If the death of Mary Wells at 49 on July 26 reached you as just one more R&B sob story, think again. When doctors diagnosed Wells’ throat cancer 18 months ago, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart, Robert De Niro, Don Henley, Berry Gordy, and Diana Ross helped finance her treatment. Their donations paid tribute to the breathy innocence Wells brought to hits like ”My Guy,” ”Two Lovers,” ”You Beat Me to the Punch,” and ”The One Who Really Loves You.”
Those records made Wells Motown’s first great star. In the early ’60s, she was a continual presence on the pop charts, and her hits paved the way for the Supremes, Aretha Franklin, and Gladys Knight. Wells was also the first important singer to leave Motown. Though her successes, including 1966’s ”Dear Lover,” were infrequent thereafter, she proved she wasn’t a Gordy/Motown puppet. In short, Wells was never just the mooning teenage icon who fantasized the world’s greatest dream date in ”My Guy.” She was also a real singer. That’s why she was so widely admired among her peers long after the public lost track of her.
In a way, that’s also why she died so early in life. Doctors offered her a laryngectomy, which would have removed virtually all of the cancer but at the price of her voice. Rather than endure life without the hope of singing again, Wells opted for the more risky — and painful — alternative of radiation therapy. Sadly, it didn’t work.