Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
Reviewed on this page:
Come And Get These Memories - Heat Wave - Dance Party
- Watchout! - Live! - Ridin' High - Sugar N' Spice - Natural Resources - Black
Magic - Martha Reeves - The Rest Of My Life - We Meet Again - The Collection - Home To You
This is one of those famous overnight success stories: Martha Reeves was secretary for Motown songwriter William Stevenson,
and when the regular backup singers failed to show for a session, she and her friends were pressed into action, backing
Marvin Gaye on "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" and "Hitch Hike." Next thing you know, they were topping the
charts with "Heat Wave," and the rest was history. The story's not false, just exaggerated: the rise to fame was a bit
slower than that. Reeves and her group (then called the Del-Phis) had been singing professionally for a while, and had even cut an obscure single for
Chess Records subsidiary Chess-Mates. Still, it was a surprise when the Vandellas had three big hit singles in 1963 - at that
point, they were Motown's premier girl group, getting the pick of compositions by hit factory Holland-Dozier-Holland.
But as Motown rose to dominate pop radio, the Vandellas soon slipped into
the shadows. Why? Three nonconflicting theories: 1. Berry Gordy, blinded by Diana Ross's charms, lavished all his attention on the Supremes to the detriment of other acts. 2. Once the Supremes demonstrated their
crossover appeal with a couple of #1 pop hits, Gordy decided they were the most lucrative option, and he sent the best
material their way. 3. The Vandellas just didn't quite fit Gordy's vision: somewhere between the smooth sophistication of
the Supremes and the gritty soul of Gladys Knight & The Pips, they just didn't stand out
Despite being relegated to back burner status, though, the group did run up an impressive bunch of hit singles
through 1967, when changing tastes forced the girl groups to adapt or perish. At around the same time, Reeves seems to have lost
most of her vocal power - I don't know if this was a stylistic choice, a physical change, or what. Reeves eventually left Motown for a solo
career, struggled through various personal problems, and is still touring to this day, sometimes employing her sisters
Lois and Delphine as Vandellas. You can see their upcoming tour dates here, and check this fan site.
I've reviewed Martha's autobiography on our highly esteemed book review page.
Martha Reeves, Rosalind Ashford, and Annette Beard, all vocals.
Beard quit 1963, replaced by Betty Kelly. Kelly quit 1967, replaced by Lois Reeves. Ashford quit 1969, replaced
by Sandra Tilley. Group disbanded, 1973, and has occasionally reformed since.
Come And Get These Memories (1963)
A mostly enjoyable cross between Brill Building girl group ("I'll Have To Let Him Go"), doowop ("To Think You Would
Hurt Me") and the harder-hitting Motown Sound ("There He Is (At My Door)"), all enlivened by soulful vocals from Reeves,
who already possessed an enviable range and convincing delivery. Five songs were written by Holland-Dozier-Holland including the title track, which barely dented the pop
chart but went to #3 R&B, and there are some pleasant discoveries like "A Love Like Yours (Don't Come Knocking Everyday)."
(Brian and Eddie contributed one more track each without benefit of Dozier.)
There are also some covers like Little Anthony's "Tears On My Pillow," Doc Pomus's "Can't Get Used To Losing You" and
Richard Berry's "Moments (To Remember)." Early Motown LPs all suffer from recycled material (Smokey
Robinson's "Give Him Up"), a thin sound, and inconsistent songwriting, but within those constraints this is good solid
Heat Wave (1963)
Martha Reeves had a phenomenally powerful voice, and the
Holland-Dozier-Holland title track of this album was a well-deserved Top
10 hit: the instrumental backing is so funky that you hardly mind the
long delay before the vocals start. Unfortunately, Motown's music
factory wasn't in full gear at this point - H-D-H produced but couldn't
be bothered to write any further original material. So the entire album
is one big pile of filler, with covers ranging from Phil Spector ("Then
He Kissed Me") to Wayne Newton ("Danke Schoen"), and not including any
of the Motown standards that the company later recycled as a matter of
habit. They're all solidly performed, and Reeves' energy occasionally
catches your attention. But this is hardly an album worth looking all
over the place for. (JA)
Dance Party (1965)
At this point the group had scored two more major hits - late 1963's
"Quicksand," which might have appeared on an intervening album, and late
