(Reuters) - Mary Wells, Motown Records’ first female star who paved the way for the success of Diana Ross and The Supremes, shot to fame in the early 1960s only to fade away as a footnote of the longtime Detroit record label.
Now, some two decades after Wells’ death in 1992 at age 49, the singer who scored a No. 1 hit with “My Guy,” is receiving a push for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Peter Benjaminson, the author of the first Wells biography, “Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Story of Motown’s First Superstar,” has spearheaded the campaign for the singer, who he said has not received the recognition afforded to the likes of The Supremes or Martha and the Vandellas.
Benjaminson, 67, believes that aside from Wells’ merits as an R&B singer and as Motown’s first big female star, she deserves consideration as a pioneer who crossed the black-and-white racial divide in the United States.
“I think it’s unfair to have Mary, who set the path for so many superstars today, be excluded from an honour like this, which she should’ve gotten a long time ago,” Benjaminson told Reuters by phone from his home in New York’s Harlem neighbourhood.
Wells was born into a broken household in Detroit in 1943 and contracted spinal meningitis and tuberculosis at a young age, which left her partially blind and deaf.
After graduating high school Wells set her sights on Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, with a song she wrote herself, “Bye Bye Baby.”
“Gordy kept refusing (a meeting), but she kept persisting,” Benjaminson said. “Finally, he got so annoyed that he asked her to sing it right there ... He was so impressed he signed her up the next day as a Motown singer.”
“Bye Bye Baby,” rose to No. 45 on the Billboard Top 100 chart in 1960, a rare feat for a black, female singer, Benjaminson said.
“She really paved the way for the other women who came after, including Diana Ross,” Benjaminson said. “She showed how quickly a woman could rise on the charts with Motown.”
Wells was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and 1987, but never made the cut for induction.
“I don’t know what happened in 1986 and 1987, but she’s certainly due the honour this late in the game,” he said.
Benjaminson is hoping first to get Wells inducted into the Legends Hall of Fame at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, a prominent historical venue for African-American musicians.
“I think that would help in getting her into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” said Benjaminson, who hopes his book may play a role in resurrecting Wells’ reputation.
Benjaminson has set up a Facebook page called "Induct Mary Wells into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," that urges fans to send letters to the foundation that runs the Cleveland, Ohio-based Hall of Fame (www.rockhall.com/).
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum was established in 1983 and has inducted some 700 performers, songwriters and record producers, chosen by some 600 artists, music historians and industry members.
After scoring other hits such as “You Beat Me to the Punch,” in 1962, Wells landed atop the chart for two weeks in 1964 with “My Guy,” her final Motown hit.
Wells left Motown at the height of her popularity over compensation issues and never found the same success again. She died in 1992 after a battle with throat cancer.
Benjaminson’s biography of Wells, published in November 2012, is his third book on Motown.
Reporting by Kurt Anthony Krug in Detroit, editing by Eric Kelsey, desking by G Crosse