The spring of ’64 heralded the arrival of Motown’s first global hit, “My Guy,” by the singer who had become Berry Gordy’s first solo superstar, Mary Wells. Hers was also the voice of the company’s first three consecutive Top 10 hits, and the vehicle for the compelling early songs of Smokey Robinson. But it is “My Guy” which gave music fans around the world their first significant taste of what Hitsville U.S.A. could deliver.
- First hit: “Bye Bye Baby”
- Biggest hit: “My Guy”
- Top album: Greatest Hits
- Career highlight: adored by The Beatles, a love which money can’t buy
- Detroit-born in 1943, Mary Wells overcomes poor childhood health and determines to make a living in showbusiness. In a Motor City nightclub, she pitches a self-composed song to Berry Gordy in hope that he can persuade Jackie Wilson to record it. Instead, the Motown boss recruits the teenager to his company’s cause and personally produces her recording of the tune, “Bye Bye Baby.” It’s the very first chart success for the Motown label (to this point, Tamla Records is Berry’s primary imprint) in 1961.
- The following year, Mary is placed into the magic hands of the Miracles’ leader, Smokey Robinson, who creates for her a series of tender love songs of notable maturity. The first three hit the Top 10 of the Billboard pop charts with barely a pause: “The One Who Really Loves You,” “You Beat Me To The Punch” and “Two Lovers.”
- In 1963, another quartet of Mary’s recordings scale the best-sellers, including two Top 30 crossover tunes on one 45: “What’s Easy For Two Is So Hard For One” and “You Lost The Sweetest Boy.” The former is one more swirling gem authored by Smokey, the latter a neo-gospel rave-up from the pens of new hitmakers Holland/Dozier/Holland.
- Mary reaches her career pinnacle with 1964’s “My Guy,” a Smokey song of such smooth sophistication, such finger-snapping soulfulness, that it travels all the way to No. 1 during the British invasion. Moreover, the record becomes Motown’s first success in other lands, including the U.K. and Australia. Adding to the luster is the fact that the world-conquering Beatles cite Mary as one of their favorite artists.
- Motown continues to execute ambitious plans for their queen, including an album’s partnership with Marvin Gaye, preceded by a double-sided hit duet, “What’s The Matter With You Baby” and “Once Upon A Time.” Yet Mary and husband Herman Griffin decide to entertain offers from elsewhere as she turns 21 and “My Guy” reaches its peak. The singer quits for another record company, and gets ready for a British tour in the fall with her admirers from Liverpool. Meanwhile, Motown turns its attention to a trio of would-be princesses of pop: The Supremes.
- “My Guy” is subsequently inducted into the Grammy® Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, bestowing equal glory on the songwriter and the singer. Mary Wells deserves the recognition, and no one connected with Motown, least of all Smokey Robinson, begrudges that.