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Members include MarthaReeves (born July 18, 1941, Eufala, AL), lead vocals; RosalindAshford (born September 2, 1943, Detroit, MI; left group, 1969), vocals; AnnetteBeard (left group, 1963), vocals; BettyKelly (born September 16, 1944, Detroit, MI; joined group, 1963), vocals; LoisReeves (born Sandra Delores, April 12, 1948, Detroit, MI), vocals; SandraTilley (died 1981), vocals; GloriaWilliamson (left group c. 1962), vocals. Addresses: Record company-Motown, 825 Eighth Avenue, 28th Floor, New York, NY 10019.

What Martha Reeves and the Vandellas might have become had it not been for Diana Ross and the Supremes is anyone's guess, but to hear Reeves tell it, the group would have almost certainly been a larger player for a longer period on the R&B scene. Even though the vocal group's peak occurred for but a few years early in its career in the 1960s, the hit singles produced by Martha and the Vandellas-including "Dancing in the Street," "Heat Wave," and "Nowhere to Run"-are among the most enduring in Motown and pop music history, having found their way onto soundtracks, radio playlists, and commercials decades after they were originally recorded. And in an era of sweet, sound-alike girl groups, the act distinguished itself as gutsier and grittier than most. Dubbing them "one of Motown's edgiest outfits," Paul Evans said of the group in the Rolling Stone Album Guide that their "best songs are all bass, brass, and thunder-the singers have to fight hard just to keep up."

Reeves chronicled her humble beginnings in the autobiography Dancing in the Street: Confessions of a Motown Diva,co-authored with writer Mark Bego in 1994. She was the third oldest in a family of 12 children, and the first daughter. She was born July 18, 1941 in a house on Washington Street in Eufala, Alabama, where a midwife assisted her mother because the family couldn't afford a doctor. Reeves didn't remain in Alabama for long, however. She was just under a year old when the entire family pulled up stakes and moved to Detroit, where they lived with relatives who had relocated earlier in search of employment.

Reeves' vocal talent was evident at a very young age. At the age of three, she and older brothers Benny and Thomas won a church talent contest. In her autobiography, she recalls being entranced by the entertainers she saw on stage and screen at the Paradise Theater in Detroit, where her godmother, Beatrice Lockett, took her to see the likes of Cab Calloway and others.

In 1960, Reeves (who also sang professionally around this time as "Martha LaVaille") joined a group called the Del-Phis, which included Michiganders Annette Beard, Gloria Williamson, and Rosalind Ashford. The vocal group recorded the single "I'll Let You Know" for Chess subsidiary Checkmate Records, but the single went nowhere. In her autobiography, Reeves blamed the label, accusing it of not supporting the act.

It was a mixture of luck and circumstance that brought Reeves and her Del-Phis to the attention of the Motown powers-that-be. After a chance encounter at Detroit's Twenty Grand nightclub, Reeves got a job as secretary of Motown A&R director William "Mickey" Stevenson. While at work one day, she learned that background vocalists were needed immediately for a recording session with Marvin Gaye. When other vocalists weren't able to come to the studio, Reeves and her fellow Del-Phis were enlisted to sing backup on Gaye's "Hitch Hike" and "Stubborn Kind of Fellow." Then, when fellow Motown singer Mary Wells reportedly failed to appear for a recording session, Reeves and the Vandellas found themselves in the studio recording a single of their own, "I'll Have to Let Him Go"-but not as the Del-Phis. Instead, the group was called Martha and the Vandellas, with "Vandella" taken from a merger of Van Dyke (a Detroit road near Reeves' parents' home) and singer Della Reese, a favorite of Reeves'. Martha and the Vandellas was thus officially formed in 1962. However, Williamson opted not to sign a contract with Motown and reportedly left the act at that point.

When another Martha and the Vandellas single, the ballad "Come and Get These Memories," cracked the Top 40 in 1963, the powerful Motown songwriting and production trio of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland offered their song "Heat Wave" to the group. It became one of the band's biggest hits, peaking at number four on the Billboard pop chart and topping the R&B chart for several weeks in 1963.

For several years thereafter, the hits continued to pour in for Martha and the Vandellas. "Quicksand" entered the Top 40 at the end of 1963, and later made its way into the Top 10, followed by what is probably the band's best-known and biggest hit, 1964's "Dancing in the Street," which spent 11 weeks in the top 40 (including two weeks at number two).

