M is for My Guy

Smokey Robinson of the Miracles wrote and produced the 1964 hit single ‘My Guy’ which Mary Wells recorded and this song made her Motown’s first female star.  ‘My Guy’ charted #1 in the US and it was the defining hit of Mary Wells’ career, but it was also memorable as Motown’s first British hit in the UK on May 16, 1964, it made it to #5.  ‘My Guy’ was the first number one hit for Motown and soon Wells was one of the most popular Motown performers.  She was the first Motown artist to be nominated for a Grammy and the first to perform outside the US.

This song entered the charts at #50 during the Billboard week of May 4, 1964 when The Beatles held a monopoly on the Top 5 US chart positions with their #1 ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’, #2 ‘Twist and Shout’, #3 ‘She Loves You’, #4 ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and #5 ‘Please Please Me’.  Mary was the Beatles’ favorite American singer, and they took her on a UK tour that came to a head with the biggest hit of her career ‘My Guy’.  They called her “their sweetheart” and she struck up a warm relationship with John Lennon in particular.  Upon her return to the States, the Beatles sent Wells several compositions to be released on their next album.  In return, Mary recorded an album called Love Songs to The Beatles.

In this song ‘My Guy’, a woman declares her devotion to her man while she rejects the advances of all others.  She has found her ideal guy who she is very happy being with and she affirms her fidelity to her boyfriend, saying that nothing will separate them and they will stay together like glue that is used fix a stamp to a letter.  Many of the other girls are impressed when a man has bulging muscles, but not this girl, as her guy has a physique and looks that are ordinary, but she is fine with normal and she will remain dedicated to her man.  Smokey Robinson wrote the song as a pledge of fealty which was so simplistic that it almost works as a nursery rhyme.  Like her other collaborations with Robinson, ‘My Guy’ featured her smooth, knowing, but coy delivery backed by Robinson’s understated popish arrangement.

Mary Esther Wells was born on May 13, 1943 in Detroit, Michigan and her story is one that is filled with hard luck.  She never knew her father and her mother worked as a domestic servant to provide for her three children.  While still young, Wells was afflicted with a bad case of spinal meningitis.  She suffered temporary paralysis, a loss of hearing, and she was partly blinded in one eye.  To deal with the pain of her various illnesses, she lost herself in the church and in music.  After she recovered from the disease she had to learn to walk again.  Once healthy Mary began to demonstrate a gift for singing.

Wells first began singing in church when she was three or four.  Her voice was so good that by the age of ten she was competing in talent contests in the local clubs.  She also stood out in her Northwestern High School choir.  Her gift for singing also branched into songwriting.  At age 16, while she was still in high school, she met a man named Robert Bateman, who was Motown founder Barry Gordy’s personal assistant.  Wells told Bateman that she had written a song called ‘Bye, Bye Baby’, and that she thought would be perfect for Motown artist Jackie Wilson.  Bateman introduced Wells to Gordy, and as she was unable to write her song down, Gordy asked to hear the song.  As she sang it to Gordy. he was so impressed that he promptly bought the song and signed Wells to a contract, turned her over to William ‘Smokey” Robinson and Motown released her debut single ‘Bye, Bye Baby’ which went to #45 Pop, and reached #8 R&B, in 1960.

Few other soul singers managed to be as shy and as sexy at the same time as Wells and the soft-voiced singer followed up her first single with ‘I Don’t Want To Take a Chance’, which Wells also wrote, and it did well on both the pop and R&B charts, but her third single, ‘Strange Love’ wavered.  Gordy then decided that she could benefit from someone else’ material and in 1962, Wells was teamed up with performer, writer, producer Smokey Robinson along with the emerging Motown production team, and he happened to be the perfect match for her talent.  Robinson wrote and produced her biggest Motown hits, ‘Two Lovers’, ‘You Beat Me to the Punch’, and ‘The One Who Really Loves You’ which all made the Top Ten in the early ‘60s, and ‘My Guy’ hit the number one spot in mid-1964, at the very height of Beatlemania.  ‘My Guy’ was also Wells’ last hit single for Motown, except for the duets, ʻOnce Upon A Time’ and ʻWhat’s The Matter With You Baby’ which she recorded with label mate Marvin Gaye.

At the peak of her career Wells let her then husband-manager, songwriter Herman Griffin, convince her that Motown was not paying her enough and that she should sue the label.  Wells went to court, arguing that her contract, which was signed when she was seventeen, was invalid.  The court let her out of her contract with Motown giving her the option to terminate the contract at her discretion after she reached her twenty-first birthday on May 13, 1964.  She was encouraged by her ex-husband to break her Motown contract and she signed with 20th Century Fox in hopes of higher royalties and possible movie roles (which never materialized) along with a reported advance of several hundred thousand dollars.  Mary wrote songs under the pseudonym LR Peques and her glamorous look, adorned in blonde wigs and stunning stage gowns, was ahead of its time, and she became a sex symbol for many young fans.  Her loss hit Motown hard, which is why they fought to keep her.  But Mary lost out also, as the agreement that freed her from Motown not only cost her the label’s production and promotional muscle, it deprived her of royalties from sales of her old material.

