18 of 19 people found the following review helpful
on October 11, 2012
I recently read this author's previous book, "The Lost Supreme," about Florence Ballard, and was extremely impressed by the way he brought her to life. But Peter Benjaminson's newest book, which is about the great Mary Wells, is even better. Although Ms. Wells' music, including the lyrics to her most popular songs, has been running through my head for years, I knew very little about her life and wasn't particularly interested in it. Now, after reading this book about her, I understand why Mary Wells sang the way she did: her life was the source of the joy and the anguish which appeared in her music. Because so many other musicians sing the way they do for reasons related to their lives, this book, by telling me Mary Wells' story, also has enriched my understanding of the creative process as it applies to music.
12 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on November 9, 2012
I have been a long time fan of Mary Wells. I will say this book showed me a whole new side to her that only her closest friends and family would know. That said it does not diminish my love for her music or Mary herself. This book will open your eyes about her poor choices both in her personal life and her career. Being the constant hitmaker she was(her knick name was Miss Hitmaker) she was a major player in the early days of making Motown a powerful record label.You could actually say that Motown was the label that Mary Built.This book takes you through her life from beginning to end and is very informatve. From her affairs with Carl Davis and Jackie Wilson to her disasterous marriage to Herman Griffin and her longest marriage to Cecil Womack(11 years).Mary could also be a very jealous person when it came to the men in her life and she could be a handfull. Mary tried suicide twice and survived. This book will show how her personal life may have been rocky but when Mary got on stage and did her shows she was a pro. I was able to see her once in concert at the Park West in Chicago in the early 80's. She gave one heck of a performance. Read the book and you will have a better understanding of how and why things went from bad to good and back to bad for her. I feel Mary was her own worst enemy. To the author Peter Benjaminson I say thank you for such a wonderful book on "The Queen Of Motown". You didn't make her out to be something she wasn't, you showed us that she was human like the rest of us. She made a lot of bad choices in her life but who hasn't? We all have. She just made more of them and happened to be a famous singer.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on October 20, 2012
I have virtually every available book that has ever been published on Motown and their great artists. Each has been read cover-to-cover. The new biography on Mary Wells is outstanding and superb. A lot of research and interviews have been put into this. Mr. Benjaminson did not let me down. He is one of two leading experts in the USA of Motown and its rich history. All other major artists have been covered by him as well as other writers so this completes the cycle. The information contained in the book covers her great but short lived career. Covered are her childhood; signing and Motown legacy; and her subsequent recording history at five lesser known labels including 20th Century Fox, Atco, Jubilee, Reprise, and Epic and several other labels. Intricate details are provided from very reliable sources associated with these labels. Her many love affairs are revealed as well as her ongoing struggle with drugs. Her death is covered in great detail and the book concludes with the in-depth details of her funeral. The book, more than 300 pages long, is virtually an encyclopedia of her career. The appendix includes a US/UK discography; a listing of unreleased Motown tracks; a complete tv-film appearance listing; the full document of the 1969 lawsuit against Motown Records; newspaper articles, magazines, interview transcripts, court documents, and other official documents, liner notes, press releases, and books. You will learn everything you knew and most likely did not know about Mary including her brief romantic fling with Jackie Wilson. For music enthusiasts and Motown fans, I wholeheartedly recommend this biography on Mary. After reading it as I have, you will rediscover "The Sound of Young America" and the history of how Mary started this era. Thank you Mr. Benjaminson for this excellent biography on Mary Wells.
6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on October 24, 2012
If you have ever heard "My Guy," you will want to know about how that wonderful song came to be and about Mary Wells and her hard-to-believe life. I found Peter Benjaminson's new book to be a smooth and entertaining story about how she became the first major female star for Motown Records and how she helped bring black singers and their music to white audiences. He also illuminates in sharp detail the cutthroat record-music business, with surprising anecdotes like the Beatles' hanging out with Mary Wells because of their fascination with her and her style. But the book never loses its focus on how a young girl from Detroit quickly became an international singing star, then fell from grace but worked with amazing vigor -- despite the drugs and alcohol and her tempestuous life with many, many lovers -- to keep her captivating voice in front of people until she died young of cancer. This is a prodigiously reported, great read. I know the author and have read his previous books. They are top-notch. So is this one. -- John Oppedahl, former Detroit newspaper reporter and editor.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on October 15, 2012
The most fervent, dedicated Motown music fans are without doubt from the United Kingdom. Mary Wells was a Motown pioneer, who had the honour of touring over here with the Beatles, who looked upon her as their favourite Motowner. I saw her perform over here in 1964 and was entranced by her looks, personality and musical prowess. She was truly an exotic creature.
