20 ESSENTIAL ALBUMS
Who: Mary Wells.
What: The definitive hits package by Motown’s first female superstar, and her fourth solo album. It includes the singer’s first, self-penned success, “Bye Bye Baby,” and eight other tracks which reached the Top 10 of the Billboard R&B charts between 1961 and 1964. Moreover, three of these – “The One Who Really Loves You,” “You Beat Me To The Punch” and “Two Lovers” – were consecutive Top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100.
When: Greatest Hits was released April 15, 1964 as “My Guy” soared up the best-sellers on its way to Number One. The album reached the Billboard Top 20 that summer, to become the most successful long-player of Wells’ career. No other Motown female soloist would exceed those chart heights until the next decade. (For more on Mary Wells, read here.)
Where: These hits were recorded one by one at Motown’s original Detroit studio, employing the company’s in-house musicians, and background singers the Andantes and the Love-Tones. As with “Bye Bye Baby,” Mary’s second success (“I Don’t Want To Take A Chance”) was produced there by company founder Berry Gordy. “I had planned on continuing to produce her myself,” he revealed years later, but stepped aside when William “Smokey” Robinson spoke up for ideas he wanted to try.
Why: “Mary became my pet project,” wrote Robinson in his autobiography, Inside My Life. He liked writing for her voice. “Liked experimenting with her sound,” he added. “In fact, I took my love for Harry Belafonte’s calypso and gave an island-flavour bongo bop to ‘The One Who Really Loves You.’” The match was perfect: all but three of the tracks on Greatest Hits were written and produced by Robinson.
What else: The Beatles played a significant role in Wells’ working life, publicly voicing their enthusiasm for her (as well as other Motown artists) in media interviews on both sides of the Atlantic. John Lennon was said to have seen the singer in concert in the U.S. in 1964; later that year, she was invited to join the group’s U.K. fall tour, a 54-show marathon. In 1965, after Wells had left Motown, she recorded an album of their material, Love Songs to the Beatles.
What are the 20 most essential Motown albums? It’s a difficult choice, but this is ours, picked and presented through the course of this 60th anniversary year. Each album is featured with its background story, keyed to a relevant date in its history. This is not a countdown, leading to a “winner.” It’s just a way to showcase some of the finest music ever made. After all, isn’t that why you’re here?