From journalist and Motown chronicler Benjaminson (The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard, 2009, etc.), a compelling, sympathetic biography of Motown’s first diva Mary Wells (1943–1992).
Before Diana Ross or any other Motown star, there was Wells. Discovered at age 17 by Berry Gordy, president of the then-fledgling Motown, in 1960, the young Detroit schoolgirl went on to create a number of crossover hits (appealing to both black and white audiences), including her signature song, “My Guy.” Wells would define the style (long gowns and glamour) for later female Motown artists and the sound (“a strong melody, a noticeable beat, and accessibility for all”) that would bring enormous success and wealth to Motown. Yet, in a dispute over money, Wells left Motown, and while she spent the rest of her life trying to do so, she was never able to equal the success she had there. Trekking from one record company to another, she could never recreate the elusive magic of recording for Motown. “Nostalgia,” however, “kept her performing career alive,” and she performed “almost every other night, week after week,” becoming, for better or worse, “Queen of the Oldies.” Benjaminson ably captures the artistic milieu of early Motown, in which Wells’ art flourished. He also offers an unvarnished account of her tumultuous personal life: her numerous, sometimes disastrous, relations with a series of men, the drug and alcohol addictions that consumed her later in life, and her long battle to defeat the cancer that would take her life. While a flawed figure, Wells faced life’s hardships “by struggling and achieving until the very end.”
A moving tribute to an artist who should not be forgotten.