Reviewed on this page:
Bye Bye Baby - The One
Who Really Loves You - Two Lovers - My Guy - Mary Wells - Dear Lover -
Servin' Up Some Soul - Come Together - In
And Out Of Love - Keeping My Mind On Love
Mary Wells was Motown's first great star - the Miracles had a hit
with Smokey Robinson's "Shop Around" in
1960, but it was Wells' string of hits in 1962 that really made
their reputation: "The One Who Really Loves You," "You Beat Me To
The Punch," and "Two Lovers," all of which hit the Top 10 on the
pop charts. The next several singles were less impressive, but in
1964 she topped the charts with Robinson's "My Guy," and then
placed both sides of a duet single with Marvin Gaye ("Once Upon A Time"/"What's The
Matter With You Baby") in the Top 40. Later the same year, Wells
unexpectedly quit Motown for 20th Century Fox, having been promised
a movie career that never materialized. She put out a string of
flop singles over the next few years - only 1965's "Use Your Head"
broke into the Top 40 - and then faded into obscurity. After a few
unsuccessful comeback attempts and tours on the oldies circuit,
Wells died of cancer in 1992.
Wells got her big break by auditioning her own "Bye Bye Baby" to
Motown founder Berry Gordy; Gordy promptly signed her and released
the song as a single, which did fairly well with R & B audiences.
But after that point she was firmly in the hands of Gordy and his
team of writers and producers, falling into a dependent pattern
that was followed by all major Motown singers until the end of the
decade. Between that and quitting the company so early, it's not
really clear how far her career might have eventually gotten:
successors like Diana Ross went on to
much greater things. (According to one source, Gordy strongarmed
disk jockeys into not playing her records, bribing them with
exclusive airing rights to Supremes singles.)
I haven't been able to find a full-blown Mary Wells page, but if
you hunt around on the Web you'll find a couple of brief
biographical notices. (JA)
Bye Bye Baby (1961)
Ironically, Smokey's "Shop Around" is covered here, along with what
seems like an endless stream of other filler. It's 50's-style rock
all the way, with none of the orchestration or innovative bass
playing of classic mid-60s Motown. Just a lot of chugging rhythm
sections, swaying stand-up bass lines, blaring saxes, and tinny
The primitiveness is no surprise given the early date, and Wells'
voice has a fine blues-based tone with a strong lower range; but
only doo-wop fans will really enjoy the songs themselves. The only
hit is "I Don't Want To Take A Chance," Wells' first, which was
clearly recycled here just to give the record some selling power.
Berry Gordy produced and wrote most of the tunes, with Wells' own
title track being a major exception. (JA)
In the States, it was the practice to build an LP around a hit single - "recycling" was the rule. (DBW)
The One Who Really Loves You (1963)
Again this is pleasant but unremarkable pop-rock. The hit singles
("You Beat Me To The Punch" and the title track) are midtempo love
songs, and she sings them well but without her later
sophistication. Her best vocal is on the bluesy "I've Got A
Notion." One tune is self-penned (the sappy "Drifting Love"), the
rest are by the Motown stable: Robinson, Gordy, William Stevenson,
Brian Holland, Janie Bradford. None of the tracks are terrible,
though many of them are rather generic ("She Don't Love You").
Two Lovers (1963)
By now Robinson was the label's hottest songwriter, and the two
singles collected here are his: the fun title track, and the corny
"Laughing Boy." He also wrote the amusing "Operator" (also recorded
by Brenda Holloway). The music is still close to typical early 60s
girl group, but she shows more sophistication on Johnny Mercer's
"Goody Goody," and convincingly belts out Gordy's bluesy "(I Guess
There's) No Love." But probably the best track here is Wells' own
"Stop Right There," insistent uptempo rock and roll. The recording
technology leaves a lot to be desired, but the band is already
mutating into the fearsome unit that would dominate the charts by
late 1964. (DBW)
Recorded Live On Stage (1963)
In 1964 Wells cut Together with Marvin Gaye.
My Guy (1964)
I don't know for sure, but I suspect this record was
thrown together after Wells had already decided to defect from the
label. It leads off with a bunch of excellent tracks which are
clearly from 1964, then ends with a bunch of Broadway tunes
(including Cole Porter's "You Do Something To Me") which sound like
they could have been outtakes from farther back. Anyway, the title
track is a perfect combination of Wells' rich voice with Robinson's
playful, clever lyrics, a catchy melody, improvised band
arrangements including the famous Jamerson stand-up bass solo on
the fade. Apparently there wasn't another single released, but
there is certainly more A-side material, including the Holland-
Dozier-Holland songs "Whisper You Love Me Boy" and "He Holds His
Own" (both later recorded by the
Supremes) and another classy Smokey tune, "How? When My Heart
Belongs To You." Probably the most substantial LP Motown had
released up to this point. (DBW)
Mary Wells (1965)
This album, released shortly after Wells got out of her Motown contract, was re-released as Ooh!, and more recently
issued on CD as Never, Never Leave Me/The
20th Century Sides with six bonus tracks, thereby collecting most of her output for that label. The minor hit "Use Your
Head" is the catchiest tune, servicable but routine soul with a Motown-like sheen like the rest of the album. The band pales
by comparison to Gordy's, though, leaving both ballads ("Never Never Leave Me") and heavier R&B ("Stop Takin' Me For Granted")
in the shadow of her earlier work. The songs are from a variety of songwriters and producers (including one-hit wonder J.J.
