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Peter Benjaminson talks new Mary Wells, Motown star, biography

Peter Benjaminson, left, author of Mary Wells biography.

Peter Benjaminson, left, author of Mary Wells biography. Photo Credit: Peter Benjaminson, left, author of Mary Wells biography.

With his new book, "Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown's First Superstar" (Chicago Review Press, $26.95), author Peter Benjaminson, a former reporter at the Detroit Free Press, now has three Motown books to his name. It all started with a chance heads-up from his editor in 1975: Florence Ballard, the former Supreme, was on welfare. Benjaminson's lengthy interview with the struggling star was his first foray into the Motown world, leading to "The Story of Motown" (1979), the first book to chronicle the Detroit music label, and "The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard" (2008). He already has his sights on another Motown star: funk man Rick James.

Mary Wells became Motown's leading female star with hits such as "My Guy" in 1964. Her momentum was soon cut short, as her contract demands led to her Motown departure -- and a series of stymied comebacks before her death in 1992. Benjaminson, who lives in New York, spoke with a reporter about his work.

What made Mary Wells a compelling subject to tackle?

First, she paved the way for all the other female stars at Motown. She showed the women who followed her how to be a success as a female at Motown.

Second, I admired her for her absolute determination, in everything. She was absolutely determined to be a big star and wouldn't let anything get in the way.

Third, here was this determined singer and pathfinder -- and there had never been a book on her. There weren't even very many clips, in fact. She had just moved so fast, before Motown got its PR operation in full gear.

That was bound to make your research a bit tougher.

I called a lot of the people I'd dealt with on previous Motown books. "So, Miss Jones, you knew Mary Wells?" "Sure, I saw her backstage a couple of times. She was a very nice person." And that would be it.

The dam broke when I discovered this guy named Steve Bergsman, who lives in Arizona. He had recorded four hours of interviews with Mary while she was on her deathbed. At that time -- 1992 -- he'd been unable to sell the book. There wasn't much interest. We arranged so I could get the tapes, and so this is based in part on those deathbed tapes.

Then I ran into people like her third husband, Curtis Womack, who was a great source, and from him I got a lot of other names, so it became much easier.

Wells' rebellion against Motown founder Berry Gordy is one of the few blotches on the public version of the Motown fairy tale.

From our perspective in 2013, it looks like a mistake to have left Motown, and I'm pretty sure it was. She would have taken all those songs that the Supremes made into hits, starting with Where Did Our Love Go,on and on. She could have been not just a star, but a super-super-star.

You've made a fruitful career as a Motown author.

When I went to Grove Press, trying to sell a biography of Flo Ballard, they pointed out that nobody had even written a book about Motown. I was really surprised. This was 1977. You know how well known Motown was. I figured, here's my big chance. And I wrote .

I was still trying every few years to sell the Flo Ballard idea, but wasn't successful until 2007, after "Dreamgirls" came out. And that did so well, it was easy to get a contract for this Mary Wells book.

Who's the audience for a Motown book in 2013?

It's an interesting mix. There are a lot of older people who remember Mary and "My Guy." It's still a very popular song, part of the American culture because it's so well written, so well sung. It's really punched through the time barricade.

Plus, there are a lot of younger people who have heard about her and want to find out what happened to her.

And Motown is still so popular. "The Story of Motown" was the first book published in this country on Motown Records. There have been more than 180 since. And they've all sold -- otherwise publishers wouldn't continue. There are probably one or two books on Atlantic Records, one or two on Stax, maybe one on Columbia. I'd bet my life there aren't more than two books on any other record company in America.

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