Life was never fair to Mary Wells APPRECIATION

July 28, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Anyone who has ever suspected that life isn't fair will find plenty of proof in the story of the late Mary Wells.

Originally a mainstay of the Motown hit machine, she helped put the fledgling label on the map in 1962 by landing three singles in the Top 10. Two years later, she was flying even higher, thanks to a tour spot with the Beatles and a chart-topping hit called "My Guy."

Yet within a year, she was forgotten. Rather than compete with the charismatic Diana Ross -- a singer with less vocal power but considerable star quality -- Wells left Motown in 1965, expecting to be snapped up in a moment by eager competitors, and soar from there to even greater heights.

Instead, she wound up settling for so-so contracts and a career that slid quietly and ignominiously down the charts. Eventually, she gave up, and spent most of the '70s raising a family. But the urge to perform was too strong for her to ignore, and eventually she worked her way back onto the club circuit, eager to prove that though the hits were long gone, the voice was still there.

Even this pleasure, though, would be denied her. A lifelong smoker, Wells developed cancer of the larynx, a disease that stole her voice, her savings and, ultimately, her life. She died Sunday in a Los Angeles hospital.

Wells, it should be noted, was never one to complain about bad breaks. Where other ex-Motown stars turned bitter over the years, she remained philosophical, even grateful. "Until Motown, Detroit, there were three big careers for a black girl," she told an interviewer once. "Babies, factories, or daywork. Period." Clearly, she was glad to have had another, more artistic option.

Nor was she the only one who benefited. For starters, there was Berry Gordy Jr., who heard potential in Wells' light yet sultry voice, and wound up with the musical model that his other stars -- Ross among them -- eventually built upon. Then there was Smokey Robinson, who found in Wells the ideal blend of #F innocence and knowingness to carry off both a song as sly as "Two Lovers," or as sweet as "My Guy."

But her biggest beneficiaries were the fans, who recognized in RTC her singing the bridge between the swinging simplicity of '50s R&B and the sassy sophistication of '60s soul. That's why so many did their best to help defray the costs of her fight against cancer -- bills which she, having neither sufficient insurance nor massive royalties to fall back on, could hardly afford.

It was, in a way, a debt of honor. Life may not have been fair to Mary Wells, but her fans tried to be. And in the end, who among us can hope for more?

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