In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Mary Wells’ ascent was a beautiful thing. Growing up in Detroit with an absent father and a domestic-worker mother, she went through both spinal meningitis and tuberculosis. To deal with the pain of her various illnesses, she lost herself in the church and in music. And by the time she was out of her teens, she was, quite possibly, the biggest star of Motown’s early years.
Working with Smokey Robinson, her favorite producer and songwriter, she scored a handful of big crossover hits in the early ’60s. She headlined the label’s early package tours. She was the first Motown artist to be nominated for a Grammy and the first to perform outside the US. She was the Beatles’ favorite American singer, and they took her on a UK tour. And it all came to a head with “My Guy,” the biggest hit of her career.
“My Guy” is a charming song, but it’s a slight one, too. The musicians in the Funk Brothers, the legendary Motown backing band, were keeping themselves amused by quoting the old jazz standards “Canadian Sunset” and “Begin The Beguine,” figuring that the song would never come out anyway. But if you aren’t listening for those little touches, you 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.
Smokey Robinson wrote the song, and it’s a pledge of fealty so simplistic that it almost works as a nursery rhyme: “He may not be a movie star / But when it comes to being happy, we are.” (A year later, Robinson wrote the Temptations’ “My Girl” as a sort of gender-flipped version of “My Guy.”) Wells floats through the song with an effortless sort of grace. She doesn’t oversing. Instead, she uses phrasings that remind me more of mid-century jazz-pop singers than of what we’d come to understand as soul music.
A hit like this probably should’ve led to great things from Wells, but that’s not what happened. Egged on by her husband at the time and pissed over the way the label used the money she thought she’d earned to promote the Supremes, Wells demanded to be let out of her Motown contract. (Many years later, when she was battling cancer without health insurance, she sued Motown for missing royalties and got a settlement.) Soon enough, Wells signed with 20th Century Fox for more money. But while she kept releasing charting singles into the early ’80s, she never got anywhere near the top 10 again. She went through bad marriages, publicized affairs, temporary retirements, and cancer, before a bout with pneumonia finally killed her in 1992, when she was 49.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Ninja Man interpolating “My Guy” on his 1990 dancehall classic “Murder Dem”: