(Written by Smokey Robinson)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Stateside Records)
Unbelievably, this was Mary Wells’ first single in seven months, a strange circumstance for Motown’s first bona fide star. Famously, and even more unbelievably – though of course nobody knew it at the time – this was also to be Mary’s last Motown seven-inch as a solo artist.
In between, My Guy became Motown’s biggest-selling single to date, the label’s third Number One pop hit (and Mary’s first), embarking on a lengthy spell on the charts in 1964 as spring became summer, seeping through to the popular consciousness to such an extent that even now, the best part of fifty years later, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t know how this goes (even if they haven’t necessarily ever actually heard it). The story of this record is one of the strangest in the Motown canon, and no matter how familiar, it still bears repeating. Pull up a chair.
Mary had been Motown’s brightest star, teaming with writer/producer Smokey Robinson to rack up a string of classic Top Ten hits (The One Who Really Loves You, You Beat Me To The Punch, Two Lovers)… in 1962. As 1963 came around, there’d been a drop-off in commercial performance, accompanied by the sense that Mary was stuck in something of a rut; the next single Smokey wrote and produced for her, Laughing Boy, didn’t show much progression from the formula, and even the remarkable follow-up Your Old Stand By failed to find much favour with audiences. Smokey had then suffered the indignity of having the Mary Wells Project opened up to outside competition, leading to what was essentially a double A-side single, pairing Smokey’s What’s Easy For Two Is So Hard For One with Holland-Dozier-Holland’s sassy contribution, You Lost The Sweetest Boy. Neither side charted particularly well (probably because both songs cannibalised each other’s airplay), and so when we come to pick up Mary Wells here, she and Smokey were – by their standards – on a considerable cold streak.
Ideas abounded on how to revive Wells’ career. New material was recorded with Smokey and with HDH, venerable standards and old Jobete catalogue numbers were dusted off for reinterpretations, an album of duets with Marvin Gaye was recorded throughout the spring of ’64, but none of this freshly-cut stuff passed muster with Quality Control as a potential hit single, and so all of it ended up back on the shelves. By the beginning of March 1964, Motown were considering trying to recoup some costs by releasing a cobbled-together LP made up of the various unreleased bits and pieces Mary had stockpiled, and Smokey was tasked with coming up with some more filler to bulk out the proposed album. And that’s how My Guy came into the world: a throwaway End Of Side One cut for a half-hearted album release.
But Smokey was often at his best when he wasn’t consciously trying to write a hit record, coming up with some of his most treasured work while, say, idly doodling on hotel stationery (as with You’ve Really Got A Hold On Me), or watching a baseball game (see I’ll Try Something New). Here, he draws on many of the raw ingredients he’d sketched out in What’s Easy For Two Is So Hard For One, trims back some of the excesses – for reasons of time, perhaps, not wanting to overburden Mary or the band with having to learn a complex structure – and out of nowhere comes up with the very best song he’d yet written. You can pretty much see the smile on Smokey’s face in the studio, as he listened to the newly-recorded track and realised what he’d done. And the next day, Mary was brought in to do her lead vocal, and ten days later My Guy was in the shops, and not long after that it was Number One.
This is just a wonderful record, on so very many levels. A pop jewel, a confection, a piece of beautiful, intricate ironwork decorated with sugar frosting, all warmed up like a delicious little pastry. Smokey and Mary had had their ups and downs, each counting on the other’s strengths at various points to ride through any momentary weaknesses, but this time they both nail it, and the effect is so astonishing that the record still works, even after all these years and all these listens.
First and foremost, it’s just a lovely song. You can read this text with cynicism (it sounds simplistic – even if you get the words right – and if the Internet is anything to go by, more than one person has apparently misheard a key line as I’m sticking to my guy like a snail to a letter), you can approach it with caustic dismissal (thanks again, Whoopi Goldberg), but it’ll always disarm you; it’s an utterly heartfelt expression of love, real love, as piercing an examination in its way as any of Smokey’s earlier lyrics or Mary’s earlier deliveries – this, this is what it’s all about, what it all boils down to. Part of that is the lyrics – Mary’s narrator coming up with great rhymes and metaphors before just completely running out new of words mid-verse:
…As a matter of opinion, I think he’s tops
My opinion is, he’s the cream of the crop
As a matter of taste, to be exact
He’s my ideal, as a matter of fact…
Some critics have completely misread these lyrics, some even (Terry Wilson, I’m looking in your direction) going as far as to suggest Mary “may have misread the lyric sheet”, which is just ridiculous. No, this is Smokey the lyricist at the top of his game, not only working out the phrasing of the words to precisely fit Mary’s diction (as was his particular speciality), but now making form reflect meaning, having Mary’s character use intentionally repetitive wording to reflect a lovestruck but clear-eyed sentiment: my man is the best, and that’s all there is to it; there’s no other way to put it. It’s joyous, in a way so few pop records are – a sincere, uncomplicated kind of joy.
It’s just a lovely record, isn’t it? For which, I suppose, we really have to thank Mary, Smokey and the band, pretty much in equal measure.
