BEFORE MICHAEL JACKSON LEARNED HIS ABC'S OR THE SUPREMES stopped in the name of love, there was Mary Wells. In her early-'60s heyday, Wells reigned as Motown's first major female star, forging her way into a white-dominated music market with pop soul hits like "My Guy," "Two Lovers" and "The One Who Really Loves You."

But though her singing could sparkle with gospel exuberance, Wells's own life was a tragic ballad of broken marriages and bad luck. The fatal blow came in 1990, when the former heavy smoker learned she had cancer of the larynx, which later spread to the lungs. For the past two years Wells, 49, battled the disease that had first stilled her famed burnt-honey voice and finally, on July 26 in Los Angeles, claimed her life.

Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas, who shared the bill on Wells's last tour in 1989, remembers her friend's singing growing weaker and weaker until "she had no voice at all" and "just whispered the lyrics." When the singing dates stopped and medical bills mounted, fans and famous friends—Rod Stewart, Bruce Springsteen, Phil Collins and others—rallied to Wells's rescue with some $150,000 in donations. For Wells, who by then had been threatened with eviction from her San Fernando Valley home, the slide into hard times was, in many ways, the end of a journey gone full circle.

Born poor in Detroit, Wells was 3 when she was bedridden for two years with spinal meningitis and, later, tuberculosis. That experience made her want to become a scientist, until she began noticing the goings-on at the fledgling Motown studios, a few blocks from her home. "I could sing, and all the entertainers looked so glamorous and wonderful, so I started writing songs," she said later.

At 15, she boldly walked into the office of Motown's founding father, Berry Gordy, to sell a tune she had written for Jackie Wilson called "Bye Bye Baby." Gordy insisted that she sing it herself, pushing her through 22 takes. The song became an instant R&B hit.

As others quickly followed, Wells became an inspiration to a generation of black female artists struggling to bridge the barriers to mainstream audiences. "Mary was the established star," says Mary Wilson, the ex-Supreme who became her friend. "She was a hometown girl made good. And she was the first female there in a man's world, so she really gave us initiative."

To escape an unhappy home life, Wells married a backup singer at Motown named Herman Griffin when she was 17. By the lime she divorced him two years later, she had had two abortions. Griffin, she said, "made me [have the abortions] because of my career." In 1964, on her 21st birthday, she quit Motown and signed with another label. "I had made a lot of money for the company, and I had nothing to show for it," she said. But the mega-hits stopped coming, and her career began a long decline from which it never recovered.

Wells's second marriage, to Cecil Womaek, one of the gospel-singing Womaek brothers, produced three children: Cecil Jr., now 24, Stacy, 23, and Harry, 17. Sugar, 6, was born after Wells divorced Cecil in 1977 and moved in with his brother Curtis. Wells, who had attempted suicide during her marriage to Cecil, had developed a heroin habit by the time she left Curtis in 1990.

Two years ago, after learning that the polyps doctors had found on her throat were malignant, Wells began a painful course of treatment that included radiation therapy and a tracheotomy that made even talking—by pressing closed the breathing tube in her throat—an ordeal. Still, "she never complained," says daughter Stacy. But there were tears. "She only cried," says Stacy, "because she couldn't do what she liked to do, which was sing."

GUY GARCIA
VICKI SHEFF and ROBIN MICHELI in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Vicki Sheff,
  • Robin Micheli.