1964's "Dancing In The Street," a classic later covered by all sorts of
acts including David Bowie and Mick
Jagger. Co-authored by William Stevenson and Marvin Gaye, the song put Stevenson in the top
rank of Motown's writer-producers. But working with Ivy Jo Hunter, he
couldn't come up with much to fill out the ensuing album. The single
"Wild One" (also a moderate hit) just recycles "Street"'s swaying beat
and chord changes, and the rest is competent but hardly ever arresting -
"Motoring" got covered by the Who, and god knows
why. All Stevenson can come up with is the same rumbling beat, silly
dance lyrics, and blaring, vaguely Latin-sounding horn parts on
practically every tune ("The Jerk"). Indeed, his covers of two 1963
Motown hits are among the strongest dance numbers: Gaye's "Hitch Hike"
and H-D-H's "Mickey's Monkey" (done by the
Miracles). And the record's second important tune is H-D-H's
"Nowhere To Run," the only one Stevenson didn't have a hand in; with a
fierce vocal and a funky chorus, it climbed to #8 in the charts. The
group scored another half-dozen pop Top 40 hits through 1967, before
Motown focused its attention elsewhere, but it's a safe bet that this
was their last significant LP. (JA)
There was no intervening LP: "Quicksand" (so similar to a previous song it was known inside Motown as
"Son Of Heatwave") is only available on greatest hits compilations. (DBW)
Greatest Hits (1966)
Aside from the hits already mentioned, this contains five more A-sides: the loping, string-backed testimonial
"My Baby Loves Me," "Live Wire" (another shameless "Heatwave" ripoff),
"You've Been In Love Too Long" (an ordinary tune with an overdone tinkling-piano hook),
the 12/8 ballad "Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)" and the stomping if generic "In My Lonely Room."
Three songs here are by Holland-Dozier-Holland, including both singles, the classic "Jimmy Mack" (#10 Pop, #1 R&B) and
the merely pleasant "I'm Ready For Love." The other tracks come from a variety of sources: Smokey
Robinson contributes two fine tunes with arresting melodies ("Keep It Up," "No More Tearstained Make Up"); Ivy Hunter
contributes the enjoyable "He Doesn't Love Her Anymore" and two overdramatic ballads ("Go Ahead And Laugh," "Happiness Is
Guaranteed"); future Motown hitmakers Harvey Fuqua and J. Bristol contribute "I'll Follow You." In every respect -
arrangement, production, composition, performance - it's a standard mid-60s Motown release, with energetic bass playing,
plenty of handclaps and vibes, and belted vocals, and worth picking up.
The protypical Motown live album: the group barrels through its biggest hits at an unsafe speed ("Heatwave"), then slows things
down for an overrecorded ballad or two ("For Once In My Life," which the Four Tops also
tackled in their 1967 live album) and winds up with a frantic medley ("Dancin' In The Streets"/"I Can't Help Myself
(Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)"/"Uptight"). The recording quality isn't great, often burying the band and the Vandellas so
all you can hear is Reeves, and even she sounds a bit screechy ("Jimmy Mack"). Meanwhile, Motown's "all things to all
people" tackiness really shows in a medley of "Do Right Woman" and "Respect" that just shows how much better a singer Aretha Franklin was than her contemporaries.
Still, the overall breathless pace and resolute high spirits of the group make this a defensible pickup for fans.
Ridin' High (1968)
With both the Four Tops and Supremes left rudderless by the defection of H-D-H, it's hard
to imagine that the Vandellas were anywhere near the top of the priority list. This album was turned over to unheralded
writer/producer Richard Morris, who takes a scattershot approach: The opening "I Promise To Wait My Love" is a nod to
Aretha Franklin, who had taken the charts by storm since the previous Vandellas studio
release - the Motown players contribute a drop-dead perfect imitation of the Muscle Shoals house band. There are not
one but two Bacharach and David covers: "(There's) Always Something There To Remind Me" and
"I Say A Little Prayer," which is particularly well sung by Reeves. A couple of cuts rehash the sound of Motown past
("Show Me The Way," with a Temptations-style heavy Jamerson bass line; the uptempo Stevie Wonder giveaway "I'm In Love (And I Know It)").
There are the hit singles "Love Bug Leave Me Heart Alone" and "Honey Chile," which overcomes an overreliance on
catchphrases with an inventive string arrangement. Unfortunately for Morris, though, the one H-D-H leftover, "Leave It
In The Hands Of Love," is the key cut, thanks to a gorgeous melody. Overall, this is quite listenable though inessential.
