After Mary Wells Dared to Leave Motown, Did She Fall Off the Face of the Earth?

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.

Motown’s First Crossover Act

Back then, the label was happily recruiting young local singing talent in Detroit, and trying to make hits happen. One of those folks was Wells, who at 17 finagled an audition with Gordy to sing a song she’d penned herself. “Bye Bye Baby”, recorded in 1960 as her Motown debut, was a brash kiss-off to a no-good lover, belted out with way more exuberance than polish. But it was good enough to reach the R&B top 10, and Wells was on her way.

When that way soon stalled, Wells was paired with Robinson as songwriter/producer. Robinson immediately changed Wells’ sound, from the R&B rave-ups of the era to a softer, more seductive tone (the similarity between Wells’ vocals and Robinson’s own from the era, like “I’ll Try Something New”, is striking). His productions also veered from the prevalent models, mixing in traces of popular rhythms like the cha-cha instead of hewing to the R&B norm of the moment. The Wells-Robinson alchemy struck paydirt with the 1962 trifecta, and continued the next year. Even as Wells had hits crafted by other Motown producers, her work with Robinson was distinctive both in sound and feel.

More importantly, it gave Motown its first crossover act. Suddenly, this sassy young girl was headlining shows, becoming the idol of other young singers everywhere. Back when Martha (Reeves) and the Vandellas and the Marvelettes would have one big hit and then nothing much for months, and the Supremes didn’t have a hit among their first nine releases, Mary Wells was Motown’s reigning pop star, queen and cash cow.

The Wells-Robinson partnership reached its apogee in 1964 with the triumphant “My Guy”, a cornerstone of the Motown canon. The brassy ode to that one completely special man reached the top of the pop charts, interrupting Beatlemania’s onslaught for a couple of weeks at number 1. The record’s coda is memorable, with Wells coyly ad-libbing her way out by channeling her inner Mae West, and the bass player unleashing some thunderous runs beneath (that would be James Jamerson, who also authored the remarkable playing on “Two Lovers”, and pretty much every other Motown hit throughout the label’s glory years).

Motown struck while the iron was hot, issuing a press release touting Wells as “The Girl who Beat the Beatles” (she was invited to tour with them in the UK that year), and pairing her for some duets with a young singer the label didn’t quite know how to handle – perhaps you’ve heard of him, Marvin Gaye. Clearly, Wells’ future looked bright.

So it was shocking when, at the peak of her fame, Wells sued and then bolted from the place that made her famous.

As “My Guy” was entering the pop stratosphere, Wells was beginning to seethe over her earnings not following suit. Further, she felt that she hadn’t been given her props for helping keep Motown afloat during its hit-and-mostly-miss early years. Finally, against the advice of virtually everyone she knew, she sued the label in the fall of 1964, the case being decided in her favor largely upon her being a minor when her initial contract was signed.

Gordy, by Wells’ later account, was devastated, and offered her a 50 percent stake in the company to stay. She turned it down, and settled for a flat $30,000 payment in exchange for waiving her rights to future royalties. Of course, no one at the time had any idea how lucrative those royalties would someday be. And Wells, for her young and impetuous part, thought that she could land at a bigger label and become a bigger star. (As it turned out, Wells was only the first of several acts and producers who would chafe at Motown’s business practices and depart for greener, or at least freer, pastures.)

She thought wrong, or at least she chose wrong. Her first post-Motown label was Twentieth Century Fox, which was far better at making hit movies than hit records. Without the support of songwriting and producing talent at Robinson’s level, her Fox recordings (including an album of Beatles covers) fell flat, failing even to make the same dent that her earliest Motown efforts did. The pattern continued when she left Fox for Atco. In fact, Wells would not have anything close to a memorable hit for the remainder of her life. She came to feel, in hindsight, that leaving Motown was the biggest mistake of her career. (Motown, meanwhile, quickly rebounded from Wells’ departure, especially once the Supremes finally started having hits.)

Her post-Motown years were characterized more by tempestuous relationships more than musical success. Shortly after turning 18, she married her road bandleader, Herman Griffin; they divorced after two years but he remained her manager after she left Motown. That ended in late 1964, after Griffin shot the man he and Wells enlisted to oversee her new musical direction. That was followed by unsuccessful dalliances with singer Jackie Wilson, whom Wells had admired as a youth (she wrote “Bye Bye Baby” in hopes he’d record it) and others in the music business. In short, just two years after leaving Motown, Wells was well on the way to “where are they now?” status, and not much happier in her personal life.

She eventually took up with Cecil Womack, of the singing Womack clan. He and his brothers had some hits in the early ‘60s as the Valentinos (“Lookin’ for a Love”, “It’s All Over Now”), and in time became big Wells fans. She was initially attracted to his brother Curtis, but he was married. Cecil then pursued her, and the two were married in 1966.

But Cecil proved to be anything but an ideal partner, even as he tried to jumpstart her music career (with results even more disappointing than Fox’s and Atco’s). Meanwhile, Wells and Curtis Womack continued their closeness for years, and eventually started an affair. Needless to say, this caused a bit of consternation within the Womack family. It all became too much for Wells, who attempted suicide in 1977. That act proved to unravel both Wells’ and Curtis’ marriages. She and Curtis then embarked on an on-again, off-again relationship for the rest of her life, with Curtis often supporting Wells’ performances on the oldies circuit. (Cecil eventually married Linda Cooke, daughter of the legendary singer; Sam Cooke was also an entrepreneur, and released those early Valentinos hits on his SAR Records label. As Womack and Womack, the couple had a series of hit songs and acclaimed albums during the ‘80s. Some believe his work with Wells was the precursor to that later success.)

