Martha and the Vandellas (known from 1967 to 1972 as Martha Reeves and the Vandellas) were among the most successful groups in the Motown roster during the period 1963-1967. In contrast to Motown girl groups such as The Supremes and The Marvelettes, Martha and the Vandellas were known for a harder, R&B sound, typified in "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave," "Nowhere to Run," "Jimmy Mack" and, their signature song, "Dancing in the Street."
During their nine-year run on the charts from 1963 to 1972, Martha and the Vandellas charted over twenty-six hits and recorded in the styles of doo-wop, R&B, pop, blues, rock and soul. Ten Vandellas songs reached the top ten of the Billboard R&B singles chart, including two R&B number ones. Twelve of the Vandellas' songs charted within the Top 40 of the Billboard Hot 100, with six songs charting within the Top Ten including "Dancing in the Street," "Heat Wave," "Nowhere to Run" and "Jimmy Mack" being their biggest pop chart-toppers.
After performing at several talent shows, the group was signed to the Chess subsidiary, Checkmate Records, with the release of the record, the Reeves-led "I'll Let You Know", which was released in 1961. Gaining some attention from Motown after the label bought Checkmate, the group, now under the name The Vels, recorded the Williams-led song "There He Is (At My Door)" while another Detroit singer, Saundra Mallett (future member of Motown group The Elgins), sung on "Camel Walk", the latter on the Tamla label. After those two singles failed to chart, Williams left the group and the group stopped recording while Reeves bided her time working at odd jobs and tended time singing solo at Detroit nightclubs trying to get noticed, usually under the pseudonym Martha LaVaille.
While performing solo at Detroit's Twenty Grand club, Reeves was asked by Motown executive and staff songwriter/producer William "Mickey" Stevenson to come to the label to audition. Reeves unexpectedly took the job of secretary at the label after showing up to audition on the wrong day. Around this time, Martha and her former Vells bandmates Ashford and Beard were recruited to perform background work for Marvin Gaye on his second album, That Stubborn Kinda Fellow. Gaye's first hit records "Stubborn Kind of Fellow", "Hitch Hike" and "Pride and Joy", prominently featured the girls.
In 1962 when Mary Wells missed a recording session to record a song Stevenson had written, he recruited Reeves to sing the song as a demo. Bringing along Ashford and Beard, the trio recorded Stevenson's "I'll Have to Let Him Go". A strong response from the song convinced Motown founder Berry Gordy to sign the Vels to another Motown subsidiary, Gordy, as a professional recording act, on September 21, 1962 after which Martha changed the group's name.
The story about the name change (to Martha and the Vandellas) is a most colorful one. The Van part came from a street that neighbored Reeves' own - Van Dyke Street in Detroit - and the Della part honored Della Reese, Reeves' favorite singer and a Detroit native herself. Musicologist J.D. Elder noted that "Vandella" is, coincidentally, the French bastardization of an Ethiopian name for a mythical tribe of ghost-walking demons, similar to a succubus .
The group's success continued with their second Top Ten single and third Top 40 single, "Quicksand", which was another composition with Holland-Dozier-Holland and reached number eight pop in the late fall of 1963. Around that time, Beard, who was pregnant with her first child and set to get married, chose to leave her singing career behind by 1964. Betty Kelly, formerly of The Velvelettes, was brought in shortly afterward to continue the Vandellas' rise.
The next two singles, "Live Wire" and "In My Lonely Room"(#6 R&B Cashbox) were less successful singles, failing to reach the Top 40. However, their next single, "Dancing in the Street", rose up to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and also found global success, peaking at #21 on the UK pop singles chart in 1964. In 1969, "Dancing in the Street" was re-issued and it was plugged heavily on radio stations. It didn't take long for the song to peak at #4 in the UK, thus making the song one of the all time favourite Motown single releases ever. The song became a million-seller, and one of the most played singles in history.
Between 1964 and 1967, singles like "Wild One" (US #34), "Nowhere to Run" (US #8; UK #26), "You've Been in Love Too Long" (US #36), "My Baby Loves Me" (US #22; R&B #3), "I'm Ready for Love" (US #9; R&B #2; UK #29) and "Jimmy Mack" (US #10; R&B #1; UK #21) kept the Vandellas on the map as one of the label's top acts. The Vandellas' popularity helped the group get spots on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Mike Douglas Show, American Bandstand and Shindig!. Throughout this period, the Vandellas had also become one of the label's most popular performing acts.
