Friday, July 22, 2011

Dancing With Martha & the Vandellas

Martha Reeves & the Vandellas
Bottom photo, left to right: Rosalind, Betty and Martha.

Four girls grew up in Detroit, Michigan, wanting to sing and make music, a dream had by many, but realized by so very few. When Rosalind Ashford, Annette Beard, Martha Reeves and Gloria Williams were singing in the clubs, parties and churches in the late 50s, they were noticed. Soon, they were being put together, using a series of names, including The Del-Phis and The Vels. Soon, Martha was working as a secretary to an exec at Motown Records, and the other ladies were singing background for the big names for the studio. According to the lore, singer Mary Wells didn't make it in to the studio for a session with the great Marvin Gaye. The ladies were called in to do a demo track of the song Gaye was working on, and the track, with Martha on lead vocal, garnered the attention for all the executives, and they were all offered contracts. Gloria Williams decided to not sign, fearing the life in the spotlight would interfere with her hopes of a family. But Rosalind Ashford, Annette Beard and Martha Reeves signed the contracts, and were soon recording as Martha & the Vandellas.

Motown didn't have to wait long to see if their decision to back the girls would pay off. Their first hit came quickly, when the song written by the legendary team of Lamont Holland, Brian Dozier and Edward Holland delivered the 1963 hit, (Love Is Like A) Heat Wave. The song went to #4 on the Billboard Pop chart, and became a song that was remembered for the strength of the vocal performance for the talented ladies.

The next year, there was a line-up change, as Beard married and started a family, and decided to step down from the band. Betty Kelly was brought in to round out their sound. Martha & the Vandellas were back on the charts with a song written by Marvin Gaye, William "Mickey" Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter that would become a calling card for the ladies. Dancing In The Streets was a song that certainly had people dancing whenever they heard it, and it soared up the charts, topping out at #2 on the Billboard Pop chart in 1964.

In 1965, the ladies released what I think is my favorite song in their wonderful catalog, Nowhere To Run To. It was thought to have been in heavy rotation on the Armed Forces Radio playlists, and beloved by the troops in Vietnam. Since then, the song was used extensively in movies and television shows, helping to define an era. The song was written by the team of Holland-Dozier-Holland, and went to #8 on the Billboard Pop chart.

I might have been a child at this point, but I had older siblings, and I still remember this music. And certainly this hit by the songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland in one to remember. In 1967, Martha & the Vandellas released Jimmy Mack, a catchy pop song that was on the lips of the nation. It climbed to #10 on the Pop chart, and was another that became a signature tune for the group.

By 1968, there were changes afoot at Motown, and that included the exit of the songwriters from the Motown stable. There was also a shift in priorities, and Martha & the Vandellas were pushed out of the forefront by The Supremes and Diana Ross, who was just a few years shy of starting an illustrious solo career. After a series of replacements in the line-up, the group was 'retired' in 1972. In the 80s, the group would reunite from time to time, doing tours with other groups from the 60s. Their songs have been covered by some of the top names in the business, and their music is still held in high esteem by fans and music critics alike.


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