Who was the biggest female singer on the Motown label? Today, most fans would cite Diana Ross; however, the original diva was Mary Wells, a gifted singer who was sadly overshadowed by Ross and other artists. Sadly, she never equalled the success she experienced during her brief time on the label, fading into undeserved obscurity in the 1970s and 1980s. By her 1992 death, younger generations remained unaware of her earlier status as the "First Lady of Motown." She may best known for the 1964 hit "My Guy," but the catchy 1962 single "You Beat Me to the Punch" also demonstrates her understated yet effective vocal style.
The Detroit-born singer first attracted the attention of Motown head Berry Gordy when she was just 17. The aspiring songwriter first approached Gordy with a song she had penned for Jackie Wilson; when she sang her composition, "Bye Bye Baby," he immediately signed her to a subsidiary label of Motown. Her 1960 recording eventually reached number eight on the R&B charts and cracked the top 50 on the pop charts. A year later, she became the first female artist on Motown to score a top 40 pop hit with "I Don't Want to Take a Chance." Impressed, Gordy soon teamed her with top songwriter Smokey Robinson; their partnership would serve as a turning point in Wells' career.
Their first collaboration resulted in Wells' then-biggest hit, 1962's "The One Who Really Loves You," a track that peaked at number eight on the Hot 100 and number two on the R&B charts. Motown immediately followed up with the similar "You Beat Me to the Punch," a calypso-kissed production that scored Wells her first number one R&B track (it also fared well on the pop charts, reaching number nine). The song earned her and Motown a Grammy nomination for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording, a first for the label as well as the artist. Her status as one of Motown's best-selling vocalists was solidified with the 1962 single "Two Lovers," another number one R&B hit and a top ten pop track. Once she released her second album, The One Who Really Loves You, Wells had risen in the ranks to become the "First Lady of Motown" and the label's earliest success story.
Her partnership with Robinson continued throughout 1963, releasing successful singles such as "Laughing Boy," "Operator," and "Two Wrongs Don't Make A Right." However, she would become most identified with their 1964 effort "My Guy," a pop/soul confection that topped both the R&B and pop charts. It was one of the first Motown songs to reach international acclaim, reaching number five on the UK charts. While Wells seemed to be riding high with this massive hit, it would also mark the beginning of her downfall.
In 1964 Wells wanted to renegotiate her Motown contract, feeling trapped by an agreement she signed when she was just a teenager. Twentieth Century Fox reportedly tried luring Wells away from the label with promises of a film career--that prospect never materialized. The company still offered a lucrative recording contract, so she departed Motown in 1965 after prolonged legal battles with Gordy. By the time she left, Ross and the Supremes were being groomed as the next major female stars of the label; overnight, it seemed, Wells had been forgotten.
For the next ten years, Wells struggled with health issues and disappointing album sales. She bounced among several labels before retiring from the music business in 1974; three years later she returned to performing and was signed to Epic Records. Wells mounted a modest comeback, scoring a dance club hit with the 1981 song "Gigolo." Unfortunately the success was short-lived, and she left the label in 1983. As she continued recording, she was dealt another blow: in 1990 she was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer, destroying her voice and forcing her to retire once again. Lacking health insurance, she was forced to sell her home; fortunately fellow Motown artists as well as fans such as Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Aretha Franklin, and Rod Stewart quickly stepped in, making donations. A year later Wells filed suit against Motown for royalties she never received from her time on the label; the parties settled out of court with Wells awarded a six-figure sum. A year later the cancer returned, and she passed away on July 26, 1992.
While Wells' tragic life story exemplifies the fleeting nature of fame, it should not overwhelm her talent. Her soulful yet simple singing style forced listeners to pay attention to the lyrics, which often told stories of love and heartbreak. "You Beat Me to the Punch" illustrates her technique, her voice effortlessly gliding over the song's strong beat (courtesy of Motown house band the Funk Brothers). While her church and blues roots subtly emerge, Wells keeps the song in pop territory with vocal tics such as the "oh-oh-oh-oh" riff in the chorus. This phrase would be emulated by several other female soul/pop singers, including Ronnie Spector.
The lyrics to the midtempo "You Beat Me to the Punch" represent classic Robinson songwriting. He writes a universally relatable story, but adds a twist ending. At first the female protagonist appears shy, working up the courage to approach a man who has caught her eye. But he "beats her the punch" by asking her out first. Wells then vows to ask him to be hers, but once again he asks her before she can find the words. Her slightly breathless delivery of the word "punch" suggests longing and the blush of first love. When the bridge arrives, however, the song takes a decidedly darker turn.
First Wells croons that since she understands that he loves her and assumes he will be faithful, "I let my heart surrender / To you, yes I did." Once she lowers her inhibitions, she discovers that her boyfriend has been cheating on her. In the final verse, the tables are turned: Wells' voice takes on a confident, strident tone, signaling a substantial change in the narrator. No longer is she the coy, shy girl that lets the man dominate the relationship. "So I ain't gonna wait around for you to put me down / This time I'm gonna play my hunch / And walk away this very day," she sings, her voice rising in volume and intensity. This time, she has beaten her lover to the punch and ended their romance. "I'll beat you to the punch, yes, I will / And let you know, know, how it feels," she rants as the song fades out.
"You Beat Me to the Punch" may have been written by a man, but the lyrics emit a feminist aura. Wells spins the story of a timid girl transforming into an independent, self-respecting woman, all in the space of an almost three-minute single. This is an impressive feat, and Wells' supple voice proves up to the challenge. Wells may be best remembered for "My Guy," but her other Motown work shows her talent encompassed more than just that number one hit. As one of the earliest female crossover stars, Wells deserves respect for being the very first "First Lady of Motown."