And she actually made it to the Pop top 40, and the R&B top 10 before fading into a decade and a half of relative “whatever happened to..”
In fact after Diana Ross, Michael Jackson and Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells probably had the most success in her post Motown years than anyone from the golden age of the Label. And she slipped through as many genres as anyone, trying to keep relevant with the times.
When she was lured away from Motown by 20th Century Fox, she was offered a record $200,000 advance and “promises” of a film career, unheard of offers to a Black recording artist in 1964. What Fox thought, was what MGM thought with Kim Weston, what ABC-Paramount thought with Florence Ballard, and to a lesser extent, what MCA thought they’d get with Martha Reeves: You got Motown by signing the person.
While every one of these women were talented and charming, a one woman Motown Machine they weren’t. Ironically all of the women, minus Ballard, had a hand in writing some of their material, but were actively discouraged from doing so by Motown, nor did they have much to say in the production of their records (The Motown Machine, unlike the liberal Brill Building, was a remarkable old boys club, not many women songwriters, nor producers, or musicians). Add in the presentation polishing by Maxine Powell and Cholly Atkins, every one of these women were polished by a good 20 people by the time they hit the road or your TV Screen.
So without that ridiculous attention to detail, the surefire Motown success eluded most of them.
Mary Wells started with a stomping Motown-ish sounding single “Ain’t it The Truth.”
It peaked at a modestly successful #45 pop in September 1964, for a number of reasons. 1) Being that the flipside “Stop Taking Me For Granted” itself started to chart, peaking at #88 pop.
2) Mary Wells continued to perform at request to her audiences her Motown Material, which to most ears was only 4-6 months old and 3) there was rumors of Berry Gordy paying money to DJs to make sure her new material wouldn’t be played and the Machine that was The Supremes would be surely played.
So against those factors, and Fox assuming that the Wells magic would automatically hit without financial investment were completely wrong, ironically as Wells became a more mature, assured and comfortable vocalist, smoothing out any cracks that were in her 1962 record persona (although part of that 19 year old WomanChild Charm was part of her appeal).
Next up in January 1965 was “Use Your Head.” Produced ironically by a group a Chicagoans responsible for Jackie Ross aping Wells style for “Selfish One” it proved Mary’s last time in the Pop Top 40, peaking at #34.
One of the problems still hurting Mary was the fact that she was still singing her Motown Material. On this appearance of Shindig after she performed “Use Your Head” (an excellent uptempo piece that comes off far better live than on the record), she performed “My Guy” to close the show, which was nearly a year old by this point. It showed lack of faith in her new material, by TV producers, by her managers, by Wells herself, and perhaps even 20th Century.
The issues started to pile in with her next single, and a lot of her album tracks. “Never Never Leave Me” was intended as filler for Dionne Warwick’s Here I Am LP.
In 1964, Mary Wells was the premiere Female Soul Singer in the Country, but in 1965 she was fighting for Dionne Warwick album filler like scraps off the kitchen Table. It showed in the #15 R&B Pop#54 listing. And it was worse in the case of some of her album tracks: Patti Austin’s version of “He’s Good Enough For Me” was killer compared to Mary’s singsongy version. And the Sapphires covered “Why Don’t You Let Yourself Go.” None of her Material was specifically written or produced with her talents in mind.
So two more singles whimpered out of 20th Century: “Me Without You” (Ppo#95) and “He’s A Lover” (Pop#74) Which was a cover of a Tutti Hill non-hit.
Mary Wells, ran for her life to Atlantic Records, and ended up trying again with the Chicago sound with “Dear Lover” and, sorta fantastic results happened: R&B#6 (her first top 10 hit anywhere in 18 months), but Pop#51, hurt by the Motown style stomper “Can’t You See (You’re Losing Me) that took off so strong in Detroit and Philly that it charted in it’s own right, peaking at #94 pop
This was followed by “Me and My Baby” which sounded just like a splendid rewrite of her 1963 hit “What’s Easy For Two Is Hard For One” and “Such A Sweet Thing” that peaked at #99pop. All efforts that were more cohesive than her Fox outings (One of the last ditch efforts of fox was the LP Mary Wells Sings Love Songs To The Beatles, Jesus). but it was imitation of sounds already present, and Atlantic wasn’t really known for nurturing female artists at this point: Barbara Lewis had an uneven career there, and Patti LaBelle & The Bluebelles, signed just months before Wells, spent a frustrating 4 years there.
Only Aretha really got the support Wells had been used to 2 years earlier at Motown, so halfway through 1967, sensing it was halfway over, she paired up with new Husband Cecil Womack, headed to Jubilee Records, and broke out her writers pen to compose what would be her last “hit” record.
The sexy, sly “The Doctor” was exactly what Wells needed to be doing: With hinting lyrics reminiscent of Dinah Washington’s more risque material, it pointed in a more adult, mature way she could push herself, and write and produce for herself. Too Bad it was at the cash strapped Jubilee Records. The only reason “Doctor” did so well was based on Wells and Womack’s connection with DJs throughout the US, not Jubilee’s sales department, which, by 1968 was totally non-existant.
So a respectable R&B#22, Pop#65 was the last time Wells made the Hot 100, and save for 1969’s “Dig The Way I Feel”, she wouldn’t chart anywhere with much significance until 1982 with Gigolo:
Gigolo was Real big on the Club scene, especially in Gay clubs, and made a big showing, peaking at #13 on the Club/Dance Play charts, but made for a middling #69 R&B showing, and no Pop showing. So Wells gave up on recording “new” material, and joined the Nostalgia bandwagon, and performed almost exclusively her Motown Material til she stopped performing in 1990 because of Cancer.
So Yes my darling readers, through ups and downs, The First Lady Of Motown made memorable music beyond that. Here’s hoping that you give it more of a chance that the initial listeners.