Jackson and future disco king Van McCoy), but none of the compositions are particularly
distinctive though her voice is enjoyable as always. Maybe if they'd let her record a couple of her own compositions it
would've helped. This is a find for Wells fans, but far from her best or most important work. (DBW)
Love Songs To The Beatles (1965)
Her second and last 20th Century album, it's all Lennon/McCartney covers, and it's not available on CD. (DBW)
The Two Sides Of Mary Wells (1966)
Atco picked up Wells on the rebound and after releasing a couple of Motown-sounding singles, quickly put together this album:
one side R&B covers ("In The Midnight Hour") and one side whitebread pop hits ("On A Clear Day You Can See Forever"). The
disc quickly vanished into obscurity; side one was resurrected on the CD compilation Dear Lover.
Dear Lover - The Atco Sessions (rec. 1965-7, rel. 1995)
All the single sides Wells cut for Atco are here, together with some unreleased tracks and side one of her LP for the label.
Producer Carl Davis and arranger Sonny Sanders copied Motown's signature sound more closely than 20th Century had (even
covering the Holland-Dozier-Holland Supremes hit "My World Is Empty Without You"), and brought in fellow Motown refugee
Barrett Strong to write some tunes, and by gum the final product sounds like second- or third-rate Motown ("Me And My Baby,"
"Love Letters"). Trouble was, nobody wanted to hear third-rate Motown, and the singles flopped, except for "Dear Lover,"
which hit #6 on the R&B chart. The covers are less interesting, including a version of "Satisfaction"
recalling Redding's, and an irritating take on the Young Rascals' "Good Lovin'."
Wells didn't cut any of her own material until the label was about ready to pull the plug; she wrote both sides of her early
1967 single with Cecil Womack, "(Hey You) Set My Soul On Fire" and "Coming Home" - they're the same generic, simply arranged
soul that the pair would pursue on Jubilee. The liner notes are thorough but the compilation loses points for the thoughtless exclusion of the Broadway side of her lone
Atco LP release: the 15-song collection only runs 38 minutes, so there's no excuse for this incomplete, deceptively subtitled
Servin' Up Some Soul (1968)
After leaving Atco Wells married Cecil Womack, and signed to
Jubilee. Most of the tunes here are cowritten by Wells and Womack,
including the minor hit "The Doctor," and they're not particularly catchy or distinctive. Generally the sound here is
close to Stax/Volt with a touch of Ike Turner's guitar work, and
her voice has a high, wavery quality that's oddly reminiscent of
Smokey Robinson. Part of the explanation is that her voice is so husky, when she's in her high register she sounds like a man singing falsetto. There are several covers, including a version of Bobby Hebb's "Sunny" with hot Motown-like drumming, and the generic "Stag-O-Lee." This record was collected with the following set
on the CD Complete Jubilee Sessions. (DBW)
Come Together (rec. 1969, released 1993)
After "The Doctor," the Womacks missed with three consecutive
singles and were dropped by Jubilee, and this album was shelved,
not seeing release until after Wells' death. Which is a shame, because this is a lot better than the record that was released: the Womacks were finding their voice, part swinging soul, part Burt Bacharach pop, and wrote some fine tunes
including the lovely "Sweet Love" and grooving "Mister Tough" (both flop singles). There are also
some odd covers: John Denver's "Leaving On A Jet Plane" misses, but she does a credible job with
Bacharach's "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," and the Beatles' title track, done here
in a hectic, riff-filled version that's somehow true to the spirit
of the original, and funky as hell. (DBW)
In And Out Of Love (1981)
I believe this was her first recording since the 60s, aside from a couple of Reprise singles in the early 70s.
Fonce and Larry Mizell wrote and produced the single "Gigolo," a near-hit that's actually fun, with tongue-in-cheek heartbreak lyrics,
Rick James-like light funk backing, and even a rap on the bridge!
Unfortunately, the rest of the album was turned over to Greg Perry, who writes and produces in the most conventional way you can imagine, with Mary reduced to mouthing endless clichés ("You Make Me Feel So Good Inside"). The arrangements range from syrupy soul ("These Arms") to fake funk ("Let's Mix It Up").
The only other decent track is also the only tune Mary wrote, "I'm Changing My Ways," which is an elegant tale of loss, with one of her trademark wistful vocals.
The rest of the album will be a disappointment to even her biggest fans. (DBW)
Easy Touch (1982)
A collection of cover tunes: some slow ("Don't Cry Out Loud") and some fast ("If You Really Love Me"); some oldies ("Why Do Fools Fall In Love") and some recent hits
("Dim All The Lights," "Slow Hand").
The Old, The New, The Best Of Mary Wells (1983)
Wayne Henderson produced 80s R&B remakes of her big hits for Allegiance Records. Once you hear the chorused rhythm guitar opening "My Guy," you'll know what you're in for.
This has been repackaged several times, often with a few extra tracks including "I'm A Lady" and a version of Prince's "I Feel For You."
Keeping My Mind On Love (1990)
Her last recorded work, produced by Ian Levine for
Motorcity Records. Levine's schtick is to include just enough Motown remakes to sucker
in the unwary ("My Guy"; "What's So Easy For Two") while keeping most of the publishing
for himself by padding the disc with his dull originals ("You're the Answer to My Dreams,"
apparently a single). Levine uses the same overloud keyboard lines and dull programmed drums
he'd used with the Marvelettes ("Stop Before It's Too Late"; "You Beat Me To The Punch"
cops the bass line from "I Just Called To Say I Love You").
But the difference is, Wells sings her heart out, despite her fading voice, wringing emotion
out of the tackiest lyrics ("Hold On A Little Longer"), and what could
have been just sad exploitation becomes poignant (title track).
The only notable guest is labelmate Frankie Gaye (no points for guessing that's Marvin's brother) on the closing "Once Upon A Time"; musicians aren't listed.
Also released under deceptive titles like The Best Of Mary Wells (thanks Robert!) and Mary Wells The Hits. (DBW)
Bye Bye, Baby.