This list of songs is inspired by a list published by radio station, KEXP, from Seattle in 2010, as well as, the latest poll taken in 2021 by Rolling Stone Magazine. For the most part, I will faithfully countdown from their lists, from Song #500 to Song #1. So, when you see the song title listed as something like: “KEXP: Song #XXX”….it means that I am working off of the official KEXP list. “RS: Song XXX” means the song is coming from the Rolling Stone list. If I post the song title as being: “KTOM: Song #xxx”….it means I have gone rogue and am inserting a song choice from my own personal list of tunes I really like. In either case, you are going to get to hear a great song and learn the story behind it. Finally, I am not a music critic nor a musician. I am a music fan and an armchair storyteller. Enough said! Let’s get on to today’s song.
RS: The Top 500 Songs in Modern Music History.
Song #186: My Guy by Mary Wells.
If you know the song, “My Guy” at all, you will know that it is a sweet Pop song that sees Mary Wells, as the singer, reaffirming her love and devotion for the man she is presently with, as she sings the song. If we were being honest, we would say that we agree that her outlook reflects how most of us hope our own relationships turn out to be like. But, as simple and straight-forward as “My Guy” seems to be, there is a lot more to the story than simply what is stated in the lyrics. Mary Wells is a very interesting person in the History of Motown Records and the song, “My Guy” holds a special distinction in music history, too. So, pour yourself a warm drink, grab a comfy spot to relax in because the story of Mary Wells and “My Guy” is really something. So, let us begin……
Like many young singers of colour in the late 1950s/early 1960s, Mary Wells got her start singing in local churches and then, as she got older, in local nightclubs in Detroit. At a chance meeting in one of those clubs with Motown boss, Barry Gordy, Wells managed to sneak in an audition with him. He admired her talent and signed her to a contract. Mary Wells was seventeen at the time. Prior to the release of “My Guy”, Mary Wells had a string a increasingly successful hits. The success of these songs went a long way to helping Motown establish itself as a record label of note in the music industry. In fact, when the current stable of Motown stars would head out on their annual Motown Summertime Revue concerts, Mary Wells was actually the headlining act up until 1965.
In 1963, as was tradition at Motown, Mary Wells was paired with a songwriter whose job it was to write hit songs for her to sing. The person she was paired with was Smokey Robinson. It was he who wrote “My Guy” for Wells and it was Robinson who, a few years later, bookended that song by writing “My Girl” for The Temptations. In any case, “My Guy” went to #1, making it the very first #1 song for Motown Records. “My Guy” went on to sell several million records worldwide which, at the time, made it one of the most successful songs, in terms of sales, in music history. Needless to say, Mary Wells was THE star at Motown at the time that “My Guy” was ruling the charts. ***An interesting side note about “My Guy” reaching #1 on the charts is the fact that, in doing so, “My Guy” stopped a run of several months atop the charts by The Beatles. The British Invasion was in full swing in 1964 but, there was just something about “My Guy” that enabled it to knock The Beatles out of first place on the charts. Furthermore, Mary Wells got to tour the UK to support, “My Guy” and she ended up being the opening act for……that’s right, you guessed it…..The Beatles! “My Guy” reached #1 in the UK, too, making it the first Motown song to hit #1 outside of the US, as well. A final note, at the time of the UK Tour, John Lennon was quoted as saying that Mary Wells was The Beatles’ favourite American singer. Mary Wells returned the favour years later by releasing an album of Beatles standards.
