant peak when her song, "My Guy," made it to No. 1 on the pop chart and became one of the year's best recordings. She also sang duets with Marvin Gaye, includng "Once Upon a Time," which reached No. 17 in 1964. The Beatles declared Mary Wells their favorite American singer, calling her "their sweetheart," and invited her to England to tour with them. Upon her return to the states, the Beatles sent Wells several compositions to be released on their next album. In return, Mary recorded an album called "Love Songs to The Beatles."
In 1990, Wells was diagnosed with larynx cancer, hindering her ability to sing. Despite her health condition, Wells was always upbeat and courageous. She began taking long trips, including one to New York in which she was the focus of a "Joan Rivers Show." Her tribute on the show included a warm and generous phone call from Little Richard and a loving video dedication from Stevie Wonder, who, in her honor, sang "My Guy" rewritten as "My Girl."
In early fall of 1991, Mary traveled to Washington D.C., where she testified before a Congressional Committee concerning funding for cancer research. 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."
After a bout of pneumonia, Wells was hospitalized once more and spent her last days at the Kenneth Norris Jr. Cancer Hospital. On July 26, 1992, the First Lady of Motown died. Gone was the soft, beautiful voice of Mary Wells.