(Written by Mary Wells)
Mable John had become Motown’s first female solo artist a few weeks earlier with the engaging Who Wouldn’t Love A Man Like That, but Mary Wells – Motown’s second female solo artist – was on a whole different level.
Like so many of her early Motown contemporaries, Wells was only a teenager – just seventeen when this was recorded – but her exceptionally powerful voice was mature far beyond her years, and with her good looks and dramatic blonde hairdo, she was the first solo star in the Motown family.
More impressively, she was also able to provide her own material; she initially approached label head honcho Berry Gordy with this song in the hope he might show it to Jackie Wilson. Gordy, impressed, decided young Mary’s future was in the spotlight rather than behind the scenes; to this end, he brought her in to record Bye Bye Baby herself. Taking note of Wells’ sultry, powerful, older-sounding voice, Gordy had her record the song over and over again, running through take after take after take until she literally sang herself hoarse – at which point the winning take was captured.
The song itself, a distant but definite cousin of the Isley Brothers’ Shout! (complete with soundalike intro) tackled at three quarter speed, is hardly a masterpiece, but Wells’ extraordinary full-throated vocal takes it up a notch. The tune isn’t memorable – I’ve just played it eleven times in a row, and I still wouldn’t feel confident singing it back to you accurately – but it’s a lot of fun while it’s actually playing, and most of the credit for that has to go to the voice.
Motown hadn’t had a star before, of any gender. Marv Johnson had been poached away by United Artists almost before the new Tamla label had had a chance to draw breath; Smokey Robinson was still searching for a first hit; Eddie Holland had had teen idol credentials, but suffered from a lack of sales and hobbling stagefright; Barrett Strong was a retiring, perfectionist songwriter with no ambitions of stardom who had just happened to luck into a big hit record.
But Mary Wells was different. The first Motown act whose records would sell because her name was on them, rather than her having to make her name through having a hit, she became unstoppable, a genuine sold-out headline act, consistent Top Ten recording artist and the company’s golden egg in its financially-unpredictable early years.
Mary wouldn’t write any more singles for Motown, for herself or anyone else, after this début effort; Wells’ compositions occaisonally featured on her LPs for the label, but otherwise this was it for her as a Motown songwriter. As a performer, though, she was (literally) just getting warmed up.
Bye Bye Baby was a Top Ten R&B hit, as well as cracking the pop Top 50. A very welcome surprise, and Motown’s first self-contained hit record (Marv Johnson’s Come To Me had been a hit after being leased to United Artists, while Barrett Strong’s Money (That’s What I Want) had hit after being distributed nationally through Anna Records), this turned out to be the first in a string of hits on both the R&B and pop charts for Wells – a string which ran almost uninterrupted until peaking with 1964’s majestic My Guy. Several years after leaving Motown, Mary would revisit Bye Bye Baby on her 1968 LP Servin’ Up Some Soul, where it was retitled Bye Bye Baby ’68.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
(Or maybe you’re only interested in Mary Wells? Click for more.)
“I’m Gonna Cry (If You Quit Me)”
“Please Forgive Me”