After their former collaborators jumped ship, the Vandellas somehow continued to find success with the Richard Morris-produced singles "Love Bug Leave My Heart Alone" (US #25; R&B #14) and "Honey Chile" (US #11; UK #30; R&B #5) added to their already extended list of charted singles. In the summer of the year, the group joined The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops and Marvin Gaye in performing at the Copacabana though much like albums from the Four Tops and Gaye, a live album of their performance there was shelved indefinitely.
That same year, label changes had started to take effect, and Motown CEO Berry Gordy focused much of his attention on building the Supremes' and Diana Ross' burgeoning upcoming solo career that would followed in 1970. The Vandellas' sound (and the sound of many Motown acts with the exceptions of Marvin Gaye, The Temptations and Stevie Wonder) suffered as a result.
However it was the infighting amongst the members of the Vandellas that led to their problems. Betty Kelly was the first to be let go after reportedly missing shows and as well as getting into altercations with Reeves. There were many instances where these "fights" happened on stage. Kelley was fired in 1967 and was replaced by Martha Reeves' sister Lois. Simultaneously, the group's name was officially changed to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, to conform with the company's recent changes of The Supremes and The Miracles' names to reflect their featured lead singers. In 1969, an acid trip caused Reeves to have a nervous breakdown and led to her to be briefly institutionalized in a mental hospital. As a result, the Vandellas temporarily disbanded. Longtime original member Rosalind Ashford refused to return to the group retiring from the business shortly there after working as a nurse. During this time, Vandellas records including "(We've Got) Honey Love", "Sweet Darlin'" and "Taking My Love and Leaving Me" were issued in Martha's absence.
Reeves eventually recovered well enough to continue recording with the Vandellas. Upon the return of the group, Rosalind Ashford was replaced by another former member of The Velvelettes, Sandra Tilley, and the group continued to release albums and singles into the early '70s, although they couldn't reignite the luster that had made their records successful in the sixties. Among the closest during the group's late-sixties period to become a hit was "I Can't Dance to That Music You're Playing", which featured singer Syreeta Wright singing the chorus, and peaked at number forty-two. Reeves reportedly hated singing the song sensing it "close to home". In 1970, the group issued Motown's first protest single, the controversial anti-war song , "I Should Be Proud", which peaked at a modest forty-five on the R&B singles chart.
In 1971, the group scored a modest international hit with the Jackson 5-esque "Bless You" (produced by the Jackson 5's producers The Corporation). The song peaked at number fifty-three on the American pop singles chart (the biggest peak of Vandellas' seventies singles), and number twenty-nine on the R&B singles chart. "Bless You" was their first UK Top 40 hit since "Forget Me Not", with the song reaching number thirty-three there. It was to be the last Billboard Hot 100 hit single for the group and marked the end of the "Motown Era". After two successive Top 40 R&B singles, the ballad "In and Out of My Life" (#22 US R&B) and the Marvin Gaye cover, "Tear It On Down" (#37 US R&B), the group disbanded following a farewell concert, held at Detroit's Cobo Hall on December 21, 1972.
The next year, Reeves announced plans of starting her solo career. At the same time, Motown Records moved its operations to Los Angeles; when Reeves refused to move, she negotiated out of her deal with Motown, signing with MCA in 1974 and releasing the critically-acclaimed self-titled debut, Martha Reeves. Despite critical rave reviews of her work, neither of Reeves' post-Vandellas/Motown recordings produce the same success as they had the decade before. After living what she called "a rock & roll lifestyle" of prescription pills and alcohol, Reeves sobered up in 1977, overcoming her addictions and becoming a born-again Baptist.
|Year||Song title||US Hot 100 chart||UK Top 40 chart|
|1963||"Come and Get These Memories"||29||-|
|1963||"(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave"||4||-|
|1964||"Dancing in the Street"||2||4|
|1965||"Nowhere to Run"||8||26|
|1965||"You've Been in Love Too Long"||36||-|
|1966||"My Baby Loves Me"||22||-|
|1966||"I'm Ready for Love"||9||29|
|1967||"Love Bug Leave My Heart Alone"||25||-|
|1968||"Forget Me Not"||-||11|