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For nearly four years—from 1960 to mid-1964—Mary Wells was Motown's first female solo star. Her singing voice was strong and conversational—mysteriously effortless in its sing-talk delivery. Unlike most African-American R&B singers of the period, Wells wasn't a church belter or a teen in heat. Rather, she had a cooler, understated sound that combined doo-wop and girl-group sensibilities prevalent in the late '50s and early '60s.
As you can hear on Mary Wells: Something New, 1961-1964 (Hip-O Select)—a new two-CD set of rarities—Wells's crossover appeal is splendidly documented. Stripped of regional inflection and intonation, Wells's calm and confident voice was shaped by Motown producer Smokey Robinson. Her coaxing crossover delivery won over black and white audiences—without ever losing any of its earnestness or earthiness.
Unfortunately, Wells today has been largely forgotten. My Guy was a big 1964 hit, of course, but Martha Reeves, Diana Ross, the Marvelettes and Tammi Terrell all benefited from Wells's female road-paving. Each went on to become household names, but not Wells. The turning point for her came in '64, when she impulsively and mistakenly left Motown in a huff.
As always in such stories, there was a greedy husband. This one sued Motown to have Wells released from her contract, since she was under age 21 when the document was signed. The goal was to get her signed to another label.
What Wells didn't understand at the time was that the record industry was changing, and success depended on more than a dangling signing bonus. One had to consider record distribution, material, arrangements, radio air-play, concerts, television appearances, and competition from an ever-growing pool of singers.
Without a label armed with such an arsenal, Wells soon found herself making records that fewer people bought. As a result, she had condemned herself to a lifetime of touring and singing the same songs that she first recorded for the label she left. Wells died in 1992.
Track after track on Something New finds Wells seductively selling all types of songs with lyrics about first loves, crushed hearts and teaching cheating boyfriends a lesson. As you listen to Wells now, the appeal of her style remains obvious yet difficult to describe. Perhaps it was her ability to hit high notes with bell-like clarity while delivering a low husky tone at the same time. Or how she skillfully handled tricky melody lines. Or how she added a little extra power at the ends of lyric lines. Or all of it.
This set is divided into three parts. The first CD features 27 tracks—some unreleased and others never reissued digitally. All of these are divine and leave you wondering why they weren't hits in the first place.
The second CD is split between Wells's duets with Marvin Gaye and an aborted jazz-pop album that tried to position her as a Diana Washington disciple. These fall short, but delightfully so. Wells wasn't duet material—even with Gaye. She needed to be featured alone for the qualities of her voice to be heard.
As for the jazz session, pop-R&B tracks like Again, Can't Get Out of This Mood (with the Four Tops) and Teach Me Tonight were combined with I Remember You (again with the Four Tops), A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening and The Second Time Around. What's fascinating is how such a convincing R&B singer could miss the mark on pop-jazz material, proving that these two types of singers were very different. Remember, most jazz vocalists from this era made for miserable R&B singers.
Today, Mary Wells is Motown's forgotten first lady of song. In her prime, Wells had the label's warmest and most lovable female voice. After listening to this set about a dozen times, I think that still may be the case.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Mary Wells: Something New 1961-64 (Hip-O Select) here.
Here's (You Can) Depend on Me, from 1961, which covered the Miracles' song...