Sugar N' Spice (1969)
The arrangements here are bargain-basement - heavy on the basic rhythm section, hardly any strings - which could have
been a good thing, but many of the tunes sound cut-rate as well. Only a couple of songs are downright stupid - Clay McMurray's "You're The Loser Now," Deke Richards' "Loneliness Is A Lonely Feeling" (duh) -
but many more are unremarkable, including two more Muscle Shoals knockoffs courtesy of Ashford & Simpson ("I'm A Winner" and "It Ain't Like That"). Two more H-D-H numbers were
hauled out of the vaults: the ominous "I Can't Get Along Without You" and "I Hope That You Have Better Luck Than I Did."
Even the truly funky cuts (Ivy Hunter's "Heartless," Frank Wilson & Sylvia Moy's stomping
"Shoe Leather Expressway") sound rather generic, with Reeves' vocals not as powerful or distinctive as before. But with
the standard Motown formulas being followed so closely, it's far from a total loss. No producer is listed here, and I'm
guessing those chores were handled by the writers of the respective tunes. (DBW)
Natural Resources (1970)
Once again, a shapeless collection of tunes presumably rejected by Motown's first string acts. Fortunately, though, the
producers (unlisted again) stuck with mid-60s arrangements and production, managing to avoid the studio gimmicks that
marred much of the label's output during this period. The single sides are dull - Clarence Paul's
"Love Guess Who" and Henry Cosby and Pam Sawyer's Vietnamsploitation "I Should Be Proud" -
but there are some nice uptempo tunes like Paul's "Easily Persuaded" and the Ashford & Simpson mini-epic
"Won't It Be So Wonderful," both with enjoyably busy bass lines. The Beatles'
"Something" and the Jackie DeShannon hit "Put A Little Love In Your Heart" are given the standard Motown treatment;
other covers include Jimmy Webb's "Didn't We" and the Young Rascals' corny "People
Got To Be Free." (DBW)
Black Magic (1972)
The unreconstructed "Nowhere To Run"-era approach must have sounded really anachronistic by this point.
Three covers: the same version of "Something" from the previous record, Bacharach & David's
"Anyone Who Had A Heart," and the Jackson 5's Corporation-penned "I Want You Back."
The Corporation also wrote "Your Love Makes It All Worthwhile" (yet another "Heat Wave" imitation) and the single "Bless You," which stalled at #53 pop, #29 R&B.
Two songs by Dino Fekaris are surprisingly listenable - the convoluted, Bacharachian
love song "Benjamin" and the dramatic "I've Given You The Best Years Of My Life" - while Ashford & Simpson's contribution ("Tear It On Down") is a
forced attempt at heavy R&B. Jerry Bristol co-wrote the fine "No One There," and various Gordys had a hand in the overwrought
"In And Out Of My Life" and the confused mess "Hope I Don't Get My Heart Broke."
Live Wire: The Singles 1961-1972 (rel. 1993)
In addition to the usual hits, this contains a bunch of uncollected B sides including "Third Finger, Left Hand" and
"I Can't Dance To That Music You're Playing" (later ripped off by Betty Boo).
There are also two previously unreleased, lightweight tracks cut by Martha Reeves solo: "I Won't Be The Fool I've Been Again" and "Baby (Don't You Leave Me)." (DBW)
In 1973, Martha Reeves and The Sweet Things (Clydie King, Jeanie and Fran, whoever they were) appeared on the
soundtrack to Willie Dynamite, scored by jazz trombonist J.J. Johnson.
Martha Reeves (Martha Reeves: 1974)
One of several 70s reclamation projects where white rockers
tried to revive the careers of soul and R&B greats. This time an
all-star cast, headed by producer Richard
Perry, cut boogie-woogie versions of rock (Van Morrison's "Wild Night") and R&B (Gamble/Huff's "Power Of Love," a single) tunes
for Martha Reeves to sing. The whole project smacks of condescension to
me, and the horns/organ groove gets monotonous, but I could have gotten
past all that if Reeves had put more into her vocals: in stark contrast
to her belted early 60s hits, here she's bland and tentative, staying
in the middle of her range. The tunes recorded by other Motown artists
suffer most by comparison - "Ain't That Peculiar" and "I've Got To Use
My Imagination" (hits for Marvin Gaye and
Gladys Knight respectively)
weren't made to be sung politely. The high points are the tunes that get
a gospel treatment, with subtler instrumental backing and the Avalon
Carver Community Choir on backup vocals: Carole
King's "Dixie Highway" and Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers To Cross."
