When we lost Mary Wells to cancer on July 26, 1992, we lost a bridge to an era of soul music that sustained and entertained audiences during an era of equal parts innocence and turbulence. Her earliest hits came at the dawn of the ‘60s; her biggest hit was released not long after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a shattering event that ushered in a period of reflection and social upheaval. At that time, her record label, Motown, became a relevant and steadfast presence in popular culture, and Wells’ voice with it.
Jukeboxes were the YouTube and Spotify of the day, and in Wells’ prime, one would be hard-pressed to find a record machine without one of her songs in it, or a radio without one of those hits in rotation. Here are a handful of her songs that spanned the great singer’s career, gave joy to listeners, or just got them up to dance:
“Bye Bye Baby”: Cue the sock-hop TV show shots - Wells got feet moving with this defiant ode to jilted lovers everywhere. This was her first single and it launched her into the R&B Top 10.
“You Beat Me to the Punch”: Timing is everything, Wells explains, as the arc of a relationship plays out in this, her first R&B chart-topper (and a Top 10 pop hit, to boot). And she had the full force of the Motown machine behind her, from Smokey Robinson as the song’s co-writer, to the great Funk Brothers playing behind her.
“My Guy”: This is Wells’ biggest hit - No. 1 on the pop and R&B charts, and as definitive a Motown hit as one can name from the era. It was also her final hit for Motown, as she left the label shortly afterward.
“The Doctor”: In the midst of turbulent 1968, Wells released a solid album (Servin’ Up Some Soul) on the classic R&B label Jubilee Records, and sent this understated single onto both the pop and R&B charts.
“Gigolo”: Wells came out of a 13-year recording drought, embracing the late disco era on this 1981 single, which hit No. 2 on the Billboard Disco chart and No. 13 on the Hot Dance Club Play chart.