By Brian McCollum Detroit Free Press
DETROIT -- Former Detroit Free Press reporter Peter Benjaminson lived in metro Detroit for just six years in the 1970s. But his tenure has provided a full-time career.
With his new book, "Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown's First Superstar" (2012, Chicago Review Press, $26.95), Benjaminson now has three Motown books to his name, including a 2009 biography of the late Florence Ballard. His 1979 work, "The Story of Motown," was the first book to chronicle the Detroit label, and he already has his sights on another Motown star: funk man Rick James.
It all started with a chance heads-up from his editor in 1975: Ballard, the former Supreme, was on welfare. Benjaminson's lengthy interview with the struggling star was his first foray into the Motown world, and became the impetus for his books.
With "Wells," Benjaminson has produced the first biography of the late singer, who became Motown's leading female star with hits such as "My Guy" in 1964. Her momentum was soon cut short, as Wells' contract demands ultimately led to her Motown departure -- and a series of stymied comebacks before her 1992 death.
The Detroit Free Press talked with Benjaminson, 67, who lives in New York.
Question: What made Mary Wells a compelling subject to tackle?
There were several reasons.
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 (press) clips, in fact. She had just moved so fast, before Motown got its PR operation in full gear.
Q: That was bound to make your research a bit tougher.
A: I was getting really discouraged in the beginning. 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. I had five of those interviews.
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.
There were very few people who knew Mary Wells for her entire life. It was a really interesting task stitching together all these recollections from different times and making it a smooth, flowing story about her growth and development.
Q: Mary Wells is an interesting character if only because of her rebellion against Berry Gordy -- one of the few blotches on the public version of the Motown fairy tale.
A: 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. She was the first major person to leave. In a way, she helped other Motown artists by showing them what they shouldn't do.
Q: Who's the audience for a Motown book in 2013?
A: 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. If you look at other record companies, 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.