The decision of Mary Wells to leave Motown for 20th Century Fox (for a $250,000 advance and unfulfilled promises of movie roles) in 1964 -- right after her number one single "My Guy" -- instigated one of the most sudden and infamous commercial declines in rock and soul history. The incident has been reported many times in music journalism, but the actual records she made during her short stint at 20th Century Fox have seldom been discussed. They're all here on this two-CD compilation, which includes both sides of her half-dozen 1964-1965 singles for the label; three outtakes she cut for the company; tracks that appeared only on her self-titled 1965 album, and the entirety of her other 20th Century Fox LP, Love Songs to the Beatles. The 18 tracks on disc one are the same as those featured on the 1996 compilation Never, Never Leave Me/The 20th Century Sides; disc two is devoted entirely to the Beatles cover album.
Wells' lack of success with the label has been blamed (by some of the people interviewed for this reissue's liner notes, among others) on the reluctance of radio to play her records after she left Motown, and while there might be some truth to that, it's probably not the whole story. Despite contributions from noted songwriters like Van McCoy ("We're Just Two of a Kind"), Rudy Clark, J.J. Jackson, and the Feldman-Goldstein-Gottehrer team, her efforts made for decent but unremarkable soul that simply couldn't replicate or match the quality of the classics she did for Motown, particularly those written and produced by Smokey Robinson. While an all-Beatles cover album made some sense considering Wells toured with the group (who cited her as one of their favorite singers), like many such projects, it didn't deliver on record what it might have been expected to on paper. Her versions of a dozen 1963-1965 Lennon-McCartney classics were saddled with inappropriately orchestrated pop-swing-jazz arrangements, and while her fine voice ensured that some of the tracks were OK (particularly slower ones like "All My Lovin,'" "And I Love Him," and "Do You Want to Know a Secret"), others were a lot worse than that. The backup musicians don't bother with the more complex chord changes on "Please Please Me," for instance, and rush through "Eight Days a Week" as though they're in a hurry to catch the last train home.
Judged on its own terms, however, this anthology has satisfactory mid-'60s pop-soul on which Wells' vocals deliver the goods. If the songs aren't special, most of them are alright. Her one Top 40 hit for 20th Century Fox, "Use Your Head," obviously emulates some of her Motown work in its lightly swinging rhythms, as do some of the other tracks. Good liner notes make this a worthwhile, definitive summary of her brief time at the label, though it's of primary value to serious Wells admirers, rather than general soul fans. ~ Richie Unterberger
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