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Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown's First Superstar Hardcover – Bargain Price, November 1, 2012
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Before Diana Ross defined the image of the Motown female singer, Mary Wells put her stamp on that legendary record company. As a Detroit teenager, she was looking for an opportunity to write songs, particularly for her idol, Jackie Wilson, when an impromptu audition led Barry Gordy to sign her as a vocalist. The hit singles You Beat Me to the Punch and My Guy launched her into stardom. She went on the road with the Motown Revue, coping with little pay, harsh travel conditions, segregated or no hotel accommodations, and the massive insecurities of a young woman looking for a man to take care of her. Benjaminson details Wells’ relationship with Smoky Robinson and the songwriting team Holland, Dozier, and Holland. Wells eventually broke with Motown, charging Gordy with gross underpayment, and struggled for years, never again quite reaching the top but still adored by fans black and white. Through failed romances and marriages, suicide attempts, alcohol and drug abuse, and ultimately cancer, Wells maintained her talent and tenacity until her death, at 49. --Vanessa Bush
"Superlative . . . Benjaminson attempts valiantly, painstakingly to resurrect the reputation of founding Supreme member Flo Ballard . . . [An] engaging biography." —Publishers Weekly on The Lost Supreme
"Peter Benjaminson pays tribute to the remarkable life of Mary Wells through a fascinating biography. His relentless research has resulted in not only a riveting tale of Wells's many personal battles but also a gripping snapshot of the music industry in which she worked. Motown's first superstar is given top-of-the-charts treatment in this terrific book." —Gerald Posner, author, Motown, Why America Slept, and Case Closed
"I thought I knew all there was to know about Mary Wells. I was wrong. Here, Peter Benjaminson tells Mary's story with great love and compassion in a way that informs even the so-called experts. I love Peter's work, and am happy to see Mary Wells finally be given the recognition she so deserves." —J. Randy Taraborrelli, author, Michael Jackson, After Camelot, and The Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe
"Peter Benjaminson does an admirable job with Mary Wells, presenting thoroughly researched scholarship, but always going back to reminding the reader of the soaring voice, and wide heart, of Motown's first superstar." —Charles R. Cross, author, Heavier than Heaven and Room Full of Mirrors
"Mary Wells has finally found 'My Guy'—and it is her biographer Peter Benjaminson. This is a match made in music heaven." —Al Abrams, author, Hype & Soul: Behind the Scenes at Motown
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She was such a talented person with a troubled soul. I wonder sometimes if these special types of gifts God gives us is a "gift" or a curse. I suppose it's all in the way you handle your blessing. Unfortunately, Mary had so many demons, she couldn't escape herself.
From leaving Motown and Berry Gordy, The Chairman, as he is penned, to going to Twentieth Century to several other record companies, Mary just couldn't find her way. She did, unfortunately, find her way to too many cigarettes and drugs. All of this was of Mary's doing in some ways, especially the guilt she felt for what she did to the Womack family, whom being the most well-known R&B legend, Bobby Womack. What she does was almost Jerry Springer-ish of sorts. I had to go back and reread some of this section because the relationships got so muddied.
I could not put this book down! I learned so much about this famous singer and all her money troubles. Again, many of her problems were due to her own accord. Peter did an outstanding job bringing Mary to life, and it was also great that Mary, while on her deathbed, decided to come clean and tell her story the way she wanted it to be said. No on can dispute that she was a troubled soul, but at least, before her death, she became whole, in my opinion.
This is a great story and sad at the same time, but one worth adding to your list, if you're a reader who loves biographies and memoirs, such as myself! Well done!
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.