Musicians include Nicky Hopkins,
Klaus Voormann, Jim Keltner, Bobby Keys, Milt Holland, Billy Preston, Melvin "Wah-Wah" Ragin, James Jamerson,
and guitarist Lloyd Gregory. (DBW)
The Rest of My Life (Martha Reeves: 1977)
Produced by Tony Silvester, General Johnson (former lead singer of H-D-H discovery Chairmen of the Board), Tony Camillo,
and Bert DeCoteaux, and they all follow pretty much the
same formula: 60s soul singing and arrangements (horns included), with disco-era production touches (rubbery bass,
strings holding major chords endlessly).
No one was biting at the time, but twenty years on it's a pleasant combination,
with Reeves singing more forcefully than on her solo debut on uptempo tunes ("Higher And Higher," her own "Love
Blind") and on ballads (Johnson's title track; meanwhile, his
"Thank You" is a straightforward knockoff of the Motown Sound circa 1964).
The song material is catchy if unsurprising, with servicable hooks and good pacing; three strong songs were
contributed by Gwen Guthrie: "Second Chance," "Love Can Move Mountains" and "This Time I'll Be
Sweeter" - also recorded by Roberta Flack, Isaac Hayes and India. Other well-known songs include Gamble and
Huff's "Now That We Found Love" and the universally recorded "You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin'" - the version here
is embarassing disco fluff, the one indefensible cut on the disc. Reeves still doesn't project enough personality to
make the album truly memorable, but it's well worth fishing out of the $1 bin.
We Meet Again (Martha Reeves: 1978)
It's not as easy to make a Gloria Gaynor record as you might think. Henry Cosby produced, and
went straight for Gaynor's disco diva style, from orchestrated affirmations ("Free Again") to peppy dance tracks
("Dedicated To Be Your Woman"), but the tunes are lackluster at best ("What Are You Doing The Rest Of Your Life," by
Michel Legrand and the Bergmans, is a lowlight) and Reeves no longer has much presence. The disc is notable
for including a whopping four Reeves originals (all written with Mickey Durio), but none is truly memorable. A long
list of session musicians including Romeo Williams on bass. Also in 1978, Reeves acted and sang
one song in the soft-porn epic Fairy Tales.
Got To Keep Movin' (Martha Reeves: 1980)
A disco album with two tracks produced by Dozier. Includes the remake
"Skating in the Streets (Dancing In The Streets)" and "Then You Came." (DBW)
The Collection (Martha Reeves: 1986)
Re-recordings of her original hits, and a few other oldies ("Come See About Me," "In The Midnight Hour"). If you're
wondering whether Reeves can still belt out "Heatwave," I'm afraid the answer is no. Most singers lose their upper range
as they age, but Reeves seems to have lost her lower register, and she ends up sounding shrill and a bit desperate.
Meanwhile, the pop backing is so generic and by-the-numbers, you may think you're listening to a
karaoke disk or MIDI file ("Dancing In The Street"). No producer or musicians listed, supporting the MIDI hypothesis.
Deceptively packaged to boot, this is a must-miss; recently re-released with the even more deceptive title The Best Of Martha Reeves: Dancing In The Streets. (DBW)
Home To You (Martha Reeves: 2004)
There's one Motown remake ("Jimmy Mack") and one standard ("God Bless The Child"), but it's mostly new material written or co-written by Reeves ("Running For Your Love").
Much better than The Collection, since there are clearly audible live musicians, but Reeves now sings with so much vibrato it's frankly nutty, like she's been listening to too much Mrs. Miller... and the slower the song, the worse it gets ("I Wanna Hold On"). The new songs are either R&B ballads (title track) or horn-backed blues ("Watch Your Back"), pleasant enough if that's your thing but far from noteworthy, and I suspect not the sort of nostalgia most of her fans are looking for. "Good Days Gone" is a happy exception, a bouncy, good-natured rebuke that would fit in with the original Vandellas singles.
Musicians include Alonza McKenzie, Rudolph Robinson and Robert Jones (keyboards); Perry Hughes, David Miles or Leon Cook (guitar); Darrell Smith, Duke Billingslea or Albert McDowell (bass); and Kenneth Rice, Karl Wright, or Martha's brother Victor Reeves on drums.
Backing vocals mostly come from Reeves herself or Carolyn Crawford, who sounds great; self-produced.
Come and get these memories.