With Mary Wells, Motown got serious. Before her, Tamla/Motown operated essentially like a regional label that happened to have a few massive hits. The distinctive Motown sound had yet to be formulated. Bluesier numbers like Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” abutted the smooth pop of Smokey Robinson & The Miracles and the bongo-harmonica stylings of Little Stevie Wonder. But with Wells, label head Berry Gordy saw an opportunity to shape a star – and, in the process, create the template that would drive the label’s success.
Wells’s first single, the self-penned “Bye Bye Baby,” was gospel-blues by way of Jackie Wilson. Wells’s voice was raw and throaty, her attitude defiant: “Well you took my love, threw it away/You’re gonna want my love someday/Well, bye bye, baby.” But between the single’s release in 1960 and Wells’s eventual trip to the top of the charts, Gordy buffed her persona to a fine sheen. Despite being the same age as The Marvelettes, Wells was positioned as a mature alternative to the girl group sound. Gordy hired charm coaches to teach her poise, a practice that would continue throughout the label’s golden age. Her voice thinned out; syllables became more clearly enunciated. Wells’s material took a turn toward the mainstream, culminating in the light jazz motifs of “My Guy.” In its careful melding of R&B and vocal pop, the record splits the difference between The Beatles and “Hello, Dolly!”
Like most Wells hits after “Bye Bye Baby,” the song was written and produced by Smokey Robinson. Of the early Motown singles, Robinson’s work with The Miracles would come closest to defining the direction that the label would take. But records like “Shop Around” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,” despite their polished sound, have a verve that’s missing from the tightly-reined Wells singles. “My Guy” has a lot of positives going for it, not the least Wells’s precise but natural interpretation. But “My Guy” also finds Motown working out some of the kinks of its new sound. Gordy had intended the label to appeal to white audiences, but the Wells records sound a little too sterile, a little too eager to concede the “soul” part of the soul-pop equation. It’s a tricky balance. But by the time companion song “My Girl” would be released a few months later, it’s one that Motown had perfected. 7
Hit #1 on May 16, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
108 of 982 #1’s reviewed; 11.00% through the Hot 100