These posts are about the songs that can accurately claim to crossed the key line of chart success, becoming Top 40 hits on Billboard, but just barely. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 40.
According to most accounts of Motown Records, Mary Wells was the label’s first big star, the one who set the benchmark for “The Sound of Young America.” A talent contest regular from the tender age of ten in her hometown of Detroit, Wells approached Berry Gordy, then the head of Tamla Records, a label that had a string of major successes. Wells wanted to be a songwriter for Gordy, but he offered her a little something more, asking her to become the first artist signed to the new label he was starting up: Motown Records. While her first single was one of her own compositions, “Bye Bye Baby” (delivered with a remarkably raw vocal), she was largely handed the output of Motown’s songwriting brain trust at the time, most notably the great Smokey Robinson who wrote or co-wrote a series of Top 10 hits for her.
“Your Old Standby” was released in 1963 and it was arguably and indication that Wells’s popularity was starting to wane a bit. While she was still scoring Top 40 hits, they were peaking a little further down the chart. The song, penned by Robinson along with Janie Bradford, was a lovely but already fairly standard lovelorn lament about being the woman some cad came racing back to only when he was on a romantic downswing. It’s not just the familiar Robinson melodic progression or the sweet, vulnerable voice of Wells that made it instantly recognizable as a Motown song. Even if “Standby” only peaked at 40, there were far better things ahead for Wells. In the spring of 1964, she released “My Guy” on Motown and scored the label’s first official #1 hit. It stayed at the top for two weeks, getting knocked out by the Beatles at a time when they were just starting to prove to the screaming girls of the U.S. how good they were at knocking others off the top of the charts.
Much of the rest of Wells’s life played out like a by-the-book music business cautionary tale with bad marriages and drug addiction. The descent basically started when she wrested herself away from Motown, in part because she was irritated that Gordy was devoting excess time, money and energy to promoting the Supremes, presumably at the expense of Wells and other performers at the label. She moved over to the 20th Century Fox label where she had one more modest Top 40 hit. She eventually hopscotched across several different labels, never achieving anywhere near her former success. She died in 1992, at the relatively young age of forty-nine, after a long fight with cancer.
—“Just Like Heaven” by The Cure.
—“I’m in Love” by Evelyn King
—“Buy Me a Rose” by Kenny Rogers
—“Who’s Your Baby” by The Archies
—“Me and Bobby McGee” by Jerry Lee Lewis
—“Angel in Blue” by J. Geils Band
—“Crazy Downtown” by Allan Sherman
—“I’ve Seen All Good People” and “Rhythm of Love” by Yes
—“Naturally Stoned” by the Avant-Garde
—“Come See” by Major Lance