Until the well known author Peter Benjaminson published this book, there had been no thorough telling of Mary's tangled life. Peter has interviewed so many of the protagonists in Mary's life and career to ensure historical accuracy. Her love interests, her former secretary and good friends, as well as those who sang alongside her at Motown and toured with her in the heady days of that record company breaking through racial barriers. Mary Wells was on the infamous 1962 tour when the bus was shot at; she was denied entrance into restaurants and hotels in the Deep South. She was humiliated as a black woman on this tour by the treatment meted out by racist elements.
Peter has researched his book thoroughly and the complicated life choices Mary made are well detailed in his entertaining, informative biography.I thoroughly recommend buying and reading this excellent, well written book.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2012
If everything in this book is true this was a terrible way for a great singer to end up broke and sick at the end. After reading this book I went back and listen to several of albums and CD's that I had of Mrs Wells. What a great voice what a terrible way for someone to end up.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 21, 2012
Mary Wells finally gets her due in a focused book-length discussion. The book's strength is that it does a good job of discussing Mary the person and her life, giving the reader a lot of personal information about Mary not previously known. The fact that Mary is no longer with us means Benjaminson had to take piecemeal info about her and string it into a coherent story. This had to be a challenge in itself. The Appendix is also thorough.
Where the book falls short is that Benjaminson does not sufficiently give Mary her due in the larger context of the music industry at the time. She's a superstar at Motown but she was the biggest African American female solo artist of the early 1960s. It's is this lack of context that keeps Mary from getting the recognition from groups like the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She's contextualized in the book and in most other publications as Motown superstar but not a superstar outside of Motown.. which she was. No other Black female artist had the amount of crossover hits she had between 1961-1964. Benjamin missed the opportunity to present her in a larger context that the general public needs to understand.
Some of the contextual points he does make are questionable. For example, he claims Smokey productions on Mary were influenced by the girl group sound especially the Shirelles. That's highly unlikely for the mere fact that the background vocals on most of Smokey's productions in '62-'63 are from the Love-Tones. Also, in early '62 when he started working with Mary, the girl group sound hadn't become dominant yet in radio. That wouldn't happen for another year. 1963 was the the dominant year for girl groups. The examples he gives of the Dixie Cups, Shangri-Las, etc. are also questionable because these groups didn't debut on the Billboard Hot 100 until 1964, two years after Mary had already established herself as a major recording star. There's also some wrong information like him stating the Supremes sang background on "He's The One I Love" when it's actually the Andantes.
Granted, Benjaminson is a journalist and not a musicologist. However, fact checking is always appropriate regardless of an author's background. What also would have strengthened the book is a more definitive presentation of Mary Wells's career, including more photos, especially rare ones. Surely, with a little more effort he could have secured several rare photos of her at Motown. Also, anecdotal remembrances from non-Motowners would have been interesting. Wells played the chitlin' circuit and worked with just about every major act of the day, many of whom are still alive. Their memories of working with Wells would have interesting to read. Some documentation of those chitlin' circuit performances would have been good as well. Overall, Benjaminson's style is easy to follow, making the book a quick and enjoyable read. It's just lacking the "meat" that is needed to elevate Mary Wells from Motown superstar to American music legend.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on December 3, 2012
I am a product of that era, and I sing, I would often think where would I be if I had persued a singing career with Motown.But you what, I am happy I didn't. I love my nice, mostly unevenful, normal life.
I do agree she was the first Motown Star!
