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Martha & The Vandellas

While this classy girl-group trio couldn’t quite live up to fellow Detroit “dream-girls” The SUPREMES (spearheaded by the diva-tastic DIANA ROSS), MARTHA & THE VANDELLAS epitomised the vibrancy and potency of the 60s Motown movement. Despite the changing tides in their once thriving motor-city-fuelled birth-place, they sang about `Dancing In The Streets’, `Quicksand’ and a `Heat Wave’ – all Top 10 hits for the girls, and more so, their bosses at the er… plant for whom they worked tirelessly; `Nowhere To Run’, `Jimmy Mack’ and `Honey Chile’ were equally evergreen and memorable hits.
Detroit, Michigan, at the turn of the 60s, was a hive of industry and, with Berry Gordy Jr. at the helm of its pop-music wing, doo-wop and R&B had merged into one big melting pot of soul. Quick to tap in to the plethora of vocal groups to emerge from nowhere (Gordy had The MIRACLES and The TEMPTATIONS “boy-bands” in his books, and solo star MARY WELLS), there was indeed a necessity to find “girl-groups” to fill a void in the soon-to-be lucrative market; The MARVELETTES were the first to show, whilst The SUPREMES and MARTHA & THE VANDELLAS signed on the dotted line in 1962.
School-girl chums Rosalind Ashford (born September 2, 1943), Annette Beard (born July 4, 1943) and Gloria Williamson (born 1942) were already underway in 1957; as an unknown lead dropped out, in came singer Martha Reeves (born July 18, 1941, Eufaula, Alabama). Linking up as The Del-Phis, the quartet released one 1961 single (`I’ll Let You Know’) under this billing for Checkmate Records. Switching to The Vells nom de plume for 1962’s `You’ll Never Cherish A Love So True (‘Til You Lose It)’ – issued on Mel-o-dy Records – the girls had proved themselves worthy of a chance; Gloria bailed soon afterwards.
The trio’s big break came after Martha landed herself a job as A&R secretary at Motown Records (also known as Tamla and Gordy). When singer MARY WELLS failed to show up for a MARVIN GAYE session, the damsels were called in at short notice to back the main man on two tracks, `Stubborn Kind Of Fellow’ and `Hitch Hike’. There, the fledglings also recorded a track of their own, `I’ll Have To Let Him Go’; releasing it in September ‘62 under the moniker of MARTHA & THE VANDELLAS (named after Detroit’s Van Dyke Street and Reeves’ soul heroine, DELLA REESE). The single stiffed, but a follow-up, `Come And Get These Memories’, cracked the Top 30.
Cue the entrance of songsmiths par excellence, Holland/Dozier/Holland, who proceeded to cook up the searing `Heat Wave’ as the group’s first Top 5 entry in the summer of ‘63. One of the definitive singles in the Tamla/Motown pantheon and a key record in developing the label as a brand name, the song worked up a delirious aural sweat with a killer combination of thundering brass, hollering handclaps and fervent call and response vocals. The winning formula was repeated later that year with the Top 10, `Quicksand’.
While early LPs COME AND GET THESE MEMORIES (1963) {*6} and HEAT WAVE (1963) {*6} sold nothing in proportion to their bound-less 45s, successive singles `Live Wire’ and the less-frenetic `In My Lonely Room’, hovered around the edges of the Top 40, whereas the group – ex-VELVELETTES singer Betty Kelley replacing a pregnant Annette – hit pay-dirt after taking on a song first rejected by label mate KIM WESTON.
Penned by GAYE, Ivy Jo Hunter and Martha’s erstwhile boss Mickey Stevenson, `Dancing In The Street’ was subsequently moulded in the Vandellas aplomb; the seminal soul single shimmied its way to No.2 in September ‘64. Possibly the premier dancefloor anthem of the 60s, the spirited track was dusted down two decades later by rock stalwarts BOWIE and JAGGER, who performed the song at Live Aid and duly sent it to the top of the British charts.
The headlong rush of `Nowhere To Run’ (from DANCE PARTY {*6}) found the girl-group back in the Top 10 in early 1965, while the exclusive non-LP tracks, `You’ve Been In Love Too Long’ (twinned with `Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)’) and `My Baby Loves Me’, chalked up further mid-chart strikes.
Over the ensuing year or two, the Detroit ladies sporadically hit the Top 10 with `I’m Ready For Love’ and the unforgettable `Jimmy Mack’ (both from WATCHOUT! (1966) {*6}), but it was all too easy to confuse them with the mightier SUPREMES. As modest hit, `Love Bug Leave My Heart Alone’, closed a chapter for the singers, the next step was to promote Martha in the freshly-billed MARTHA REEVES & THE VANDELLAS; it was no coincidence that their rivals had just switched to DIANA ROSS & THE SUPREMES.
As Betty was fired after the LIVE! (1967) {*5} album, in popped ex-ORLONS chanter Lois Reeves (Martha’s younger sister), just in time for the trio’s next big hitter, `Honey Chile’. While Martha may have won this token concession, hers was a constant battle with label boss, Berry Gordy over what she saw as preferential treatment for The SUPREMES, and especially Diana. Whatever their trials and tribulations, the aforementioned platter was the last Holland/Dozier/Holland contribution prior to their departure from Motown.
The Vandellas’ commercial fortunes became progressively bleaker as they made do with lesser material; `I Promise To Wait My Love’ (spawned from RIDIN’ HIGH (1968) {*5}), `I Can’t Dance To That Music Again’ and `Sweet Darlin’’ were hardly the stuff of legends. Poached from The VELVELETTES, Cleveland-born Sandra Tilley was at first drafted in to fill for an ailing Martha, and when she recovered, Rosalind was eased out the door.
While hits became sparse (`(We’ve Got) Honey Love’ was from the previous incarnation!), albums such as SUGAR N’ SPICE (1969) {*5} and NATURAL RESOURCES (1970) {*5} were basically strolls around the prevailing hit parade. The girl group’s last major success came about in early ‘71 with the near UK Top 10-er, `Forget Me Not’ (another from 1968’s Ridin’ High!). They finally called it a day on the back of swansong transatlantic hit `Bless You’, one of the only songs not to be sneezed at from the disappointing BLACK MAGIC (1972) {*4} LP.
By the time of the split, MARTHA REEVES was already mooted to follow in the footsteps of DIANA ROSS, but when Gordy and Co shifted base to Los Angeles, the singer couldn’t move with the label or the times. Profoundly affected by her experiences at Motown, she was struggling with drug dependence and emotional problems, having already suffered her first breakdown in 1969 (ironically, “mod-type” re-issues of both `Dancing In The Street’ and `Nowhere To Run’ hit the Top 5 in the UK around the same time). An M.C.A.-endorsed solo artist from 1974 to 1976, and cutting a couple of critically-praised but unsuccessful albums, she found it tough to start all over again. Following a third and fourth album (for Fantasy Records), Martha became a born-again Christian and retreated from the music scene as her personal problems took priority.
Along with Rosalind Ashford-Holmes and Annette Beard-Helton (their married monikers), Martha successfully sued Motown for back royalties in 1989, occasionally reuniting with the pair for one-off shows; note that Sandra died in 1981, and Gloria in 2000. As with many golden-oldie circuit combos of the era, the group was now split two ways, the “original” Vandellas comprising Rosalind, Annette and Roschelle Laughhunn (from 2000 onwards), and another line-up (from 2010) that featured sisters Lois and Delphine Reeves.
© MC Strong 1994-2000/GRD-BG // rev-up MCS Sep2016

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