Born in Detroit on 13 May 1943, Mary Wells started singing at the age of ten and actually auditioned for the Tamla Motown label in 1961, when, at 18, she came from nowhere and presented the label with her own composition, Bye Bye Baby – which became her first single release and her first American hit.
A year later she enjoyed a million-selling single success with the Smokey Robinson song Two Lovers – and she emerged as the ‘First Lady’ of Tamla Motown.
By the time My Guy was released in 1964, she was one of Tamla’s most successful artists. That same year she recorded Once Upon A Time with Tamla’s ‘Leading Man’ Marvin Gaye and toured Britain with The Beatles.
Sadly, her career had reached its summit and she left Motown in 1968 for 20th Century Fox Records, followed by excursions to Atco and Jubilee.
The 1970s saw no great commercial success for Mary – with the exception of a re-release of My Guy in 1972 which once again reached the British Top 20, although by then she was married to songwriter Cecil Womack and had virtually retired from the music business to concentrate on family life and raising their four children. They later divorced.
Wells returned to performing in clubs and oldies revues throughout the Eighties and appeared on Motown‘s celebrated 25th-anniversary television special in 1983.
In 1990 Wells – a two-packs-a-day smoker – was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx and had to sell most of her possessions to pay for the medical treatment, which left her singing voice destroyed.
Wells’s case (she had no medical insurance) focused attention on the music industry’s responsibilities toward sick and ageing performers.
Following an operation, chemotherapy treatment and an experimental drug regimen, Wells was hospitalised at the University of Southern California, where she was aided by life-support systems for the last few weeks of her life. She died on 26 July 1992, aged 49.