Just prior to the release of “My Guy”, Mary Wells married a man named Curtis Womack. He was the brother of singer, Bobby Womack. In any case, Curtis Womack started whispering in his wife’s ear, telling her that she would never have more leverage than right then and now, when it came to re-negotiating her contract with Barry Gordy who, Womack publicly stated, had taken advantage of a very young Wells, when she first signed with Motown way back when. So, in one of the first full-blown Diva-esque moves in music history, Mary Wells delivered an ultimatum to Barry Gordy which said that he needed to raise her royalty rate significantly or else she was going to take him to court, have her contract nullified and then, she would leave Motown and sign with another label who would treat her properly and promote her career as she felt it deserved to be promoted. Well, if you know anything about the corporate structure of Motown in the 1960s, it was that it was an assembly line system. There were singers who sang, songwriters who wrote and session players who played on the songs. Everyone had one role and no one was more important that the name, Motown. Barry Gordy called her bluff. In his eyes, Wells was a singer who could easily be replaced. (As it turned out, another bouffon-haired talented singer named Diana Ross, was ready, willing and more than able, to step in and replace Wells). So, Wells and Gordy went to court. Wells was successful in getting her contract nullified. She signed with Atlantic Records who promised her musical success, as well as, a future in the film industry. Barry Gordy, on the other hand, was furious and exacted his revenge by letting it be known that, in the future, any radio station caught playing new Mary Wells songs would find itself denied access to the entire Motown catalogue! In essence, Barry Gordy blacklisted Mary Wells and, effectively, caused her music career to go into a steep decline.
As if that wasn’t enough bad luck, a few decades later, Mary Wells attempted a comeback but, as she started perfroming again, she found that she was having pain in her throat. A doctor’s check-up revealed that she had developed a form of throat cancer. The radiation treatment that was necessary in order to save her life ended up destroying her vocal cords. Not only that, she had been long dropped by her second record label by that time so, when she went for her cancer treatments, she did so without any medical insurance. As you know, in the US, hospital procedures can easily bankrupt a family and that was, indeed, what happened to Mary Wells. She lost her home, she had to sell her awards to raise money and, in the end, she became one of the “cause celebres” for the devastating cost of medical care in America. Several benefits were held to help raise money to cover her extra costs and on-going treatments.
In the end, the story of Mary Wells serves as a cautionary tale for all women in the Entertainment Industry but, also, as a rallying point, too. The truth of the matter is that Barry Gordy had, indeed, forced a teenage Mary Wells into signing her royalty rights away for mere peanuts and she and her husband were right to insist that she deserved a better deal based on how much success she was having under the Motown banner. As much as music may be viewed as Art, it is mostly Big Business. That was certainly the case with Barry Gordy. If there is a defence to be made for Gordy, it is that he was single-minded in his pursuit of avenues to promote “Black” music at a time in America when Civil Rights were not enshrined into any Law. Attempts by employees of his company to “interfere” with his ability to run his company as profitably as possible, had to be met with the swiftest of force. As it turned out, Mary Wells was merely the first of a parade of stars who left Motown after contractual disputes with Barry Gordy; Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and David Ruffin (of The Temptations) being just three of the bigger names involved.
The battle for artists to earn their rightful share of the profits of the songs they release remains on-going today. The battleground has shifted from the offices of Motown and now resides in the various streaming services around now, such as Spotify, who make billions in profit from membership fees while paying the artists whose work fills their shelves, so to speak, mere pennies per download. I have read of many artists/bands who say that they may earn only a few hundred dollars from a song that is downloaded a million times on a service such as Spotify.
So, by all means, listen to “My Guy” with a smile on your face because it truly is a sweet, sweet, happy, positive and unlifting song. It is. “My Guy” was inducted into the Song Category of The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame because of the cultural impact the song had. It is a song that I like to call a “perfect Pop gem”. But, as you listen, be aware of the insidious side to the business of music and how the success of “My Guy” caused the first of many attempts at financial justice for the artists whose songs we like so much. As it turned out, Mary Wells paid a very high price for her principled stand. Perhaps one day, her name will be invoked as a name to be honoured should royalty rates ever truly swing back toward the side of the artists and away from the corporate ledgers in which they so firmly stand at present.
For now, here is Motown’s very first #1 hit song, “My Guy”…written by Smokey Robinson and sung by the incomparable, Mary Wells. Enjoy.
The link to the video for the song, “My Guy” by Mary Wells, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Mary Wells, can be found here.
The link to the official website for Rolling Stone Magazine, can be found here.