Mary turned 21 years old as ‘My Guy’ was rising to the top of the charts, and left Motown almost immediately afterward.  It’s been rumored that Wells was being groomed for the sort of plans that were subsequently lavished upon Diana Ross and the more nefarious rumor involves Motown quietly discouraging radio stations from playing Wells’ subsequent releases.  What is certain is that Wells that Wells never found the success that she enjoyed during her Motown Years.  After being terminated by 20th Century Fox, she signed with Atco, and Jubilee recording solid pop-soul on which her vocal talents remained undiminished.  She wrote and produced a lot of her late ‘60s and early ‘70s sessions with her second husband, guitarist Cecil Womack (brother of Bobby), and these found her exploring a somewhat earthier groove than her more widely known pop efforts.

She had battled addiction in the 70s, and bouts of depression, and in 1965 just when she should have been thriving, she suffered a relapse from her childhood TB, which put her out of action for weeks, as Mary was spectacularly unlucky.  She followed her number one hit, by doing some very successful duets with Marvin Gaye.  She did have a top forty hit with ‘Use Your Head’, but after only one year with Fox her contract was cancelled.  Wells signed with different labels over the next few years and did have a few nominal hits with songs like ‘Dear Lover’ and ‘Dig The Way I Feel’, but by the end of the sixties, this beautiful woman and her angelic voice that took America by storm had retired from performing to be a mother.

In the eighties, a renewed interest in Motown prompted Wells to return to touring.  She found that she still had dedicated fans who would come to see her perform.  She successfully toured throughout the decade.  In 1990, Wells was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx.  The cancer was caused by a heavy smoking habit, which Wells admitted was up to two packs a day.  The cancer treatment she had to undergo left her unable to sing for many years.  She also had no health insurance, and the costly treatments and therapy quickly eliminated her finances.  She was so financially devastated, that she was evicted from the apartment where she and her daughter lived.  But her friends in the industry came to her rescue, and such notable musicians such as Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, Diana Ross, Rod Stewart, and Elton John helped her pay her medical bills and living expenses.  The Washington-based Rhythm and Blues Foundation raised more than $50,000 to pay her medical bills.  Diana Ross gave $15,000, Rod Stewart and Bruce Springsteen $10,000 each, and the Temptations $5,000.  Wells even appeared on a special Joan Rivers television show in which she was paid tribute by stars such as Stevie Wonder and Little Richard.

Determined to help the fight against cancer, Wells appeared before a Congressional Committee to argue for government funds for cancer research.  In her speech she said, “I’m here today to urge you to keep the faith.  I can’t cheer you on with all my voice, but I can encourage, and I pray to motivate you with all my heart and soul and whispers.”   Though her time at her absolute peak was short, Mary Wells’ career had been glorious.  Her luscious looks proved that soul could be sold as sexy to white people, which her former backing singers The Supremes exploited in a cutesy way.  And while you could argue that there were female soul superstars before Mary Wells, such as Dinah Washington and Etta James, they were both known in other fields first, such as R&B, rock and jazz.

My Guy” is a charming song, with lead vocals by Mary Wells and Background vocals by The Andantes, which were made up of Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow, and Louvain Demps.  The musicians on this song are the Funk Brothers, the legendary Motown backing band, with Earl Van Dyke on keyboards, Johnny Griffith on piano, Eddie Willis playing guitar, Robert White also on guitar, James Jamerson on bass, Benny Benjamin playing drums, Dave Hamilton on vibes, Herbert Williams and John Wilson both playing trumpet and both Paul Riser and George Bohanon on trombone.  Apparently, they didn’t think that this song would ever come out, so when it was time to create the arrangement, they amused themselves by quoting the old jazz standards ‘Canadian Sunset’ and ‘Begin The Beguine’.  Most people aren’t listening for those little touches, and they hear a sunny and unambitious shuffle, artfully arranged but lightweight.  The best moments are the smallest ones, like the bit toward the end where James Jamerson’s complicated bassline steps into the spotlight.

Wells continued to suffer from the cancer and she was hospitalized once more and spent her last days at the Kenneth Norris Jr. Cancer Hospital until July 28, 1992 when she died after a bout with pneumonia.  Cigarettes had forever silenced one of the most beautiful voices ever to grace the airwaves when Mary Wells died in Los Angeles, California.

There’s nothing you could say
To tear me away from my guy
There’s nothing you could do
‘Cause I’m stuck like glue to my guy

I’m stickin’ to my guy like a stamp to a letter
Like the birds of a feather
We stick together
I’m telling you from the start
I can’t be torn apart from my guy

There’s nothing you can do
Could make me untrue to my guy (my guy)
There’s nothing you could buy
Could make me tell a lie to my guy (my guy)

I gave my guy my word of honor
To be faithful and I’m gonna
You best be believing
I won’t be deceiving my guy

As a matter of opinion I think he’s tops
My opinion is he’s the cream of the crop
As a matter of taste to be exact
He’s my ideal as a matter of fact

And no muscle bound man could take my hand from my guy (my guy)
No handsome face could ever take the place of my guy (my guy)
He may not be a movie star
But when it comes to bein’ happy we are
There’s not a man today
Who could take me away from my guy

And no muscle bound man could take my hand from my guy (my guy)
And no handsome face could ever take the place of my guy (my guy)
He may not be a movie star
But when it comes to bein’ happy we are
There’s not a man today
Who could take me away from my guy

There’s not a man today
Who could take me away from my guy
There’s not a man today
Who could take me away from my guy
There’s not a man today

13 thoughts on “M is for My Guy

  1. What a sad story she had…I’m glad the music industry rallied behind her when she needed them. They are not there for everyone.

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