When music fans say they love Motown, most people will immediately think of its trademark sound and classic pop hits. But to go further and name Martha and the Vandellas as your favorite Motown artist is to throw down and say that the grittier, soulful girl group, the Vandellas, did it right and did it better than anybody else at Hitsville, U.S.A. The Vandellas were Motown’s first Grammy nominated group, the group with which hit songwriting team Lamont Dozier and Eddie and Brian Holland (H-D-H) started figuring out their “Motown sound,” and are icons to artists everywhere who love getting people dancing to “a brand new beat.”
Martha Reeves was born in Alabama and, when she was a child, her family moved to Detroit, like many other southern transplants who moved to northern cities looking for jobs and a better life. She grew up in a musical family, sang in her high school choir, and cut her teeth on gospel in church. Like many of her music-leaning peers, she joined singing groups like the Fascinations and later the Del-Phis (made up of Gloria Jean Williamson, Rosalind Ashford, and Annette Beard), who would sign in 1960 to Chess Records subsidiary Check-Mate, but the singles they’d managed to record didn’t go anywhere. In spite of those setbacks, Reeves didn’t give up and continued to try to break into music. At 20 years old in 1961, she entered a talent contest, winning the prize of singing a three-night stand at the 20 Grand, a local nightclub. Mickey Stevenson, A&R man and songwriter at Motown, saw her on the third night and gave her his card, telling her to audition. According to Reeves, she went to Motown the next day, only to discover that regular auditions were on the third Thursday of each month. Stevenson was busy, told her to answer phones and deal with other artist matters, and by the end of the day she was his secretary. But part of making it at Motown was being in the right place at the right time. In 1962, when Marvin Gaye needed backup on the song “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” Reeves was called in and she called her friends from the Del-Phis. Back then the backup singers would be on the same mic as the lead artist, and you can just picture those ladies behind Gaye, following his lead but also inspiring some of his own callbacks with their powerful and joyful presence. As The Vells, they sang backup on other songs and released a single, lead singer Williamson left the group not long after, and Reeves moved up to lead. The rest is history.
Reeves says she named them the Vandellas after Van Dyke Street in Detroit and her favorite singer Della Reese. The story also goes that Gordy himself named them, a play on female vandals. Whatever the case may be, Martha and the Vandellas are legends, their songs with those irresistible hooks and driving beats still fresh and fun after over five decades of changes and upheaval. Their music not only crossed over to white audiences and the mainstream but also soundtracked the Civil Rights Movement. But beneath the hits was a group struggling to stay on top in the face of cutthroat competition in the music world as well as from fellow Motown artists.
Like many early ’60s albums, the Vandellas’ albums were made to capitalize on the singles but in those extra songs you can hear the variety and depth of skill from the group. If Motown had put half the effort into promoting them as they did into the Supremes, one can only imagine the heights they’d have reached. But in their 10-year run with Motown, and in Reeves’ solo work, they still hit plenty out of the park. Since you’re getting Heat Wave with your Anthology box set, here are some other Martha & The Vandellas albums to explore.
The Vandellas released a couple of singles in 1962 (“I’ll Have To Let Him Go” and “Come and Get These Memories”) and then in 1963 they released their debut album on the Gordy label, produced by Stevenson and H-D-H. The title track, written by H-D-H, was the songwriting team’s first top 10 hit on the R&B chart, and it hints at the belting drive Martha would bring on later hits. Other album highlights include a warm harmony-backed version of the Andy Williams hit “Can’t Get Used To Losing You” and the soulful ballad “Give Him Up.” The cover art references the lyrics of the title track, the things left behind by an old boyfriend, evoking images of teenage love and appealing to young music fans. Come And Get These Memories is very much in the vein of those early ’60s girl groups and while not the break-out debut they’d hoped for, the potential was bubbling underneath the surface.
Things were still on the upswing for the Vandellas and they blew off the roof with 1964’s “Dancing in the Street,” which was co-written by Marvin Gaye and flew to No. 2 on the pop chart (there was no R&B singles chart at the time). One story goes that Gaye and Stevenson wrote the song for Kim Weston but that she didn’t want it; the more likely story is that after hearing Reeves sing along to the tape, Gaye and Stevenson knew it would be better for the Vandellas. The ultimate summer dance song, “Dancing” was about coming together and having fun and got people everywhere to their feet. It eventually evolved into an anthem for civil rights activists, a curious thing considering Motown’s penchant for focusing on mainstream success and staying out of politics. The 1965 album Dance Party featured “Dancing” and was composed of mostly original songs written by Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter. The core lineup was now Reeves, Ashford, and Betty Kelly (who replaced Beard, though Beard is still heard on a couple of tracks). As the album title suggests, it bumps and grinds and doesn’t let up from start to finish. Other highlights include the classic “Nowhere to Run” and a more bopping version of the Miracles’ “Mickey’s Monkey.” Go right now and listen to this album. You’ll thank me later.
Martha and the Vandellas’ fourth album had the unfortunate position of following up the successful Dance Party. Watchout! is more soulful heartbreak than party album, the last one on which H-D-H contributed songs, and Reeves, Ashford, and Kelly present an even more polished maturity than had existed on prior albums. Two singles “I’m Ready For Love” and “Jimmy Mack” hit the top 10 and both are classic upbeat Vandellas but it wasn’t just a battle for commercial success anymore — the Vandellas had been supplanted by the Supremes as THE girl group at Motown and knowing Reeves’ personal struggles with this as well as her clashes with Berry Gordy adds further emotional weight to songs like “No More Tearstained Make Up,” written by Smokey Robinson, and “Go Ahead And Laugh.”
Black Magic is the eighth (and last) studio album the group made together before being let go by Motown, which left Detroit for Los Angeles. Having changed the name in 1967 to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, for this album the lineup was Reeves, sister Lois Reeves, and Sandra Tilley. The previous albums had not performed as well and the group struggled for relevance at the label as well as on the charts. While single “Bless You” managed to hit the top 40 on the R&B chart (and the top 100 on the pop chart), at a record label where meetings were called when singles didn’t reach the top 10, it just wasn’t good enough for Motown. However, music fans over the years have come to appreciate this gem of an album, full of funky beats and Vandella sass. I will argue up and down the street that their cover of the Jackson 5 hit “I Want You Back” is the superior version (Reeves owns it, y’all!) and if you want chills, listen to their cover of P.J.’s “I’ve Given You The Best Years of My Life.” An essential listen.
As a solo artist, Martha Reeves didn’t hit the heights she’d achieved at Motown but she didn’t let that stop her. After working on the soundtrack for the film Willie Dynamite, she got to work on her self-titled solo debut, released in 1974 on MCA Records. Produced by Richard Perry and featuring the talents of Billy Preston and James Taylor, the album didn’t meet expectations. But as with most albums that garner critical acclaim yet lack commercial success, eventually music fans find it and spread the good word. Reeves gets feet tapping on the driving beat of “Wild Night,” a fun cover of the Van Morrison song, rocks out on “Storm In My Soul,” and reassures a lover on “You’ve Got Me For Company.” She also belts it out like nobody’s business on “Power of Love” and shows her gospel roots on songs like “Dixie Highway” and “Many Rivers to Cross.” Lovers of powerful ’70s soul need to spend time with this album.
Marcella Hemmeter is a freelance writer and adjunct professor living in Maryland by way of California. When she's not busy meeting deadlines she frequently laments the lack of tamalerias near her house.
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