The story of Mary Wells is one of soul’s great tragedies. It’s a tale of missed opportunities, wasted talent, bad business, blind avarice and much more. Briefly, it goes like this. After a childhood plagued with serious illness (spinal meningitis left her partially paralysed, deaf and blind) Mary Esther Wells signed to Berry Gordy’s fledgling set up when she was just 17. There she quickly became one of Motown’s earliest consistent hit makers and biggest money earners, with her ‘My Guy’ really putting Motown on the worldwide entertainment map. Ms. Wells became a soul superstar – feted everywhere and even cited by the Beatles as their favourite female singer! Then egged on by her husband, Herman Griffin (Berry Gordy’s one time chauffeur), she quit Motown after a bitter dispute that culminated in a high-level court case. Offered big, big bucks she signed to 20th Century Fox Records but suddenly the hits dried up and she was in danger of becoming a has been when new label, Atlantic breathed temporary life into her career with the hit single ‘Dear Lover’. The comeback though was brief and despite recording for labels like Jubilee, Reprise, Epic and Motorcity she never regained the status she’d enjoyed during her time at Motown. In the early 90s she was diagnosed with cancer – the disease that was to claim her life in 1992. She was just 49.
This new double CD pack from SoulMusic Records allows you to catch up with a key and sadly neglected part of the Mary Wells story – her time at 20th Century Fox. The album collects all the material she recorded for the label – essentially two albums and half a dozen out takes. The first, eponymous collection was released in 1965 and it contained all the singles that the movie offshoot had issued on their new star throughout 1964. You’ll hear that stuff like ‘Ain’t It The Truth’, ‘Stop Taking Me For Granted’ and ‘Use Your Head'(co-penned by Chuck Barksdale of the Dells) were all built to the same recipe as her big Motown hits, but for whatever reason they had little or no chart impact. The other cuts on the album (bar one) enjoy that same mid-sixties soul joie-de-vivre (most notably the Carl Davis produced ‘Never, Never Leave Me’) and are a must for 60s sweet soul collectors. The odd one out (just alluded to) is a twee cover of the standard ‘Time After Time’ – which maybe indicated the direction which the label bosses wanted Mary Wells to go in… an assertion confirmed by her second 20th Century Fox set.
It was no secret that the Beatles were big Mary Wells fans (she regularly toured the States with them) so maybe it was logical that she would record some of their songs. But the label bosses got her to record a whole albums worth…. however they brought in MOR muso Bernie Wayner to oversee the sessions and the result was bizarre to say the least. Wayner put songs like ‘All My Loving’, ‘She Loves You’ and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ into cheap, cabaret lounge settings – settings that young Mary was clearly uncomfortable with and the radio DJs and record buyers weren’t taken in. Poor Ms Wells’ Beatle tribute flopped and the label dropped her almost as quickly as they’d signed her.
This is the first time that ‘Love Songs To The Beatles’ has appeared on CD and yes, it doesn’t work but it’s an important part of the lady’s story and as you get that great first (but inexplicably unsuccessful) 20th Century Fox album with it, the release is worth serious consideration.