Our Motown Heritage (Part 30)
What Are You Going To Do When I'm Gone?
by Robert Dennis

In 1964 Mary Wells had her biggest hit, written and produced by Smokey Robinson. But when Mary saw the size of her royalty check, she decided to leave Motown for 20th Century Fox Records. Her next Motown release was to be "When I'm Gone." Instead of it being released as a Mary Wells song, it became a Brenda Holloway hit - and maybe it was helped along by technical problems. 

A Star Is Born and Then Fades
     The tune was to be her next single release, and it started out, "What Are You Going To Do When I'm Gone?"  As Mary Wells accepted a $200,000 advance to leave the Motown Records label that had helped establish her as a major superstar, she probably wondered what Berry Gordy would do.  The Answer came quickly.  Brenda Holloway had just had a smash hit tune, Every Little Bit Hurts, which had gone to #16 in the pop Billboard charts.  She needed a follow up release and her voice was put on the production, replacing Mary's.  When I'm Gone, by Brenda Holloway, wound up even a bigger hit, climbing to #14. Mary Wells, without the Motown producers and songwriters, never had another hit record in her career.
     17 year old Mary Wells was first introduced to Berry Gordy by Motown producer Bob Bateman, and she presented to Gordy a tune she had written for Jackie Wilson.  Gordy was working with Jackie at the time.  When she performed her Bye Bye Baby, Berry liked her voice so well that he signed her to a recording contract and Bye Bye Baby became a hit record (#50) for her instead of Jackie.  Working with Smokey Robinson, she then had a string of hits in 1962 and 1963, including  The One Who Really Loves You (# 8), followed by You Beat Me to the Punch (# 9) and Two Lovers (# 7). Then in early 1964, My Guy became a #1 global hit for Mary Wells with production and songwriting by Smokey Robinson.
     In standard recording artist contracts, the cost of recording sessions are deducted from the artist royalties for released tunes. When Mary started earning serious royalty amounts for My Guy, the Motown accounting department deducted session costs for her previous releases.  According to Berry Gordy, Mary Wells earned over $70,000 in royalties from Motown that year,  but I'm sure this was a greatly deflated figure because of those session cost deductions.
     In any case, Mary was upset by the amount and when 20th Century Fox offered to advance her 3 times that amount to sign with them, the temptation was too great and she was gone.  It wound up being a very unsuccessful move for Mary and Motown really didn't miss a beat.  I'm sure Mary's bad decision helped discourage many other successful Motown acts from thinking of leaving the Motown label, even though Motown offered much lower royalty rates than other record companies at the time.
Technical Difficulties
     Running the mastering department at Motown I got a chance to hear all productions once they were mixed down and submitted to the company's Quality Control Department for release consideration.  Mary's version of "When I'm Gone" was done as a ballad at about 90 beats/minute.  When I first heard the Brenda Holloway version, it was at a finger-snapping 110 bpm.  I incorrectly assumed that they had re-cut the track for Brenda. In any case, I wasn't that enthused about the Mary Wells version and thought it didn't have the potential of reaching top 10, even coming off a smash hit like My Guy.  I liked the Brenda Holloway rendition much better, mainly because I felt that the increased tempo gave it a better "attitude."  I still didn't think that it was as good as her previous hit of Every Little Bit Hurts.
     I found out that the two versions of the tune were from the same original track.  When Smokey began working with Brenda Holloway, they overdubbed several new instruments and vocals.  In those days Motown session tapes had only 3 tracks, and to add another instrument part, the original session reel had to be copied by playing it from another machine while the engineer blended in the new instrument that was being added to the recording. The Engineering Department determined that there had been 21 generations (copies) made to produce the Brenda Holloway version and each generation had brought a slight increase in tempo.  The machines of the day just didn't have the consistent speed that modern (computer-controlled) tape machines have.  Procedure changes were needed in the recording process that came into immediate use once they realized the source of the difficulty with the When I'm Gone production. After that, Motown cranked out many alternative versions of songs after that without this increased tempo problem.

Early 60's Tape Machines

A Producer/Songwriter Driven Company
     The Mary Wells career disaster of jumping off the Motown bandwagon cut Mary off from the superb songwriting and production capabilities of the Motown hit machine.  As Bob Bateman once said, "Motown was a producer driven company."  Although the singer is an important part of a hit record, the production teams of Motown were what made the hits.

1.  Mary Wells


Copyright 2006 Robert Dennis - All Rights Reserved USE OF THIS ARTICLE SUBJECT TO USER AGREEMENT