When looking for the perfect presentation of the Motown sound and style, few fit the bill as well as Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. It was 1963 when they moved from being Marvin Gaye’s original backup singers (“Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” “Pride & Joy,” “Hitch Hike”) to stars in their own right with the trifecta of “Come and Get These Memories,” “Heat Wave,” and “Quicksand.” Over the next decade, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas would be a consistent presence on the music charts, as well as on television and top venues across the US and abroad.
With the unmistakable voice that helped define “the sound of young America,” Reeves reigns as one of music’s most beloved and acclaimed female singers. As one reviewer recently exclaimed, “Martha Reeves is the ultimate Motown diva with soul flowing from the tips of her toes to the last hair on her head. They don’t make ‘em like that anymore.” Reeves and her Vandellas – her sisters, Lois (who joined the group in 1967) and Delphine (who came aboard in 1980) – remain in high demand, heating up clubs, casinos, concert stages, colleges and music festivals across the globe.
Their hits are a thing of legend: In addition to the aforementioned, they include the gospel-tinged “Nowhere to Run,” the classic soul favorite “My Baby Loves Me,” the pop anthem “Jimmy Mack,” and the signature, “Dancing In The Street.” While best known for up-tempo, hard driving tunes, Reeves’ shows are often highlighted by jazzy renderings of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child,” her driving original blues “Watch Your Back” (both included in her self-produced CD “Home to You”), and the perennial showstopper, “Love Makes Me Do Foolish Things.”
Martha’s story is a familiar one to legions of fans.
Soon after graduating from high school, she performed in clubs as “Martha Lavaille.” One night, Motown A&R director Mickey Stevenson heard her and invited her to audition for the then-fledgling label. The highly-motivated Reeves arrived the next morning. Upon learning that auditions had to be scheduled, she made herself valuable by answering phones and taking messages. When people say she started at Motown as a secretary, Reeves corrects them, laughing, “I was never a secretary. I was a singer who could type.”
Reeves soon become an invaluable administrator, interacting with musicians and performers, scheduling sessions, and making sure that business was taken care of. And she waited her turn to sing. One day, when Mary Wells missed a session, Martha stepped up to the mic, got notice and a contract. She left the A/R department to become one of Motown’s most enduring and beloved stars.
As classics never fade, new and diverse audiences are constantly being introduced to the Martha Reeves songbook.
She has counted talents as diverse as James Brown and Beverly Sills among her singing partners. Robin Williams spun “Nowhere to Run” in Good Morning, Vietnam. Her version of the Van Morrison rocker, “Wild Night” was featured on the Thelma and Louise movie soundtrack. The boys in The Boys In The Band and Whoopi Goldberg in Sister Act 2 partied to “Heat Wave.” Everyone from Mick Jagger and David Bowie, the Mamas and the Papas, Dusty Springfield and the Grateful Dead have gone “Dancing In the Street.” Singers such as Adele, Amy Winehouse, Florence Welch and Jennifer Hudson sing her praises. The popular US cable show “Power” (produced by rapper Fifty Cent) uses a reworked “Nowhere to Run” as its theme song.
Moving beyond the confines of the concert stage, Reeves starred in a US tour of the Tony-winning “Ain’t Misbehavin'”, and has performed in road shows of “The Jackie Wilson Story” and “Good Black Don’t Crack.” She co-starred for three seasons in the UK stage review “Dancing In The Street,” alongside Motown peers like the late Edwin Starr, Mary Wilson, and Freda Payne. Following Starr’s death in 2003, Reeves held the spotlight alone. That same year, she made her opera debut singing with the Motor City Lyric Opera.
Reeves is the recipient of the Dinah Washington Award, a Rhythm n’ Blues Foundation Pioneer Award, a Black Woman in Publishing Legends Award, and has been inducted in the Alabama, Soul, Rock and Roll, and Vocal Group halls of fame. “Dancing in the Street” has been entered into the Library of Congress Registry of Historical Recordings and into the Grammy Hall of Fame. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas are listed among Rolling Stone magazine’s “100 Immortal Artists.”