Q&A: Peter Benjaminson pens bio on troubled life of Motown's biggest star
Author Peter Benjaminson, 67, author "The Story of Motown" and "The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard," has just published his seventh book, "Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown's First Superstar." Benjaminson, who recently retired as a labor standards investigator for the New York State Department of Labor, lives in Harlem, with his wife, Susan Harrigan.
Benjaminson will be doing a free multimedia presentation on the life of Wells, including video clips and her music, at 6:30 p.m. Thurs., Nov. 8 at The Jackie Robinson Recreational Center, 85 Bradhurst Ave. at W. 146th St.
Q: What made you want to write about the woman famous for singing "My Guy" and "You Beat Me to the Punch"?
A: I lived in Detroit and worked at the Detroit Free Press for six years (in the 1970s). I had written a story about Florence Ballard, one of the original Supremes, going on welfare and she liked it. She suggested I write her biography, which I thought was a great idea. None of the publishers I took it to wanted to publish it, but one wanted me to write about Motown because no one had done any books about it. So I wrote The Story of Motown, and it was published in 1979 -- there have been 130 books on Motown since then, and maybe more. Florence had died by then (in 1976) and I was still trying to sell a book about her! The tapes took up one cubic square foot of space in my New York apartment and at one point I was going to throw them all out but my wife physically restrained me: She wouldn't let me throw it out! When Dream Girls came out in 2006, I was finally able to sell it and it was published in 2008. Finally, publishers realized there was a market for books and movies about black people that were not blaxploitation type things, books about their trials and tribulations and every day lives. Mary was the first Motown superstar, but no one had ever done a book on her. Winston Churchill was my hero. He said, "never, never, never, never f-----g give up. You just can't do it!" Wells is my ideal in that sense. She had an absolute determination to never give up. She was like a tank, rolling on through life. She never stopped working. On her deathbed, she was telling her doctor what songs she was going to sing on her next tour.
Q: But at what cost!? She died in 1992 at the age of 49, leaving behind four children, one of whom was very young. What is the moral to be drawn from her life?
A: She smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and never stopped until she got cancer. She laughed at people who told her to stop. And she refused to see a doctor.
Q: Not to mention her use of heroin. Why did so many of the Motown greats die so young?
A: I don't know if the longevity of the Motown artists is worse than anyone else's at other labels: It would be interesting to chart. But rock stars have always been rebels. They drink heavily, take drugs and drink, and then drive all through the night to get from gig to gig -- and the combination of drinking and driving at night is not a good one. There is plane travel, and all that available sex. And a lot of them are not all that stable in the first place.
Q: How many Wells' troubles can be traced to being insanely successful at a very young age, before she was grounded with experience and perspective?
A: Exactly. Who makes great decisions at 21? Her chutzpah served her very well when she was 16 and she buttonholed Gordy in a club. She was from nowheresville -- the ghetto, basically -- and told him she had written a song for Jackie Wilson. He told her to sing it for him right there, and she did. But she never dropped the chutzpah and failed to realize how Motown was such a good fit for her. At age 16, she became a big star and that was her whole identity. Her mother wanted her to stay with Motown, but she associated her mother with Motown and had a great need to break away, like most young people do. She wasn't even a real music consumer: She didn't go and see other acts. You should grow gradually throughout your life and maybe have your big success at 85.
Q: Berry Gordy exploited Wells, yet Motown had a magic other labels lacked. They both had so much to lose by parting, but only Gordy saw that.
A: At one point, Wells had Gordy by the throat. She was his first big star and she had signed her contract when she was a minor (leaving her free to renegotiate or walk away when she turned 21). Her departure put the company in almost fatal danger. Gordy came over to her (before she left in 1964) and pleaded, "what can we do to keep you here?" She should have sent her lawyer over to say, 'I want 48% of all my royalties,' or '$100,000 a year,' or whatever she wanted! Instead, she insisted she wanted to leave because she felt she wasn't being paid enough, which was probably true. But the smart stars, like Diana Ross, got their own lawyers and accountants and renegotiated their contracts when they came up. They got really rich.
Q: Was the problem that the non-soul labels didn't know how help Wells crossover or that no one had Motown's magic with its great writers, singers and arrangers?
A: There might have been the hangover of racism. And Wells and Smoky Robinson had an absolute mind meld in the studio. But the record business depended in large part on promotion and building relationships with the people who would play the music and giving them records. Motown had a publicity department that was excellent at that. It had really good relationships with all the black stations. After she left Motown, some of the black stations didn't even know she had records coming out. Some of her new records weren't as good, but the white promoters didn't know how to promote black artists to white djs, either. Soon people stopped remembering her as a crossover artist and just as an r & b artist. After she left the label in 1964, she recorded Stop Takin' Me for Granted, which rose to number 88 on the pop charts, Everlovin' Boy, which was number 34 and Ain't it the Truth which rose to number 45. It's just that as time passed, these songs faded from the public memory because My Guy was, after all, number one. The Motown hits stayed popular for much longer than anyone expected.
Q: Her hunger for a man seemed so sad and her personal life such a mess.
A: Other female vocalists at Motown like Mary Wilson had much more secure family lives. That's really the key. Wilson wasn't desperate for men or having a father-type companion. She and Diana Ross are still performing! They go through husbands and their husbands die or whatever, but it doesn't matter: They're still pushing their careers. Mary Wilson is a great business woman and is still exhibiting gowns the Supremes wore all over the world. Wells was crippled by not having a father. Psychologically, she needed to find a man who loved her and didn't beat up on her.
Q: Her husband Cecil Womack truly adored her, but she hooked up with his brother Curtis Womack in a mess that was positively Shakespearean.
A: She just really liked Curtis. He seems like a very nice guy: I interviewed him for the book.
Q: Berry Gordy: good or evil?
A: It depends on whether you want to write counter history. There was a ton of musical talent in Detroit in the 1960s. Detroit then had a lot of middle class black people and the kids went to schools that were affluent enough to have music programs. Gordy had the money and the entrepreneurial ability to know what to do with all that talent. He underpaid a lot of people, but where on earth would they have been without him? Gordy built a hit-making machine. He recruited people for relatively little money and had them make records, which he knew how to print and distribute. Also, all the record companies -- all the white record companies -- did the same thing (in terms of contracts that benefited themselves at the expense of artists). Gordy started Motown at a time of revolution in black music and any kind of revolution brings up all kinds of creative energies that have been suppressed for a long time. When people suddenly have an outlet for their frustration and creativity, you get works of genius.
Q: Why didn't Wells ever become a movie star as she wanted to be?
A: She could have been. She was attractive and intelligent. There were so few black movie stars then -- she was sort of on the cusp. If 20th Century Fox had pushed her, she might have been, but they didn't want to do it. Motown was beating the pants off 20th Century Fox Records (and Wells was perceived as more of a strategic acquisition than a valued investment). They thought all they had to do was buy away Motown's biggest star.
Q: You've written a textbook on investigative reporting. Did that knowledge come in handy when tracking down articles from all these defunct magazines and hard to find sources?
A: I did a lot of what you're doing: Interviewing! You find the people who are still alive and you get them to talk. And I have tapes of her deathbed interviews. Most newspapers have their archives on line now, but I did have to rifle through some newspaper archives for some of the stories. A lot of fans in England sent me things in the mail. You can find them all on soulfuldetroit.com. One guy, David Bell, in England, saw Mary perform there when he was 17. His girlfriend was sitting on his lap and got jealous because he was so googley eyed over Mary. He had never seen a black person before in his life. England didn't have a lot of black people living there in the 1960s, but the Motown performers were very favorably received.
Q: You're white, yet you've carved out a niche writing about black musicians. Has your race played a role in researching or writing your books?
A: I was worried about that: 'Who are you to write about Florence Ballard?' But she asked me to write a book about her. And then I found out no one had written a book about Motown! The Motown music was unique, but it appealed to both black and white people. Motown really integrated the ears of America. My interest is not necessarily a racial commitment: I just thought (the Motown stars) were tremendously interesting with their up and down lives. Even Berry Gordon rejected the slogan, 'The Sound of Black America.' He said it had to be 'The Sound of Young America.'
Q: He opted for ageism over racism.
A: That's right!
If you go: Peter Benjaminson will be discussing his book Thursday at 6:30 p.m. at the Jackie Robinson Recreation Center, 85 Bradhurst Ave., at W. 146th St., 212-234-9607, FREE.