Some critics today say Martha and the Vandellas' popularity was at least partially due to the songs that the act received from Holland-Dozier-Holland, a conclusion that is borne out by the commercial and chart success of the band. The Holland-Dozier-Holland collaborations with Martha and the Vandellas turned out to be the most fruitful for the group, and occurred at the height of its popularity.

But, when Holland-Dozier-Holland left Motown in the late-1960s (after landing 28 songs in the top 20 for various artists, 12 of which hit number one between 1963 and 1966 alone), it turned out to be the beginning of a downturn for Martha and the Vandellas. As Joe McEwen and Jim Miller wrote in an essay on Motown in the Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll,the "best Vandellas records were made with H-D-H [Holland-Dozier-Holland], but after the atypically infectious 'Jimmy Mack' in early 1967, the two teams went their separate ways. The result for Martha and the Vandellas was little short of disastrous." Although Martha and the Vandellas scored two more top 40 hits after the top ten smash "Jimmy Mack" (a number one R&B hit)--including the number 11 hit "Honey Chile," recorded under the name Martha Reeves and the Vandellas in 1967--those turned out to be the band's last big hits.

The latter part of the band's career was fraught with more change. While Beard had left the band in 1964 (to be replaced by former Velvelette Betty Kelly), the entire group was dormant between 1969 and 1971. When Reeves reformed the unit in 1971, it included her sister, Lois Reeves, and Sandra Tilley (another former Velvelette, albeit for a short stint). That incarnation was a brief one, though, and by 1972 Reeves had embarked on a solo career. Meanwhile, Lois joined the female vocal trio Quiet Elegance, organized by Temptations Melvin Franklin and Otis Williams. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas played its final show at Detroit's Cobo Hall on December 21, 1972, according to the Reeves autobiography. Tilley died nearly a decade later, in 1981, during brain tumor surgery.

At the same time that the Vandellas' popularity was waning, Reeves developed substance abuse problems from tranquilizers and uppers. She also bore a child out of wedlock to an abusive man she had dated only briefly. In her autobiography, she called her son, Eric Jermel Graham (born on November 10, 1970), "the greatest gift to me in this whole wide world" and "a reason to live a purposeful life." Early in her solo career, Reeves was also briefly married to a disc jockey named Willie Dee. After that rocky period, a 1988 Ebony magazine article reported that the singer experienced a "religious rebirth" in 1977.

Although the heyday of the Vandellas was over, Reeves remained active as a singer, both with and without various Vandellas. In addition to touring, she recorded several solo albums, starting with a self-titled release in 1974. She joined female vocalists such as Brenda Lee, Leslie Gore, and Mary Wells for "The Legendary Ladies," a 1987 special on the Cinemax cable network, and toured with Mary Wells and Temptations David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks the same year. Then, in 1989, Reeves recruited Ashford and Beard for a reunion Vandellas concert in Manchester, England; the three have periodically played and toured together since then. The three also filed suit against Motown Records in 1989 for back royalties for the song "Heat Wave;" Reeves wrote in her autobiography that they had not received any royalty checks for the music since 1972. In 1991, the suit was settled in favor of Reeves and the Vandellas after a settlement was reached between Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. and Reeves. "He [Gordy] said he was sorry it had gone so far," Reeves told Jet magazine in 1991. Terms of the settlement were not made public.

There was some renewed interest in the group during the 1990s, a period that saw the release of several compilations of hits and singles. In 1995, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame during a ceremony in New York. Recalling her career in a 1988 Ebony article, Reeves said, "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 . . ."

by K. Michelle Moran

Martha and the Vandellas's Career

Reeves joined Del-Phis with Ashford, Beard, and Williamson, 1960; discovered by Motown's William "Mickey" Stevenson c. 1962; recorded first Holland-Dozier-Holland song, "Heat Wave," 1963; disbanded between 1969 and 1971; reformed with Lois Reeves and Tilley, 1971; disbanded again, 1972; filed suit against Motown for back royalties, 1989; settled suit favorably with Motown, 1991.

Martha and the Vandellas's Awards

Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1995.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Martha and the Vandellas Lyrics

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about 14 years ago

heatwave lyrics and song