Interview with author and Motown historian Peter Benjaminson

Greetings readers and fellow writers. I have an awesome treat for you today!

Mary WellsPeter Benjaminson, author of several books about the famed Motown record label and its artists, was gracious enough to sit down with me for a few minutes this weekend to discuss his newest biography, Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar (Chicago Review Press).

For the uninitiated, Mary Wells was not the first Motown act to score a number one hit (that honor belongs to The Marvelettes and Please Mr. Postman), but she was the first solo artist to become a recognizable star for the label, thanks to a smash hit song that, nearly five decades later, is still beloved the world over: My Guy. She also toured with The Beatles (!) in 1964 and influenced a generation of singers.  But instead of joining the ranks of Motown legends such as Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder, Mary’s life took a different turn. Several, in fact. And Peter Benjaminson’s book is by far the most in-depth chronicle of those events ever written.

                                                          ***

EJB: Thank you, Mr. Benjaminson, for taking the time to talk about your latest book with us. What inspired you to tell the story of Mary Wells, Motown’s first solo star?

Peter Benjaminson: I was working as a reporter for the Detroit Free Press when Woodward and Bernstein used what they called “investigative reporting” to topple President Nixon. A fellow reporter named David Anderson and I went to the library to look up a book on investigative reporting so that we could learn about that kind of reporting. When we found out that no book had ever been written on the subject a light bulb ignited over our heads because we were actually doing that kind of reporting and figured we could write the book ourselves.  So we wrote it – it was titled, believe it or not, Investigative Reporting — and was the first and best how-to in the field. It went through two publishers and two editions and stayed in print for 20 years. This convinced me that book writing was for me.

Since I was in Detroit, I thought of writing about the auto industry, but that had been done already by numerous other writers. Then one day when I was sitting in the City Room waiting for an assignment, an editor told me he had heard that Flo Ballard, formerly of the Supremes, was on welfare. I roared over to her house, interviewed her, and wrote a story about her being on welfare, which was the equivalent of writing in the Washington Post today that Joe Biden is on food stamps. Flo was pleased by the sympathetic reaction to her story and invited me back to visit her on evenings and weekends after work to record her life story as told by her. But when I tried to sell the book idea to Grove Press in New York, they pointed out (this was in 1977) that no book had ever been written in this country about Motown itself.  So a bright light went on over my head and I filled that gap by writing The Story of Motown, which Grove Press published in 1979.

I kept trying to sell the Flo Ballard book idea, but I was unable to do it until – gulp – 2006 – the year that the “Dreamgirls” movie came out and convinced movie makers and book publishers that there was money to be made in the Supremes story. I then sold the Ballard book idea to Chicago Review Press, which published it in 2008 as The Lost Supreme: The Life of Dreamgirl Florence Ballard.

Then a guy named Randy Russi called me from Florida and told me he was a friend of Mary Wells (Mary had lived near him in Florida for a time). He suggested I write a book about Mary. I got peeved at him because I thought Mary’s story would be a replay of Flo’s story with the names changed, but he convinced me there were 100 or so reasons why Mary’s story was more interesting than Flo’s. Because The Lost Supreme had done so well, it was easy to convince Chicago Review Press to publish Mary’s story and they recently published the book we’re talking about, Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar.

Mary wells2

EJB: What do you think would surprise people the most about Mary Wells?

Peter Benjaminson: Some, but not all of her fans will be surprised to learn that, a), she married two brothers, one after the other (Cecil and then Curtis Womack, although her marriage to Curtis was common-law) and had children with both of them, and, b), that she had a fairly good musical career, including a No. 1 hit, Gigolo, after leaving Motown.

EJB: This is the second biography you have written about a Motown star who died young, the first being The Lost Supreme, about Diana Ross’s fellow Supreme Florence Ballard. Tragic figures make for fascinating subjects, of course, but what is it about the Motown era that intrigues you so?

Peter Benjaminson:  It’s not just me. I don’t believe there’s another record company anywhere about which more than two or three books have been written.  More than 180 books have been written about Motown, with mine being the most recent. That’s because Motown succeeded in closing the gap between white and black music in America, something that no other company was able to do and that will never happen again.

EJB: What’s next for Peter Benjaminson? Do you have any more Motown artist biographies in the works? How about one on Gladys Horton? Marvin Gaye? Tammi Terrell? I can guarantee you at least one reader!

Peter Benjaminson

Peter Benjaminson

Peter Benjaminson:  Thanks for guaranteeing me at least one reader. I would hesitate to write a book on Marvin Gaye or Tammi Terrell because other authors have already done so. I admit I was the third author to write a book on Flo Ballard, but I had one thing that the previous authors did not: an eight-hour revelatory interview of Flo audio-taped the year before she died that had never been previously publicized or released. There’s no book on Gladys Horton I know of but she has fewer fans than Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, Flo Ballard, or Mary Wells, which would make a proposed book a very difficult sell to publishers and readers.

What I am working on is books on two people who had millions and millions of fans: Rick James and Farrah Fawcett. James was Motown’s final superstar, sold literally millions of records and was a popular character on TV, sometimes playing himself, as late as 2004, which was also the year of his death. Farrah, a major TV, stage and movie star who died the same day that Michael Jackson died in 2009, changed the hairstyles of many American women, struggled to improve as an actress throughout her life, and was nominated for a posthumous Emmy for producing a movie about her own death. She also appeared on the cover of People Magazine some 14 times. Neither has been the subject of a serious biography. In book publishing terms, writing about either person wouldn’t be too much of a stretch for me: James would be the third Motown star I’ve written about, as well as the fourth book I’ve written on Motown, and Fawcett would be the third female entertainer whose biography I’ve written.

EJB: Any quick tips for non-fiction writers looking to break into music journalism?

Peter Benjaminson:  They should take heed of the greatest advice ever offered to a music journalist: “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” The saying originates with Nietzsche but has been stated more recently by others.

More seriously, since I don’t actually believe the above, in my career “music journalism” implies writing articles for music magazines, websites, and blogs and “music book writing” implies just what it says. If you’re a staff writer or contract freelancer for a music journalism outlet, that’s great, but otherwise, at least in the world of journalism in which I grew up, you have to propose every single article to every single outlet you want to write it for, and writing the proposal and dickering with the editors about what it’s going to say usually takes much more time than actually writing the piece. In book world, you only have to write the proposal and dicker about it once or twice, and then spend years writing the book. I prefer the latter.  (Please note that this advice may be outdated in the world of on-line and self-publishing in which I did NOT grow up.)

EJB: Thanks so much, Peter, and good luck with your latest projects.

Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar is available on amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, and at any bookstore with good taste. I also urge you to check out The Lost Supreme, Peter’s biography of Florence Ballard. It’s a vivid portrait of a talented singer who met a tragic end.

Here’s Mary Wells’s biggest hit:

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