Tag Archives: San Quentin Prison

You Beat Me to the Punch

Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar by Peter Benjaminson (Chicago Review Press, $26.95, 304 pages)The singer Mary Wells had an amazing, crystal clear voice that was to presage what came later with The Supremes and Diana Ross.   Wells’ early ’60s-era singles, such as “You Beat Me to the Punch,” “My Guy,” “The One Who Really Loves You,” and “Two Lovers” were so perfectly recorded that it’s difficult, even now, to think of anyone attempting to cover them.   (Try substituting another singer’s voice in your mind.   Try it.   It can’t be done.)

The Queen of Motown died all too young from cancer at the age of 49, and in a basically impoverished state.   Wells’ dramatic riches to rags story offered cinematic-style opportunities for the right writer.   In Mary Wells: The Tumultuous Life of Motown’s First Superstar, Peter Benjaminson delivers an account that falls short of being extensive or definitive.   Biographies of artists – musicians, writers, fashion designers, actors – often come across as flawed when the biographer missed the chance to interview his or her subject.   While Benjaminson interviewed many of Wells’ “friends, lovers and husbands,” he was forced to rely on another writer’s dated one-on-one interviews with the singer.

Because Benjaminson cannot describe what it was like to be in Wells’ orbit or company, he takes the route of writing about “the sex, the violence and the drugs in her life.”   This is unfortunate because writing about Wells’ sexual partners, domestic violence incidents, and her illicit drug use does nothing to flesh her out as an artist.   The story of Wells’ life is told in such a straight-forward, chronological order that there’s no rush to turn the pages.   (It’s a book that I put down far more than I intended.)

The story’s momentum comes late, when Benjaminson deals with Wells’ clearly fatal cancer diagnosis and her poverty.   Wells might have been a multi-millionaire had she taken the deal offered to her by Berry Gordy to remain at Motown as a co-owner of the record company.   Instead, she left to begin what she felt was going to be a highly successful musical career with another label.   It was not to be, and Wells’ later may have repeated her mistake by turning down an alleged offer of $1 million from Gordy when she was quite ill.   (Benjaminson is unclear as to whether this offer was, in fact, ever put on the table.)

Mary Wells, the woman who – in her own words – “helped build Motown” was to survive by playing gigs in small clubs, in hotels such as the Sheraton Airport Hotel at LAX, at San Quentin State Prison, and basically wherever someone would offer her a few dollars to walk on stage.   It’s ironic that, as Benjaminson states, Wells was to pursue fortune, not fame during her lifetime but her terrible personal decisions left her with “no money to speak of.”

Where Benjaminson gets it right is in providing readers with details about Wells’ recording sessions at Motown (with the likes of Smokey Robinson and Marvin Gaye) and elsewhere.   These details are what draw the interest of music fans.   There are, however, some facts presented in this bio that may be open to question.   For example, Benjaminson insists that Wells was hugely popular for several decades in Latino neighborhoods in California, and specifically in the greater Los Angeles area.   This was not evident to this reviewer when I lived in L.A.

As with Mark Ribowsky’s The Supremes: A Saga of Motown Dreams, Success, and Betrayal (2010), which was highly focused on personal issues rather than on the music of the three performers, this bio by Peter Benjaminson left me feeling that I knew little more about the late, great Mary Wells when I finished it than when I opened it.   I suspect that one can discover more about her spirit, her character by listening again to her records, her songs — a life’s work.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   This review first appeared on the Blogcritics Books site:  http://blogcritics.org/books/article/book-review-mary-wells-the-tumultuous/ .

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These Eyes

Eyes Wide Open: A Novel by Andrew Gross (Harper Fiction, $9.99, 437 pages)

“A horrible family tragedy that may not be what it seems…”

Location, location,  location…  They say that these are the three most important factors in real estate, and on occasion location, location, location matters in fiction, also.   Take this novel, Eyes Wide Open, by Andrew Gross (author of Reckless).   You will probably enjoy this thriller of a crime story if you’ve visited at least two of the three California locations in which the action takes place: Morro Bay (misspelled as Morrow Bay on the back cover), San Luis Obispo and Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, near the California-Oregon border.   Since I’ve visited all three – the first for play; the latter two for work – it was easy to visualize the scenes in this novel.

In the tale (based on something that happened in real life to the author’s family), our protagonist Jay Erlich – a New York State-based physician – learns that his nephew has apparently committed suicide by jumping off the famed 600-foot high volcanic rock in Morro Bay.   At the request of his troubled older brother Charlie, Erlich flies out to the calm, coastal community to see if what the police have reported is correct.   Early on it’s clear that someone is covering something up, as there are problems with the official story.

Charlie Erlich was once a chart-topping musician, but then he fell in with a wild group of drug users in Marin County.   And this is where the story telling goes a bit sideways.   It’s immediately obvious to the reader that Charlie was once a member of the Charles Manson Family, but here Manson is fictionalized as the “leering and wild-eyed” person known as Russell Houvanian.   [Houvanian, of course, is first imprisoned at San Quentin before being moved to Pelican Bay – just like Charles Manson.]   The author devotes page after page to recreating the events surrounding the Manson Family, but for some strange reason moves them from Ventura and Los Angeles counties to Marin and Santa Barbara counties.

I have no idea why Gross spent so much time and energy in transforming Manson into a fictional character.   But instead of adding to the story, it significantly detracts from it.   It’s as if I were to write a novel about the first Irish-American Catholic president elected in the 1960s, a character that I decide to name John McNeal.   McNeal, in my story, has a brother named Richard who happens to be the U.S. Attorney General, and another brother, Ned, who is a United States senator from Massachusetts.   It wouldn’t take long for the reader to ask the questions, “Why not just set this period novel among the Kennedys?   Why fictionalize actual events and real people?”

While the author’s credibility takes a hit with his strangely and loosely disguised historical events, the story itself is engaging.   Lives are at risk and it’s up to Doctor Erlich to become an instant, skilled criminal investigator in order to figure out which authority figures are telling the truth and which are lying to protect their own reputations.   As with the novels of David Baldacci, Joseph Finder and Michael Connelly, events speed up rapidly as the conclusion approaches, and it all ends in an almost breathless fashion.

Once you’ve finished Eyes Wide Open, you may want to check on the availability of a room at The Inn at Morro Bay.   Just make sure to be very careful if you decide to climb the famed rock of Morro Bay!

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Should be read with the lights on and the door closed.   A rare and menacing psychological thriller…”   Nelson DeMille.  

Note:  Morro Bay is actually 576 feet high.   Although it’s illegal to climb it, as per Wikipedia, “every few years someone is caught trying to climb the rock.”

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