Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar
by Peter Benjaminson
Book Review © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
It doesn’t matter how much you think you know about the music world. Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar is a revelation. Peter Benjaminson’s fascinating exposé about this underappreciated hitmaker is a roller coaster ride that will leave you breathless. I couldn’t wait to see how it ended, even though I already knew (or thought I did).
This is the first book written about megastar Wells, and Benjaminson’s third book about Motown (along with The Lost Supreme and The Story of Motown). Clearly a devotee of R&B, he takes special care to explain why this musical genre is so compelling. But this superb book is also a gold mine of historical anecdotes — some humorous, some flat-out shocking, from wardrobe malfunctions to family deathbed fights to celebrity shootings. Lovers of showbiz dish will relish the stories about a teenaged Stevie Wonder groping Wells on the Motortown Revue tour bus, and Wells telling a furious Diana Ross to get a girdle. Reliably, Benjaminson never shrinks from airing the dirty laundry of anyone, including Motown founder Berry Gordy, one of the most feared and loathed gods of the entertainment world.
Gordy was himself a frustrated musical artist about whom Benjaminson explains: “No one found his playing or his singing all that overwhelming.” Gordy was far more successful as a producer and napoleonic CEO. Under his influence, Wells abandoned what the author describes as her “gutsy, gospel-type” singing style for “innocent, vulnerable adolescent lyrics … over a high-production, harmony-heavy vocal and instrumental background best exemplified by [Phil] Spector’s `Wall of Sound.'”
Thus in 1960 Wells became the first superstar of Motown Records. Then Gordy teamed her up with legendary songwriter Smokey Robinson, who, as Benjaminson explains, “encouraged her to sing in a higher register…. She followed his directions, then added her own smooth, knowing coyness, like a layer of delicious frosting, right on top.” Their songs catapulted Wells to crossover superpower status, where the Grammy-nominated phenom spent three years repeatedly topping charts with hits like “My Guy” and “Bye Bye Baby.”
What happened next is truly tragic. Wells’s life became a toxic stew of bad business decisions, aborted career reboots, and volatile romances. For her there would be no movies or TV shows like white pop stars got, and no more monster hits — only indifferent promotion by record companies, industrial sabotage, and substance abuse, all of which ultimately destroyed her.
Great gobs of Wells’s misfortune derived from unscrupulous managers and predatory contracts (she was only 17 when she joined Motown Records). Drugs and booze just made it all easier for her to bear. Hers is a cautionary tale that Benjaminson delivers with the warmth and understanding befitting a star of her caliber. His bulletproof reporting is built on extensive research and interviews with scores of people in Wells’s sphere, spiced with ballsy observations like this one about Wells’s first husband (band leader Herman Griffin, who performed backflips and splits while conducting):
Something other than drugs, liquor, and music was soon occupying her mind. “The audience liked to look at him as much as at her,” said Pete Moore [of The Miracles]. Mary also liked looking at Herman Griffin.
I confess to being a long-time Benjaminson fan. As a scribe, his style is delightful. Take how he characterizes two of Wells’s songs as “enlivened by what sound like farts from a low-pitched tuba.” C’mon, what’s not to like? If he wrote a book about fly swatters, I’d totally read it — and underline stuff and scrawl margin notes and make my friends read it, too.
As an investigator, his digging is so exhaustive it wears me out just thinking about it. Plus, he has a gift for distilling the maddeningly complex legal constructs of music contracts so that the lay wonks among us can appreciate their insanity, too. And he nimbly puts into perspective the numerous and often conflicting contemporary accounts of what really happened to the people he writes about.
I especially enjoy his books about showbiz luminaries, and this one is his best yet. Here Benjaminson delivers a seamless portrayal of an industry that devours its young, and what it was really like for a gifted casualty like Mary Wells.
Available on Amazon.
Copyright © 2014 SYDNEY SCHUSTER – All Rights Reserved
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