One of the groups under Motown that achieved world-wide success was Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, later known as Martha and the Vandellas. Their popularity was alongside with that of the Supremes and the Marvellettes with “Dancing in the Street” as their signature song in the genre of harder types of R & B sound. Other songs that helped make them famous include “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave”, “Nowhere to Run”, and “Jimmy Mack”.
Martha was born in Alabama but grew up in Detroit during her teenage years. It was during her high school at Detroit Northeastern High School when she met Abraham Silver who acted as her vocal coach. Reeves who was then sixteen years old formed the Del-Phis, together with other teenagers Gloria Williams (15), Rosalind Ashford (15), and Annette Beard (14).
The group’s performances included talent shows, high school parties and private events. The members had the chance to be trained at the Ferris center in Detroit under their trainer Maxine Powell who later became a Motown talent manager. During the group’s four-year tour Martha formed the Sobre-Ettes and also joined the Fascinations in between their tours.
The Del-Phis was signed to Checkmate Records, a subsidiary of Chess, and their first single was released in 1961. Reeves was the lead singer in “I’ll Let You Know”. When Motown bought Checkmate label, the group changed name to The Vels. Under Motown, the group sang “There He Is (At My Door)” with Gloria Williams as the lead singer.
Another Vels single was “Camel Walk” sang by Saundra Mallet under the Tamla label. Both singles flopped so the group disbanded when Williams jumped ship. Martha tried to make a name for herself but she ended doing odd jobs including performing solo at Detroit night-clubs. For a while she used the name Martha LaVaille in order to draw attention away from her former group’s poor record.
Reeves got a second chance of her singing career while she was performing solo at the Twenty Grand club in Detroit. William “Mickey” Stevenson, Motown’s executive and songwriter/producer asked her to come to the office for audition. Unfortunately, Reeves reported at a wrong day so she got the job of a secretary instead.
While working with Motown, Martha and her former two The Vels co-members acted as back-up signer for Marvin Gaye who was doing his second album “That Stubborn Kinda Fellow”. They also had good exposure in Gaye’s hit records “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”, “Hitch Hike” and “Pride and Joy”.
By luck or by chance, Martha had her biggest break in 1962 when Mary Wells failed to show up for a song recording. Stevenson had the original three members of the Vels record a song he had written titled “I’ll Have To Let Him Go”. This finally convinced Motown through Berry Gordy to sign the three as a professional recording act in September 1962, still using the Vels as the group’s name.
Later, the name Martha and the Vandellas was used by the group. The name Vandellas was Martha’s idea to use part of the name of Van Dyke Street in Detroit where she grew up and Della from Della Reese, her favorite singer who also come from Detroit.
This first successful release of Martha and the Vandellas was “Come and Get These Memories” composed and produced by the famous Holland-Dozier-Holland. It reached the 28th spot on the Billboard Hot 100 and at no.6 on the R &B chart. The follow-up and also one of the group’s most successful works was “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave”. It got the No.4 spot on the Hot 100 and the top of the R & B chart for 5 weeks. This hit earned them their only Grammy Award nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group. It was also their first recording that sold millions.
Another song, “Quicksand” by Holland-Dozier-Holland gave the group another wave of success, taking them to the Top Ten for the second time and their third Top 40. In 1964, there was a change in the group members when Beard left her singing career. She opted to devote her time to her family when she got married and became pregnant. She was replaced by Betty Kelly, a former member of The Velvelettes.
Martha and the Vandellas’ popularity continued to rise, releasing several high-charting singles that charted well. The group became one of Motown’s most popular performing acts during that time, largely due to Martha’s earthy voice, combining gospel and R&B, and distinguishing her from other female singers of the day.
When Holland- Dozier-Holland and William Stevenson left the Motown label, the groups success began to drop off. Despite this, they tried to remain on the scene but subsequent changes in company priorities proved detrimental to them. This was aggravated by attitude problems among the members that showed up even on stage.
The final break-up of Martha and the Vandellas was triggered by Kelly leaving the group. She was replaced by Lois Reeves, Martha’s sister, in 1967. However, Martha suffered a nervous breakdown in 1969, forcing her to be rehabilitated in a mental institution. Martha was able to recover, but the new group of Martha and the Vandellas was not able to regain the popularity that they had before.
From 1963 to 1972, the group was able to chart over 26 hits and record different genes including R&B, pop, doo-wop, blues and soul, and brought a fresh sound to the Motown label at a time when Mary Wells and Diana Ross had reached their peak. However, they had relied a lot on the H-D-H team and, as with many bands of the day, success could not last forever and personal differences and problems led to their demise.