One of the most aggressive-sounding girl groups, Martha and the Vandellas, were originally formed because the brother of the 19-year-old Martha Reeves would not let her sing with his group. Martha’s early background in music came from her father’s Methodist church, where she was schooled in the sounds of The Soul Stirrers, The Five Blind Boys, and Clara Ward, among others. At Northeastern High School she was vocally trained by the same man who later taught Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard of The Supremes (Abraham Silver). She then began doing solo work in clubs as Martha LaVelle.
In 1960 Martha, Gloria Williams, Rosalind Ashford, and Annette Sterling, having been friends from high school, formed the Del-Phis. In 1961 the group did one 45 for Checkmate Records (a division of Chess) called “I’ll Let You Know” and then Martha went to Motown Records to audition. Instead she was offered a secretarial job in the A&R Department and she took it, hoping it would lead to an opportunity. As assistant to producer Mickey Stevenson, one of Martha’s jobs was to book studio time for upcoming recording sessions. On one occasion when Mary Wells couldn’t make a session, Martha brought in the Del-Phis and they recorded “There He Is at My Door.” Since the group was technically still signed to Chess, Motown named them the Vels and issued the 45 on their Melody affiliate. Gloria sang lead at the time. When the Melody release went nowhere, she quit the group, leaving them a trio with Martha as lead.
Their real break came in July 1962 when the group backed new Tamla artist Marvin Gaye on his fourth single, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” When it took off, the trio knew they’d finally get their chance. Martha came up with a new name, a combination of Van Dyke Street (where her grandmother lived) and the name of one of her favorite singers, Della Reese.
They released the single “I’ll Have to Let Him Go” in September 1962, but it received little attention. The beginning of their collaboration with songwriters Holland, Dozier, and Holland led in February 1963 to their second single, the rhythmic “Come and Get These Memories.” It charted on April 27th, eventually reaching number 29 (#6 R&B). With the 1963 hit “Heat Wave,” the girls established their forceful formula: power vocals with a tinge of gospel laid over the emerging Motown trademark bass and drums. It burned its way up the Billboard Hot 100 and reached number four (#1 R&B). More hot rockers followed, including “Quicksand” (#8) and “Live Wire” (#42).
Toward the end of 1963, Annette left to marry and was replaced by Betty Kelley.
Martha and the Vandellas were easily the most popular in-person act in the Motown stable, and they rocked audiences at such shows as the Labor Day week performance at the Brooklyn Fox, with Murray and the K and the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, and The Shangri-Las.
In the summer of 1964 Martha and company had their biggest hit with “Dancing in the Street,” which reached number two on October 17, right behind Manfred Mann’s
Do Wah Diddy Diddy.” In February 1965 “Nowhere to Run” was issued just as the group took off for England as part of Motown’s first European package tour alongside The Temptations, the Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Miracles, and Stevie Wonder. “Nowhere” rose to number eight Pop and number five R&B.
In 1966 Lois Reeves, Martha’s sister and formerly with the Orlons, replaced Kelly. The group then continued to soar with hits like “My Baby Loves Me” (#22 Pop, #3 R&B) and “I’m Ready for Love (#9 Pop, #2 R&B).
1967 opened with the smash “Jimmy Mack” (#10 Pop, #1 R&B). Another change occurred with Sandra Tilley replaced Rosalind Ashford that year.
In the fall of 1967 Gordy labels began reading “Martha Reeves and the Vandellas” with the release of “Honey Chile,” their last top 10 R&B hit (#5 R&B, #11 Pop). On September 15th the group appeared on the debut episode of NBC TV’s “Soul” with Lou Rawls and Redd Foxx.
The group had three more chart singles in 1968 and two in 1969, ut it was becoming increasingly clear that Berry Gordy’s energies were primarily directed toward the Supremes.
Martha suffered a breakdown in the spring of 1969 but fought her way back by 1971. Upon returning to Detroit from an overseas tour, she learned that Motown had moved to Los Angeles but no one had the courtesy to inform her.
On July 15, 1972, “Tear It Down” became the group’s last charter, reaching number 37 R&B and number 103 Pop. It was also the group’s last single. On December 31, 1972, Martha and the Vandellas performed a farewell concert at Cobo Hall in Detroit. The group broke up in early 1973 and Martha went out as a solo. In 1974 Martha had her biggest solo success “Power of Love” (#76 Pop, #27 R&B) on MCA, produced by the legendary Richard Perry.
In 1978 the group reunited for a benefit for actor Will Geer in Santa Cruz, California.
Martha later settled in Detroit and often toured with “The Legendary Ladies of Rock and Roll,” including The Crystals and Ronnie Spector, among others.
– Jay Warner