To Mary first, because this is her crowning achievement, the one record she’s forever to be remembered for. She’s magnificent here. Supposedly, she screamed herself hoarse before the final take captured here, in order to give her voice a slightly roughened effect (shades of her début, Bye Bye Baby). Whatever the case, it worked. Her voice has literally never sounded better; there’s a tangible sweetness of character, undeprinned by a breathy, throaty hint of sexuality, culminating in the final, spoken, almost-whispered lines, There ain’t a man today / Who can keep me away from my guy, Mary smouldering so intensely she’s barely even breathing the words; the single greatest line delivery in the entire history of pop music.
I’ve talked about her underappreciated skills as an actress before, but this is on some whole new level. A song about love and faithful devotion is riven with potential pitfalls for a vocalist (get the tone wrong and the whole thing collapses), and this is a difficult song to sing without slathering everything in treacle and coming over too simplistic (see above re: Whoopi Goldberg), but Mary gets it just right. She’s never smug, never boasting, never threatening, but equally she’s no simpering anti-feminist; she’s just really, really in love, and it’s a perfectly-judged performance. No single man could listen and not be swept away, jealous of Her Guy, and no single woman could listen and not wish fervently to have what Mary seemed to have, but it was also a perfect record to express the devotion of true love to insecure boyfriends; My Guy has something for everyone. Men fell in love with her, women wanted to be her (or, at least, she was saying what they’d like to have said in the way they’d like to have said it), million-selling Number One pop record dominates summer. Easy.
Smokey’s turn now. He obviously took note of what Holland-Dozier-Holland had been up to, and he looked at what had and hadn’t worked in his own songs recently (especially the Temptations’ breakthrough The Way You Do The Things You Do), and set about constructing a groove, a Motown groove through and through. Without even realising it, everything he’d learned up to now had been building to this; ironic that it should take a routine paycheck commission to unlock the pattern and finish the puzzle.
Like another deceptively simple-sounding Motown hit, the Marvelettes’ Please Mr Postman, there’s actually a lot of clever stuff happening under the hood here that goes unnoticed by the listener because we’re so utterly swept along by the effects they create. A great horn riff before each two-tone hook, to keep the momentum going all the time despite the time signature and Mary’s delivery which make the song more sedate and stop-start in the memory than the non-stop hustle it really is. There’s no dead air whatsoever – the natural gaps in the song are filled in with piano, handclaps (for that group atmosphere – this is no quiet, private confessional, it’s an inclusive song in which Mary is telling the world loud and proud about how much she loves her man, so it’s only natural the record sounds like a party where everyone’s equally happy for her), and some great backing vocals from the as-ever uncredited Andantes. And just in case the galloping, irresistible rhythm gets close to being too dull or predictable (the bane of many a cover version without the benefit of the amazing Funk Brothers playing the instruments), Smokey is also smart enough to throw in those blaring, momentarily disorientating trumpet fills, quietly unsettling but just quiet enough not to disrupt proceedings, which keep everything interesting.
The band are the real unsung heroes here, turning in one of the all-time great Motown performances (all the more remarkable since they apparently cut the track at the end of a very long day working on cuts destined for The Temptations Sing Smokey). The intro, derived unashamedly from Hugo Winterhalter’s 1956 rendition of Eddie Heywood’s Canadian Sunset, was apparently their idea, but there’s all manner of great work going almost unnoticed underneath Mary’s fireworks and the chugging rhythm. Just listen to that bass! Take a bow, James Jamerson. Listen to the piano glisses! Bravo, Earl Van Dyke. The stinging guitar figures! Chapeau, Eddie Willis and Robert White. If just one of the Funk Brothers drops the ball here, then everything grinds to a halt, but everyone involved is willing this to be good, no matter how tired they are or how unpromising the project must have seemed to begin with.
On release, this climbed the charts with ease, coming to dominate the airwaves in most markets (though some DJs preferred to play the B-side instead, of which more in a couple of days’ time!), and it hit Number One ready for the start of summer, a long summer in which My Guy just kept selling, and selling, and selling. In Britain, where My Guy was licensed to Stateside Records, it became the first Motown release to make a serious dent in the UK charts, reaching the dizzy heights of number five and catching the notice of the Beatles, who declared Wells their favourite American singer and invited her to open for them on their British tour during the summer of ’64.
Anecdotes abound regarding the record’s runaway success; Motown apparently had to press up more stock to refill the racks of stores that had completely sold out, only to receive frantic calls from the distributors the same day asking for yet more copies. The money began pouring in left, right and centre. Motown had had big hits before, even Number Ones, but this was different; this was a sensation, a shift in the balance of power.
It was still a commercial rather than cultural shift, but the one would lead to the other, as Motown ploughed the profits from My Guy into upcoming releases from its ever-improving, suddenly-hot star acts – the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Martha and the Vandellas, newcomers like the Four Tops and the Supremes.
This last point proved to be a real bone of contention, and was supposedly a deciding factor in one of the most astonishing developments in the Motown Story: Mary Wells, just 21, at the top of the charts, the world at her feet, walked out on Motown while My Guy was still flying off the shelves, and more or less ended own her career.
