July 18th marks the 73rd birthday of a very special lady, none other than the Motown legend Martha Reeves! Five decades after beginning her career at Motown Records in Detroit Michigan, Miss Reeves continues to pull crowds around the world, a testament to her longevity as a performer, and to the great music she recorded at the place known as Hitsville. Discovered by Motown’s A&R man William “Mickey” Stevenson, Reeves was asked to audition for Motown as a singer but instead became a Motown secretary for Stevenson, handling some administrative duties. Chances to sing at Motown quickly came for Reeves: when Motown’s vocal backing group The Andantes could not be reached, Reeves contacted her band-mates Rosaling Holmes , Annette Helton and Gloria Williams to fill in, singing background on the early Marvin Gaye hit ‘Stubborn Kind of Fellow’.
Williams soon left the group, but success would soon come to the newly named Martha & The Vandellas. Their first recording ‘Come And Get These Memories’ led to their first million-seller, the fabulous ‘(Love Is Like A) Heatwave’. Before long the group were competing with The Supremes to be Motown’s top female group; yet in a battle they would eventually lose, Martha & The Vandellas produced some of the most soulful, gutsy singing on any Motown recording. Whilst The Supremes had the knack to be popular, Martha & The Vandellas truly had the soul.
In 1972 the group disbanded, with Reeves attempting to reach a solo deal with Motown. That plan was scuppered when Motown left for Los Angeles the following year, with Reeves deciding not to relocate to the West Coast, choosing to stay in Detroit. In 1974 she released her first solo album, which was well-received by fans and critics but failed to sell quite like her Motown recordings. Nonetheless, ever since Reeves has continued to perform and on occasion record; in recent years her sisters Lois Reeves and Delphine Reeves have toured as her backing Vandellas (original members Holmes and Helton tour as ‘The Original Vandellas’), and the group remain a firm favourite across the world, particularly here in the UK where the group have been touring for much of 2015, with more dates being announced.
In honour of this true Motown legend (and, as the photo below shows, one of the first artists we ever met), we’ve picked some of our Martha Reeves favourites to celebrate her 73rd birthday – Happy Birthday Miss Reeves!
Come And Get These Memories (1963)
This song would launch the career of Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, being the first to pair the group with the iconic producing and writing team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. It featured the classic line-up of The Funk Brothers as well: Benny Benjamin on drums, Joe Hunter and Earl Van Dyke on piano and keys, Robert White and Eddie Willis on guitar, and the incomparable James Jamerson on bass. Reeves’ gutsy soulful vocals along with the Vandellas’ tasty harmony pushed this all the way to #6 on the Billboard R&B Chart, and #29 on the Billboard Pop Chart. It may be the first song the group released, but it remains one of their best over fifty years later.
(Love Is Like A) Heatwave (1963)
It would be this song that would truly propel the group towards stardom, and for us at TFSR it’s one of the finest songs that Martha Reeves has ever recorded. ‘Heatwave’ is a pure soul delight; Reeves is at her soulful best, The Funk Brothers are rocking, and the horns are simply incredible. The saxophone solo from Andrew Terry is a delight, helping to make this one of the best Motown singles ever released, and arguably Martha Reeves’ finest moment. It seems the US public agreed: ‘Heatwave’ went to #1 on the Billboard R&B Charts, and #4 on the Pop Chart. Martha & The Vandellas had reached the big-time.
Built on the success of ‘Heatwave’, ‘Quicksand’ is another soul-stomper of a Motown recording. The guitars of Robert White and Eddie Willis are particularly impressive on this song, as is the percussion and vibes of Jack Ashford. The horn arrangement is pretty tasty as well. Reeves and the Vandellas are once again in perfect harmony on ‘Quicksand’, singing beautifully and soulfully.
I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playing (1968)
Not as successful as ‘Heatwave’ or some of the group’s later recordings, this is nonetheless another brilliant song. Only Reeves’ voice from the group can be heard on the record; The Andantes provide the backing vocals on this song, as well as a young Syreeta Wright, who would become Stevie Wonder’s protégée and first wife. Released in 1968, at a time when Motown was becoming more sophisticated musically, this song remained true to the company’s R&B roots, possessing a real driving funk beat, and another fantastic horn arrangement. One of Reeves lost gems in our opinion.
Nowhere To Run (1965)
Another tune, another driving beat for Martha & The Vandellas. Another fine Holland-Dozier-Holland production as well which saw the team experiment with new sounds, specifically the use of snow-chains being struck against a slab of wood to give the song its unique persuasion track, in tandem with Jack Ashford’s tambourine and vibes. A big hit over here in the UK, ‘Nowhere to Run’ was in the form of a Northern Soul favourite, and reached #26 on the UK Singles Chart as a result.
Jimmy Mack (1967)
This song was originally recorded in 1964 but shelved and released in 1967 at a time when American involvement in Vietnam was sparking outrage across the nation and the world. The lyrics tell a story of a woman whose love has gone away and is being chased by another; in the context of the Vietnam War the song took on extra meaning, giving the impression that the woman is waiting for her love to return home. It would be the last single of the groups to reach #1 on the Billboard Pop Chart.
Anyone Who Had A Heart (1972)
Perhaps an odd choice here, but not necessarily an odd choice for Motown: artists would record standards and easy listening classis like these to appeal to a more white audience in an attempt to help the group cross over. Originally done by Dionne Warwick and covered many, many times, Reeves gives a fresh sound to this Bacharach standard with her gutsy vocal contrasting with Warwick’s original. It shows Reeves out of her Motown-soul comfort soul, demonstrating she was more than just a standard singer. It would appear on the group’s final album, Black Magic.
I Should Be Proud (1970)
If ‘Jimmy Mack’ was subtly about the Vietnam War, this was a clear appeal to the nation’s consciousness during the conflict. With the war still rumbling on, Henry Cosby, Pam Sawyer and Joe Hinton wrote this protest song, telling the story of a a woman who was has received information that her loved one had been killed in Vietnam. The song had clear anti-war overtones, which might explain why the song never became the hit that it should have been. Sadly, the song remains ever relevant today with the recent American excursions in the Middle East.
Power of Love (1974)
This was one of the singles from Reeves’ solo album, produced by Richard Perry. Despite the album being largely forgotten outside of die-hard fans, this song is pretty good. Reeves’s vocals are slightly deeper than her earlier Motown recordings, but she still sounds great. ‘Power of Love’ is a rare treat for fans of Martha Reeves.
Dancing In The Street (1964)
What more can be possibly said about this song? This is Reeves’ signature song, and arguably Motown’s best ever recording (or, at least, that’s the opinion of Mojo Magazine). It is one of the most memorable and best-delivered songs that Motown ever released, and one that will last the test of time. Sure, it’s been overplayed in the last fifty years, but there’s a reason for that. Simply put, it’s fantastic.
In 2012 Haff had the pleasure of seeing Martha Reeves in concert at the JazzCafe in London, and even had a cheeky snap with her after the show. He would like to inform readers he only has the one chin now…