July 18, 1941– Martha Reeves served on the city council for the city of Detroit from 2005-2009 & has been active in promoting the great city’s rise from the ashes. I love Detroit & the idea of Detroit. If I had any seed money, or any money at all for that matter, I would start a business in one of those amazing buildings in Downtown Detroit that can be purchased for a song, maybe a concert hall.
Reeves, one of 11 children, spent her childhood singing in her grandfather Reverend Elijah Reeves’ Detroit’s Metropolitan Church. In high school she studied voice & was in the choir along with Florence Ballard & Mary Wilson of The Supremes & Bobby Rogers of The Miracles.
In 1959, after high school, Reeves joined the girl group The Fascinations. Their single Won’t You Let Me Know on Rich Records & its answer song I’ll Let You Know on the Chess label were hits on local Detroit radio. In the summer of 1960 Reeves met Rosalind Ashford & the girls were invited to join Annette Sterling & Gloria Williamson to become the group Del-Phis. After doing some local talent shows the group recorded a single My Baby Won’t Come Back which went nowhere.
Reeves entered a talent contest as a solo act & won. The prize was a 3 day gig at Twenty Grand, a Detroit nightclub where she sang as Martha LaVaille. Berry Gordy heard her sing & hired her as his secretary at Motown. One day Gordy needed background singers in a hurry & put in Reeves & her girlfriends. They sang backup for Marvin Gaye on Stubborn Kind Of Fellow & Hitch Hike, both hits in 1962.
Later that year, in a show biz cliché, Reeves was in the right place at the right time. A union rep was checking to make sure the Motown, notorious for not paying their artists, was following the rule that a singer had to be on a mic when tracks were recorded. Because Mary Wells was out on tour, Reeves sang I’ll Have To Let Him Go impressing the producers enough ask The Del-Phis to record You’ll Never Cherish A Love So True (‘Til You Lose It), a big success. But, Williamson was afraid to quit her day job & left the group.
The other girls convinced Gordy to keep them at Motown as a trio. Gordy agreed but wanted a new name. They came up with Martha & The Vandellas, taking the name from Detroit street Van Dyke crossed with Reeve’s favorite singer Della Reese.
Martha & The Vandellas first hit was Holland-Dozier-Holland‘s beat ballad Come Get These Memories (1963), the famed songwriting team’s first collaboration. This record was followed by one the greatest summer themed songs of all time, Heat Wave, which was a massive #1 hit all across the USA. I have a special memory of this tune when I danced The Madison to the recording in a stage production of Mart Crowley’s The Boys In the Band in spring 1973. I was especially good in that one.
After being turned down by everyone else at Motown, Dancing In The Streets (1964) was given to Martha & The Vandellas, also a #1 hit. Other big hits included Nowhere To Run (1965), I’m Ready For Love (1966), Jimmy Mack (1967).
By 1967, the group was being billed as Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, with Reeves featured as lead for the group. Beard had retired in 1963 & was replaced by Betty Kelly. When Kelly quit in 1968, she was replaced by Reeve’s little sister Lois Reeves. The group spit-up in 1973 after giving a farewell concert at Detroit’s Cobo Hall. Lois went to work singing back-up for Al Green.
Reeves left Motown & launched a solo career, bouncing between MCA, Arista, & Fantasy, but sadly didn’t have another hit until the 21st century.
In her memoir Dancing In The Streets (1994), Reeves writes that the group was constantly undermined by Gordy’s obsession with The Supremes. Jimmy Mack was held back from release for a full 2 years because he thought that it sounded too much like The Supremes’ current singles. Reeves frequently clashed with Gordy demanding answers to business questions that most other Motown artists didn’t ask about until years after they left the label. Struggling to maintain a demanding schedule of concerts, appearances & recording, Reeves became addicted to prescription drugs & suffered a series of nervous breakdowns, & was even institutionalized for a year. She has been drug free since 1977. In 1989 Reeves & the other members of the group successfully sued Motown for back royalties.
In 1974, Martha Reeves had a hit with Power Of Love, produced by hot Richard Perry. But, her solo albums, always critically praised, never had the success that she had achieved with The Vandellas.
Reeves currently resides in Downtown Detroit. She continues to tour & record. Rosalind Ashford is retired from Ameritech & Annette Sterling has worked at a hospital as a phlebotomist for the last 40 years. On special occasions the trio performs together. In 2013, Reeves had an unexpected hit with I’m Not Leaving recorded with the band Crystal Method. That’s 50 years since the first hit. Pretty cool, huh?
I am crazy for Reeves’ soulful, brassy vocals. Always a very big Motown fan, I felt that The Vandellas were an earthier, more aggressive girl group alternative to the slicker more elegant The Supremes.
The Vandellas were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame in 1995.