Mary Wells: The Tumulutous Life of Motown's First Superstar
(Chicago Review Press)
US: Nov 2012
Something New: Motown Lost & Found
US: 4 Dec 2012
The first eight seconds must have taken forever to nail.
In rapid succession: a drum fill, the whole band hits one note, a trill from the bongos, a descending piano riff, and the full band’s re-entry. They stay just long enough to set the tone and tempo of the song, with the bass peeking through for the first of what will be many times as the horns hold their note. Then, the horns and guitar punctuate a dead stop. Eight seconds.
Thus setting the stage for the singer, whose voice is sweet and soft. She is both conversational and declarative, talking to both one person and whoever else might be around. She begins with a provocative statement, delivered with a languid, cooing nonchalance, as though it were the most natural and obvious thing:
Well I’ve got two lovers and I ain’t ashamed / Two lovers and I love them both the same
She builds anticipation by stretching out the invitation to hear about “ my first… lover,” the bass filling in the spaces, already commenting on the nascent melody.
This first lover, she tells us, is sweet and kind “and he’s mine all mine,” treats her good like a lover should, and yes indeed she loves him. As she goes on, a quartet of male voices chime in behind her, their earnest reediness making her tender girlishness all the more striking. She riffs “oh oh oh ohhh,” they answer. She calls “I love him so,” they respond. “And I’ll do everything I can to let him know,” she announces, pointing upwards at the end.
But there are two lovers, she reminds us, and she loves them both the same. She asks us to “let me tell ya ‘bout my other lover,” with both a singer’s syncopation and a woman’s knowingness.
Well you know, this other lover treats her bad, makes her sad, makes her cry. Yet and still, she professes her love for this guy too, in exactly the same way as she did for the first lover, the band playing and the singers hitting their exact same notes as before. But this time, her determination to “let him know” casts downward, duskier and soberer.
While all this has been going on, the bass has been engaged in something of a counter-melody, carrying the song’s movement along but never fully tied to it. His pattern is of its own intuition, and consistent: one note, then four, one note, then four, sometimes more than one note, then four. His sound is full, it alternately rises and descends. But it is never static. Although the pattern of what he plays doesn’t much vary from bar to bar, it seems that he never plays it the same way twice.
Meanwhile, the horns barely let the singer finish up about the second lover before their seven-note fanfare propels us into moments of heightened urgency. The background singers extend their notes now, as it’s the horns’ turn to echo the singer. Even the bass, steady as she goes with the ever-shapeshifting one-note-then-four, senses and responds to the warming of the pot.
The singer does too, but she never eschews her cool. Instead, her words become personal and directed, starting with a clue towards the coming denouement: “Darling”, delivered so subtly, as if it’s there really to bridge her into the next section, but in fact she’s turned away from us to face… someone. Whom, we don’t yet know.
In her next breath, she stretches the word “well” into an aria, and then she starts rhyming: “well” with “I can tell,” and “look at you” with “think that I’m untrue” with “I love two” with “really really do.” Then the music pivots again, with the horns and backing singers reverting to their original roles, and the bass freelancing its way to a precipice.
Now, for the kicker. The phrase “’cause you’re a split personality” may seem harsh to read, but not to hear; she sings it with tenderness and understanding, with nary an ounce of malice. One senses her hand reaching out to caress a cheek, as the music pauses just long enough to set up her ultimate declaration:
Both of them are you
The backing singers echo her one last time, then everything comes to the same dead stop as two minutes and change (that’s all?) ago. Then, the singer and band start just as they had before, the same sing-songy refrain about loving her two lovers both the same, as if such a condition were the most natural and obvious thing. A little bit of that, then the song fades out.
There have been more musical explorations of the good man/bad boy dichotomy than I’m going to try to count. Few of them, I’d wager, extend the dramatic tension to the very end the way this song does (and, in the process, heightening the impact of such a common theme). That’s due to its unusual structure: not a conventional pop verse-chorus-bridge, but chorus-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-and then another bridge-rinse and repeat.
But the song’s circular architecture is the last thing you notice. Front and center is that voice, sweet and soft throughout, making a tricky emotional highwire act sound like a soundtrack for hopscotching. She shows great range and precision and control, but she’s not showing off. She makes her comfort with the dichotomy seem, well, natural and obvious, yet she also makes the scene feel intimate, as if we are eavesdropping on a most personal scene in the life and times of a couple.
Indeed, this song belongs to those moments only couples share. In some ways – especially if you follow the lyrical, sensual rhythms of the bass – it’s not a song, but a dance. Not for the discotheque, or the high school gym, but somewhere dim and smoky, exotic: a tango parlour in Buenos Aries, perhaps, or a backroom where they sipped rum in old Havana, or at a café in Lisbon where waiters sing a mournful fado song. Anywhere, really, where two people give themselves over to flowing with the music in a timeless, precious way, unafraid of love’s complexities, never letting go.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Two Lovers” is that when she recorded it, Mary Wells was only 19.
“Two Lovers” capped off a pretty good 1962 for Wells: her three singles recorded that year each landed in the Billboard R&B and pop top 10. The previous two – “The One Who Really Loves You” and “You Beat Me to the Punch” – became R&B classics, the latter earning a Grammy nomination.
Wells’ success helped put her label on the national pop map. That label was Motown, started in 1959 by uber-hustler Berry Gordy, with crucial involvement from singer/songwriter William “Smokey” Robinson. For most of its first few years, the label put out singles at a dizzying rate, and while a few struck gold (“Shop Around” in 1960 by Robinson’s group the Miracles, for starters), most sank without a trace; the assembly-line power of Motown’s glory years was hardly in sight.