3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2012
It doesn't matter how much you THINK you know about the music world. "Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown's First Superstar" is a revelation. Peter Benjaminson's fascinating exposé about this underappreciated hitmaker is a roller coaster ride that will leave you breathless. I couldn't wait to see how it ended, even though I already knew (or thought I did).
This is the first book written about megastar Wells, and Benjaminson's third book about Motown (along with "The Lost Supreme" and "The Story of Motown"). Clearly a devotee of R&B, he takes special care to explain why this musical genre is so compelling. But this superb book is also a gold mine of historical anecdotes -- some humorous, some flat-out shocking, from wardrobe malfunctions to family deathbed fights to celebrity shootings. Lovers of showbiz dish will relish the stories about a teenaged Stevie Wonder groping Wells on the Motortown Revue tour bus, and Wells telling a furious Diana Ross to get a girdle. Reliably, Benjaminson never shrinks from airing the dirty laundry of anyone, including Motown founder Berry Gordy, one of the most feared and loathed gods of the entertainment world.
Gordy was himself a frustrated musical artist about whom Benjaminson explains: "No one found his playing or his singing all that overwhelming." Gordy was far more successful as a producer and napoleonic CEO. Under his influence, Wells abandoned what the author describes as her "gutsy, gospel-type" singing style for "innocent, vulnerable adolescent lyrics ... over a high-production, harmony-heavy vocal and instrumental background best exemplified by [Phil] Spector's `Wall of Sound.'"
Thus in 1960 Wells became the first superstar of Motown Records. Then Gordy teamed her up with legendary songwriter Smokey Robinson, who, as Benjaminson explains, "encouraged her to sing in a higher register.... She followed his directions, then added her own smooth, knowing coyness, like a layer of delicious frosting, right on top." Their songs catapulted Wells to crossover superpower status, where the Grammy-nominated phenom spent three years repeatedly topping charts with hits like "My Guy" and "Bye Bye Baby."
What happened next is truly tragic. Wells's life became a toxic stew of bad business decisions, aborted career reboots, and volatile romances. For her there would be no movies or TV shows like white pop stars got, and no more monster hits -- only indifferent promotion by record companies, industrial sabotage, and substance abuse, all of which ultimately destroyed her.
Great gobs of Wells's misfortune derived from unscrupulous managers and predatory contracts (she was only 17 when she joined Motown Records). Drugs and booze just made it all easier for her to bear. Hers is a cautionary tale that Benjaminson delivers with the warmth and understanding befitting a star of her caliber. His bulletproof reporting is built on extensive research and interviews with scores of people in Wells's sphere, spiced with ballsy observations like this one about Wells's first husband (band leader Herman Griffin, who performed backflips and splits while conducting): "Something other than drugs, liquor, and music was soon occupying her mind. `The audience liked to look at him as much as at her,' said Pete Moore [of The Miracles]. Mary also liked looking at Herman Griffin."
I confess to being a long-time Benjaminson fan. As a scribe, his style is delightful. Take how he characterizes two of Wells's songs as "enlivened by what sound like farts from a low-pitched tuba." C'mon, what's not to like? If he wrote a book about fly swatters, I'd totally read it -- and underline stuff and scrawl margin notes and make my friends read it, too.
As an investigator, his digging is so exhaustive it wears me out just thinking about it. Plus, he has a gift for distilling the maddeningly complex legal constructs of music contracts so that the lay wonks among us can appreciate their insanity, too. And he nimbly puts into perspective the numerous and often conflicting contemporary accounts of what really happened to the people he writes about.
I especially enjoy his books about showbiz luminaries, and this one is his best yet. Here Benjaminson delivers a seamless portrayal of an industry that devours its young, and what it was really like for a gifted casualty like Mary Wells.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 8, 2012
I always thought of Mary Wells as a one hit wonder. When I read the book description I was intrigued about what I was missing. And in fact, the book
did provide a lot of information I didn't know about this interesting person. But the book is badly written. It is flat, the writing just kind of chugs along without inspiration or crackling, sharp highlights. It reads like someone got a bunch of interviews and put them together without any great skill and certainly without any writing that grabs the reader. In truth, it is a few notches up from Wikipedia information. And that's sadly not enough to recommend reading it. It misses the mark.