Sunday, July 15, 2012

July 15: Mary Wells, "My Guy"

Artist: Mary Wells
Song: "My Guy"
Album: My Guy (single)
Year: 1964

All throughout the course of music history, there have been visionaries and icons, all of which are up to debate in terms of worthiness of such a title.  However, there are a handful of performers who hold certain distinctions due to sheer historical fact, and one of the most important is often overlooked for her significance, as well as her unquestionable talent.  The truth of the matter is, when it comes to the first female performer to break through as a solo performer, the woman who earned that honor is none other than Mary Wells, and in many ways, it was her sound and style that shaped much of the labels' female sound.  It was her combination of soft, seductive sounds, with a bit of spunk and sheer beauty within her voice that quickly set her aside from other female singers, and having the backing team of The Funk Brothers in terms of music, and the legendary Smokey Robinson penning a number of her songs, it is little surprise that she was able to achieve such success.  Throughout the 1960's, Mary Wells had a number of singles that stand today as absolute standards, and some of these same songs have become even more popular after various covers and uses within other forms of popular culture.  Though there are many to choose from, one would be hard pressed to find a more definitive or outright important song in her catalog than Mary Wells' iconic 1964 single, "My Guy."

The moment that "My Guy" begins, it is completely distinctive for both the musical era, as well as within the massive recorded history of The Funk Brothers, as the horn opening is not found anywhere else in even a remotely similar manner.  After this brief note, the legendary Benny Benjamin takes control of the song with a quick sting on the drums, and it is largely his sound that leads the song in terms of both pace and emotion.  Though it often goes overlooked, it is the sharp hit he gives on "the four" of each measure, which is further emphasized by a hand clap, that really gives "My Guy" its sway and swing, and this technique can be found across countless later recordings from Motown Records.  The other aspect of the musical arrangement on this song that is often missed is the "second vocal" that comes from pianist Johnny Griffith.  The way his sound bounces behind Wells' voice on the bridge section, before moving behind it during the verses gives her sound even more power and presence, and it is these more subtle musical choices that make the song so superb.  At the same time, the rhythm and melody are held in place by James Jameson, and this is without question one of his most exceptional deployments of his "walking" basslines.  The organ from Earl Van Dyke and additional horns round out the overall sound, and yet it is the balance between all of the instrumentation that has vaulted "My Guy" to its iconic status.

Yet even whilst being backed by what is without question the most accomplished band in the entire history of recorded music, Mary Wells gives a stunning performance across the song, and she quickly cements her place as one of the most outright talented singers ever captured on tape.  It is the fact that she never seems to be pushing her vocals very much, allowing them to effortlessly flow from her, that is so significant; and the almost whispered tones that sit underneath each breath she takes is a style that has been copied countless times over the decades.  Furthermore, Wells shows an exceptional command of her vocal range throughout, as she slides across the vocal scale, never allowing the overall impact of her sound or emotion to drop in the least.  But it is also the fact that Smokey Robinson provided her with an amazing set of lyrics to sing that makes "My Guy" so memorable; and yet most people completely miss the true meaning and outright genius of his words.  While there is no question that the song is a send-up to a man that has truly captured her heart, when one reads deeper into the actual words, it is clear that Robinson wrote these words to refer to a rather common, if not "less than average" man.  Lines like, " muscle bound man could take my hand from my guy, no handsome face could ever take the place of my guy..." suggest that there are "flaws" in the man in question, and yet Wells prefers this to the "ideal" that society has set.

In many ways, it is this more realistic and accepting personality of the song that makes it such a classic, as it is a return to simpler times when adoration was not centered around material or superficial matters.  Yet at the same time, one can argue that it is the voice of Mary Wells and the brilliant musical backing from The Funk Brothers that truly make "My Guy" such a special song, as there is a clear chemistry between the performers that is rarely heard elsewhere.  To this end, almost instantly upon release, "My Guy" shot up the charts, topping them for nearly two months in the United States, and cracking the top five in the UK.  This massive success and the overall mood and sound of the song quickly made it nothing short of a cultural institution, and it has become one of the most recognizable and referenced songs in all of music history.  Artists like Aretha Franklin and The Supremes have recorded their own renditions of the song, and only a few years ago, the experimental rock group Warpaint included their own take on the song on their Exquisite Corpse EP.  "My Guy" also took a rather unexpected turn in the 1992 film Sister Act, as it was turned into a gospel number and changed to "My God" to fit with the movie's plot.  Yet even with all of these other versions, there is no arguing that it is the Mary Wells original that remains definitive, and few songs in history hold as special a place as her 1964 hit.

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