Bye Bye Baby - Mary Wells
As readers of these pages will know, Berry Gordy, founder of Motown Records, got his first major break when he co-wrote Jackie Wilson's first solo hits including "Reet Petite" and the fabulous "Lonely Teardrops". With the money from these he was able to set up as a producer and start his own record company, Tamla, the first label of the stable that would become Motown Records.
In 1960, a 17 year old girl pitched up at his studio with her mother asking to see Gordy and saying she had a song she had written for Jackie Wilson. It has always been a mystery to me why Gordy didn't have her turned away as one would expect at a time when every young person in the US probably fancied themself as a budding songwriter. Gordy was by then no longer working with Wilson so maybe he thought she locate the singer and he, Gordy, might miss out on something good. Maybe he felt sorry for the girl and her mother who'd come to see him cap in hand. Maybe it was a slow afternoon in Detroit. I like to think it was that "je ne sais quoi" that in time made Berry Gordy the most successful black businessman in the world, the eye for details that left no stone unturned in his search for possible hits. He took her into a room with a piano and asked her to sing the song and was so impressed that he whisked her off to the studio to record it herself. The girl, Mary Wells, was already, despite her tender age, singing in nightclubs, and therefore not a complete novice; however it allegedly took over twenty takes to cut the single, so it's no surprise that her voice sounds hoarse and tired. But her innocence and excitement at being unexpectedly catapulted into into the front line of the most happening fledgling record label in Detroit plays into the meaning of the song, the exuberance coming across as breathless anger.
The record was a hit, making 45 in the Hot 100, and becoming the first Motown success with a solo female artist. It also marks one of the high points of what was a tough life. Mary, raised by a single parent mother, having had meningitus at the age of 2 and t.b. at the age of ten, was deaf in one ear and suffered from partial blindness. Later, just when she seemed to have ascended to superstardom with her number one hit "My Guy", she found herself usurped in the Motown pecking order with Diana Ross and the Supremes being promoted ahead of her. She left the label, prompting years of legal wrangling with Motown, as the label allegedly tried to obstruct her future career at every turn.
She kept on singing and recording though, never quite achieving the success of those early years, and ironically succumbed to laryngeal cancer in 1992 at the age of 49. "Bye Bye Baby" is my favourite of all her songs. It's all there, the exhilaration, the defiance of youth, of someone who has walked into an office hoping for everything but expecting nothing, and recording this just a matter of hours later. Emotional history live.