In 1959, Berry Gordy started his first record label, Tamla Records, running it out of a house he purchased at 2648 West Grand Blvd. in Detroit, Michigan—a location better known as Hitsville, USA. Over the next three years, Tamla made its headquarters live up to its name, turning out a string of hit records that included “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong (1959), “Shop Around,” by The Miracles (1960) and “Please Mr. Postman” by The Marvelettes (1961)–which is why a young aspiring songwriter named Mary Wells was so excited to be offered a recording contract by Berry Gordy in 1962. The catch was that Gordy wanted to make a record with Wells and issue it on a brand new label that had no identity or reputation in the marketplace: Motown Records. Not really in a position to argue, she signed on as the fledgling label’s very first artist, and two years later, Mary Wells gave Motown its first #1 hit when “My Guy” reached the top of the Billboard pop chart on this day in 1964.
Shortly after signing Mary Wells, Berry Gordy transformed her from a songwriter to a performer of other writers’ material. In this capacity, she was one of the first singers in the Motown stable to record a song by the now-legendary Holland/Dozier/Holland songwriting team. That song, “You Lost the Sweetest Boy” (1963), featured the Supremes and the Temptations singing backup to Wells—an indication of where she stood in the Motown hierarchy at the time. It was the songs of Motown Vice President and chief Miracle William “Smokey” Robinson, however, which brought Wells her greatest successes. In 1962, Wells earned her first and Motown’s first top 10 hits with the Robinson-penned “The One Who Really Loves Me,” “You Beat Me To The Punch” and “Two Lovers.” And then in 1964, she earned her first #1 with Robinson’s “My Guy.”
Motown Records would go on to release another 32 #1 hits in the next 10 years, but “My Guy” would be the last solo hit for Mary Wells, on Motown or any other label. Three days before “My Guy” topped the charts, Wells celebrated her 21st birthday by exercising her right to opt out of her Motown contract. At what would prove to be the peak of her career, Mary Wells became the first significant artist to leave Motown Records, signing a large contract with 20th Century Fox Records. Only one record Wells made at her new label—1964’s “Use Your Head”—managed to crack the Billboard top 40.
Mary Wells, who gave Motown its first #1 hit on this day in 1964, died of throat cancer at the age of 49 on July 26, 1992.