Born on July 18, 1941, in Detroit, MI; children: Eric. Addresses: Record company--Fantasy Records, 1775 Broadway, Ste. 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 on 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 did not impair 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, the record'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 re-formed in 1970, it was composed of Martha and Lois Reeves and another singer 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' remakes of her Motown hits, such as Linda Ronstadt's version of "Heat Wave." Reeves told Ebony: "I really appreciate them and love them for doing it."

Reeves continued to tour England as well as the United States with other former Motown stars, including Eddie Kendricks and Mary Wells. Commenting on one such excursion, 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 needed back-up singers. "Now that everybody knows the music, the people in the audience are the Vandellas," she explained in Ebony.

In 1989 Reeves reunited with two of the original Vandellas, Annette Beard Sterling and Rosalind Ashford Holmes. Together the trio recorded "Step Into My Shoes" for British producer Ian Levine. In 1995 Martha and the Vandellas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Reeves participated in a number of activities surrounding the event, including performing "Dancing in the Street" with singer John Mellencamp and a public discussion about her career. "There isn't anything I'd trade in for showbiz," she was quoted as saying in the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Even when I can't sing, I can go back and be an A&R secretary." In 2003 Martha and the Vandellas were inducted into the Vocal Hall of Fame, and Reeves performed "Heat Wave" with Bruce Springsteen at Comercia Park in Detroit.

In 2004 Reeves released Home to You, an album that included a version of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child" and a new version of "Jimmy Mack." In 2005, in celebration of Motown Records' 45th birthday, Reeves headlined a concert in London that included Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie, and Gladys Knight.

In 2005 Reeves decided to run for city council in Detroit. On August 2nd, she won over 27,000 votes, winning ninth place (out of 120 candidates), and becoming one of the 18 candidates who would be placed on the general ballot for nine council positions in November. "I've been dancing in the street," she told Ron Vample in the Seattle Times. "This is not a need for a job. It's a job that needs to be done." While Reeves expressed her concern over the increased crime rate in Detroit and the need for increased police protection, she also expressed an interest in preserving and promoting the city's musical heritage. "One of my biggest dreams is to put up statues downtown---statues of Stevie Wonder," she told Vample, "and Smokey Robinson."

Reeves won the election, and joined the Detroit City Council in January of 2006. "I'm not a politician, there are a lot of things I need to learn. My main reason for being on the city council is to be the voice of the public," she told the WENN news network.

by Elizabeth Thomas and Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr

Martha Reeves's Career

Pop vocalist; worked as a secretary for Motown Records, 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 cable television special "Legendary Ladies of Rock 'n' Roll," about 1987; reunited with original Vandellas, 1989; released Home to You, 2004; ran for Detroit City Council and won, 2005; sworn in as freshman member of Detroit City Council, 2006.

Martha Reeves's Awards

Inductee, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1995; inductee, Vocal Hall of Fame, 2003.

Famous Works

Further Reading



Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 15 years ago

Thank you for this wonderful article on one of Motown's often unsung heroes Martha Reeves. As a member of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Martha's music will always remain alive.