By the time of the legendary Motown 25: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow television special in 1983, the label had written pop history, but Wells’ contributions had long since been overshadowed by the worldwide success its tentpole acts enjoyed after she left (Wells, pregnant with twins, sang a snippet of “My Guy” on the special). Wells’ own career had dwindled down to shows performing her old hits, with two early-‘80s post-disco albums for Epic as what would be her final attempts to re-establish career currency; they didn’t do any more business than her other post-Motown efforts did.

Later in the decade, her two-pack-a-day cigarette habit caught up to her, and she gamely battled throat cancer (in addition, she’d faced other chemical demons throughout the years). The cancer left but came back with a vengeance, and she passed in July 1992 at 49 years young. Robinson sang from the hits he wrote for Wells at the funeral, which was said to be the last big gathering of the original Motown family (Gordy paid for the funeral, and that of Wells’ mother, as well).

“My Guy” has taken on a life of its own – the tune was recast as “”My God” for the movie Sister Act — and its big sound still stands as a turning point in the chronicle of Motown’s massive pop success. But what of the rest of Wells’ work, and for that matter the rest of her life? What ought we know better – her three years as Motown’s most prolific maker of hits, or the 28 years after leaving Motown when she couldn’t buy one, and seemingly enjoyed nothing but drama at home?

The former task is simpler, finally. After leaving Motown, Gordy ordered her unreleased tracks buried in the label’s vaults, even re-recording some of those songs with other singers. And buried they stayed for years, an odd turn of events at the otherwise repackaging-happy label. As a result, various single-disc greatest-hits collections have been the most comprehensive documents widely available since like forever.

The two-disc Looking Back 1961-1964, issued in 1993 and long out-of-print, fleshed out the ledger a bit, with several tracks not on any of the best-ofs (including two of the duets with Gaye). The Motown vault was finally emptied recently, with the two-disc Something New: Motown Lost and Found (Hip-O Select). Among its 23 previously unissued tracks are additional Gaye duets and a session of pop standards, some featuring the Four Tops on backing vocals.

Those two collections would comprise an “Almost Complete Mary Wells on Motown” boxed set; why the label hasn’t yet seen fit to give its first solo star the first-class reissue treatment its other main artists have gotten is a mystery. Or perhaps not: the additional material is interesting and hints at what Wells might have accomplished there had she not jumped ship, but the 1998 Ultimate Collection CD has all the Mary Wells music most folks will need.

Truly interested parties can easily dive into her post-Motown work, starting with the collections Ain’t It the Truth: Best of Mary Wells 64-92 (Varese Sarabande, 1994) and Dear Lover: The Atco Sessions (Ichiban, 1995). But most people, even some hardcore Motown fans, have no idea that catalog even exists. It’s as if Wells fell off the face of the earth after she left Motown. She didn’t, of course, but where she ended up and how she got there was, until recently, a most obscure tale.

It was told for the first time in full in 2011, as a documentary for TV One’s Behind the Music-esque series Unsung. In addition to the requisite rare performance clips, interviews with those who knew her well and perspectives from critics and historians, the doc featured Wells in her own, cancer-ravaged voice, courtesy of audio interviews she recorded with journalist Steve Bergsman towards the end of her life (represented none too subtly on screen by a running tape recorder).

Peter Benjaminson has followed up on the Unsung doc with Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, which is the first published Wells biography (a rather remarkable thing to note, given the numerous Motown bios, memoirs, and critiques – has there been a more thoroughly written-about post-World War II record label?). Benjaminson is no stranger to the territory: his The Story of Motown (1979) was an early entrant in the genesis-of-Motown field, and he previously wrote the bio The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard about the deposed Supreme, another fallen Motown angel.

Benjaminson took what Unsung did and added some meat to the bones, but not a whole lot. He quotes copiously from the same interviews of Wells and others Unsung used, in addition to his own interviews and research. Mary Wells adheres faithfully to the m.o. he established in his previous Motown books: short, taut chapters; general sourcing as opposed to extensive footnoting; and a reliance more on prior works about the subject than original interpretation.

While it’s nice that the discography includes every work released during Wells’ lifetime, it offers nothing about songs and compilations released after her death (although an appendix lists most of the titles that would turn up on Something New ). The book’s best contribution is in shedding light on Wells’ musical talent, as well as that of her producers/collaborators, even as Benjaminson is clearly more interested in her personal life’s often-sordid events than in her artistry.

Wells certainly merits a formal biography, and Benjaminson’s is a serviceable enough job. But anyone who sees the Unsung doc first will get the gist of what Benjaminson has to say here. In any event, between this book, the Unsung piece and Something New, there’s now enough material available for us to appreciate what Wells accomplished in her all-too-short life, and begin to understand why that life turned out to be so short.

Ultimately, one could argue the brilliance of Mary Wells’ brief run as Motown’s biggest star makes what happened after she ended it all the more compelling, instructive and sad. But the converse is true as well: that she never replicated her early success makes her Motown work that much more timeless and precious, like a dance two lovers share.