1964 was a year of firsts. The Beatles came on the scene and brought with them the British Invasion and now we have the first Motown record ever to make number one. And within Motown, there were more firsts. This was the first number one song written and produced by Smokey Robinson (who would have his own number one, along with the Miracles, in 1970 with “Tears of a Clown.”) And, while this is kind of a negative, Mary Wells was the first major recording artist to leave Motown.
Mary Esther Wells was born in 1943 in Detroit, Michigan. She had a really rough childhood. Her father had left when she was young, leaving her mother to care for her and her two siblings. When she was two, she contracted spinal meningitis which resulted in partial blindness, deafness in one ear and temporary paralysis. Maybe to ease the pain, she started singing at a young age and by the time she was ten, she was singing in the church choir.
She intended to go to college and become a scientist, but one day she heard Jackie Wilson sing and it changed her life. Wilson was also from Detroit and Mary had heard of Motown Records even they hadn’t been around all that long. She decided to write a song for Jackie Wilson and, in 1960, she took it to Wilson’s producer, Barry Gordy, Jr. Mary didn’t want to become an artist herself. She was more interested in writing the music. But, when she sang the song for Gordy, he liked her voice and convinced her to record a demo.
Gordy was starting a new label Motown Records and he asked Mary to record a song for this new label. Mary was a little disappointed at not being on a major label, but agreed to go ahead. We all know that the label didn’t stay unknown for long.
Mary Wells started recording for Motown in 1960 and put eight songs into the Top 40 before “My Guy” came along. Written by Smokey Robinson, it was an instant classic. After Mary had had such a monster hit, it was time to re-negotiate her contract. She felt, she was entitled to more money, but Motown disagreed. 20th Century Fox Records offered her a big advance if she would change labels and, so, since Motown wouldn’t pay her what she wanted, she left Motown, becoming the first major star to do so. The change might have been a mistake, however, since she only had one minor hit with 20th Century and then faded from sight, never to hit the charts again.
In 1990, Mary was diagnosed with throat cancer, which curtailed her singing. In 1991, she brought a suit against Motown for royalties which she said she never got for “My Guy.” Motown settled out of court for a six-figure sum. Mary Wells died of the cancer in the summer of 1992. The eulogy was given by Smokey Robinson. She was laid to rest in Glendale, California’s Forest Lawn Memorial park. She lies just about 800 feet west of Sam Cook’s grave.
“My Guy” entered the pop chart on April 11, 1964 and stayed at number one for two weeks.
The audio is a little rough toward the end, but I like this live version of “My Guy”: