Born July 18, 1941, in Detroit, Michigan; children: Eric. Addresses: Residence-- Detroit, Michigan; Record company-- Fantasy Records, 1775 Broadway, Suite 617, New York, NY 10019.

As a member of the Motown label's Martha and the Vandellas, Martha Reeves was a large part of what Ebony magazine described as "the rousing pop sound that rocked Detroit and shook the world." Her lead vocals enriched a string of hits during the 1960s, including "Dancing in the Streets," "Heatwave," and "Jimmy Mack." After the final break-up of the Vandellas in the 1970s, Reeves became a solo artist; though she never achieved the same success as she had with the group, nostalgia for the pop music of the 1960s helped her regain her status as a popular concert attraction during the 1980s.

Reeves went to work at Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan, without much thought of becoming a singer. Rather, she served as a secretary for the company shortly after she left high school. She occasionally sang lyrics onto demonstration tapes to enable Motown's artists to learn new songs, and when one of the company's regular studio back-up singers was too ill to participate in a recording session, Reeves was allowed to take her place. From there it was only a short step to becoming a regular Motown background vocalist; with Rosalind Ashford and Annette Sterling, who had attended high school with her, Reeves contributed her talents to the records of Marvin Gaye and other Motown proteges.

By 1963, the Motown executives felt that Reeves, Ashford, and Sterling had enough talent to form their own group, particularly with Reeves's strong voice on lead vocals. The women were signed to the Gordy label, a Motown subsidiary, and quickly released the hit single "Come and Get These Memories," which was soon followed by an even bigger smash, "Heat Wave." Though she hadn't aimed for that kind of success, Reeves told Ebony: "I sang because it made me happy and helped me to help my family. It allowed me to develop from a little girl in the ghetto to someone who could pay my bills."

After "Heat Wave," Sterling quit the Vandellas and was replaced by Betty Kelly. This personnel change failed to have much impact on the trio's hitmaking ability; with 1964's "Dancing in the Street," Martha and the Vandellas continued to trademark the rougher, more raucous rhythm and blues sound that distinguished them from the Supremes and other Motown female groups. According to Geoffrey Stokes in Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll, "Dancing in the Street'"s catchy beat was produced, in part at least, by one of the producers banging on the floor with some snow chains from an automobile.

Hits like "Nowhere to Run," "I'm Ready for Love," and "Honey Chile" took Reeves and the Vandellas through to the late 1960s. Kelly was replaced by Reeves's sister Lois in 1968, but the following year saw Reeves sidelined by illness. When the group reformed in 1970, it was composed of Martha and Lois Reeves and another woman named Sandra Tilley. Though this set of Vandellas scored some minor hits on the rhythm and blues charts, including "Bless You," "I Gotta Let You Go," and "Tear It on Down" during the early 1970s, they could not match the success of Reeves's earlier years. She obtained her release from Motown, and broke up the Vandellas in 1972.

The success of Reeves's early solo career was no match for that of her heyday with the Vandellas, either. She bounced from record company to record company--MCA, Arista, and Fantasy all held her contract at one time or another--and only scored a minor hit in 1974 with "Power of Love." According to Ebony, Reeves experienced problems with depression and drug abuse during this period, but was healed by what that magazine termed a "religious rebirth" in 1977. Not long afterward, in the 1980s, nostalgia for her music brought her better luck with her career. She was also helped by other artists doing remakes of her Motown hits, such as Linda Ronstadt's cutting a version of "Heat Wave." Reeves told Ebony: "I really appreciate them and love them for doing it."

Reeves continues to tour England and tours the United States with other former Motown stars, including Eddie Kendricks and Mary Wells. Commenting on one such excursion in July, 1987, she announced to Ebony: "It was fantastic. I am very proud that after all these years, we could still produce the quality of sound and remember all the things we were taught--the things that still make us happen." And, apparently, she no longer needs back-up singers. "Now that everybody knows the music, the people in the audience are the Vandellas," she explained in Ebony.

by Elizabeth Thomas

Martha Reeves's Career

Pop vocalist; worked as a secretary for Motown Records in Detroit, Michigan, during the early 1960s; studio backup singer for Motown, 1962-63; lead singer for Martha and the Vandellas, 1963-69, 1970-72; solo recording artist, 1974-80, and concert performer, 1974--. Featured in the cable television special "Legendary Ladies of Rock 'n' Roll," about 1987.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

August 2, 2005: A primary victory won Reeves a spot in the November general election for Detroit city council. Source: Yahoo! News,, August 5, 2005.

Further Reading



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