It’s gone down in history as one of the all-time Dumb Moves, though the story is still distinctly murky, and how much is fact, and how much is fiction (and how much is flat-out paranoid delusional stuff) remains hotly debated even now. The raw facts, on the face of it, are these.
Mary had signed to Motown, first as a writer and then as an artist, when she was just seventeen. She’d married young – her husband was dancer, bandleader and sometime Motown recording artist Herman Griffin, a volatile egomaniac by all accounts (few of them firsthand, it must be said) who promptly installed himself as Mary’s de facto manager, chaperone and stage conductor. Known for trying to upstage Mary during stage shows by doing backflips and splits, and for carrying a loaded pistol into business meetings (at least one of which ended with someone actually getting shot), Griffin and Wells endured a torrid, turbulent relationship, and according to many sources they were already divorced by 1964, but he still remained as a major influence in Mary’s life.
Before My Guy came along, when Mary was struggling for hits, Griffin had supposedly begun to investigate the possibility of extracting Mary from her Motown contract, but the price was too high and Motown were unwilling to lose their investment. When Mary’s ship unexpectedly came in, it didn’t take long for several of her hangers-on (including Griffin himself) to start openly asking why Motown didn’t seem to be investing the profits from My Guy back into Mary’s career, instead spending the money on other acts, most noticeably the Supremes, who’d never had any real success and whose lead singer was the subject of widespread rumours regarding her relationship with Motown boss Berry Gordy. They also asked why, now that Mary was a genuine international chart-topping superstar, was she still on the paltry royalty rate she’d signed up to as a callow teen? Surely she deserved more?
Here’s where it gets messy. By some accounts, Mary approached Motown for a better deal, and was politely told to go away and do as she was told. Motown, for their part, insist they had big plans for Mary’s future career, big money lined up to push her future releases, big songs in the pipeline for her to sing; when she turned 21, Berry Gordy threw a party and presented her with five thousand dollars’ worth of clothes and jewellery. She was going to be the face of Motown for years to come.
In June of 1964, Mary announced she was leaving Motown. Since she’d technically been a minor when she originally joined the company, and since she’d not had proper representation, the contract she had signed was, she declared, null and void. Furious, Motown first issued statements to the press and took out adverts saying Mary was going nowhere. When Mary went public with her walkout, Motown went nuclear, spent several months and thousands of dollars suing her for breach of contract – and lost. Berry Gordy, who didn’t take kindly to public humiliation, must have had steam coming out of his ears at this point.
Mary became the most hotly-pursued free agent in pop history, finding herself at the centre of a massive bidding war which was eventually won by Twentieth Century Fox. The deciding factor was the promise of a film career, a promise apparently – going by the later comments of Fox executives – made in complete bad faith as a ruse to get Mary to sign. She would in fact never make a film, and she would never have another Top Ten hit record.
Bad advice meant Mary’s move to Fox, a dream move on the outside, turned into a nightmare. In exchange for a then-astronomical signing fee of two hundred thousand dollars, Mary was persuaded to accept Motown’s comparatively reasonable-seeming conditions as part of the settlement. She would take a nominal payment in exchange for forgoing any future royalties from her Motown recordings (the contract governing which had, after all, been declared illegal). Egged on by Griffin, she proceeded to burn her bridges with Motown in the most public way possible.
This was a foolish move; the dark but completely unsubstantiated rumours that Motown directly intervened to squash her future career by putting pressure on DJs and distributors have never quite gone away, but even if there was no direct action on Motown’s part, there was a very clearly defined stance of “us and them” between Motown and Mary Wells; you either aligned yourself with one or the other. Wells had had one big hit, Fox had the money, but Motown had the songs and the talent, and there was only ever going to be one winner.
When Mary finally got back into the studio towards the end of 1964 to resume her career, she immediately went down for several months with TB before knocking out a couple of singles – some of them quite good, but not great, and certainly nothing approaching her Motown best – and a distinctly underwhelming LP of Beatles covers. She left Fox in 1966 and decamped to Atco, but there were to be no more big hits. She moved to Jubilee in 1968, then to Reprise, with ever diminishing returns. By the end of the Sixties, she was without a record deal, a forgotten footnote; sporadic revivals amounted to little success before her untimely death in 1992.
All of which is both tremendously depressing, and very much at odds with the glorious joy that is My Guy. Perhaps it was always unfair to expect Mary to do anything like this record again; it sets the bar impossibly high, and while her commercial fortunes may have waned dramatically after leaving Motown, to her credit she seems to have been justifiably proud of having made this masterpiece rather than destroying herself over the years trying to match it.
Ultimately, the career of Mary Wells is best remembered by listening to My Guy. Play it loud, and remind yourself how incredible it all is, what a wonderful single. The band are brilliant, Mary is brilliant, and the exceedingly well-crafted lyrics mean that everyone’s efforts are in the service of a beautiful, wholly lovely pop record. And for that, not for historical significance or critical representation, it gets a ten from me, probably the easiest one I’ve ever had the pleasure to give out. Perfect.
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!)
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