Martha Reeves & The Vandellas

TrackSingle / Album
Heat WaveStateside SS228 / Gordy 7022
Dancing In The StreetStateside SS345
Dancing SlowStateside SS383 (B-side)
Nowhere To RunTamla-Motown TMG 502
Jimmy MackTamla-Motown TMG 599
Honey ChileTamla-Motown TMG 636
Forget Me NotTamla-Motown TMG 657 & TMG 762
Wild NightMartha Reeves LP
Power Of LoveMartha Reeves LP
Why You Treat Me So BadHome To You CD

spotify-logo-primary-horizontal-dark-background-rgb-sm

 

Contributor: Peter Viney

I’m combining Martha Reeves solo with Martha and the Vandellas, because the support roles changed personnel often, and the distinctive part is Martha Reeves lead voice, and she also goes out on the same tour billed as Martha Reeves at one gig, and Martha & The Vandellas at the next. Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, is the best title, I think.

Martha Reeves started as an unpaid secretary, sang backing for Marvin Gaye and eventually got front centre. For years her second single, Come And Get These Memories from 1963 has been a major feature of her live act, and that’s partly because the sentiment of the lyrics fits an oldies show so well. Co-writer Lamont Dozier said it was the first song that crystallized the “Motown Sound”… it was the first Holland-Dozier-Holland (hereafter H-D-H) major hit. It had originally been pitched at Loretta Lynn, so as Dozier said had “gospel music, pop, country & western and jazz” combined. Their golden period is mid-60s. After Come And Get These Memories, Martha & The Vandellas took over the crown of Motown girl stars from The Marvelettes, and then lost it to The Supremes. That’s down to Berry Gordy’s interest in Diana Ross, but it’s also true that while Martha Reeves is one of the greatest female soul voices, she is not as instantly-recognizable as Diana Ross, and a signature voice is money-in-the-bank.

It’s so hard to do anything innovative with a Toppermost when the artist had four of the most iconic singles of the 60s. However hard we might try to delve into B-sides and back-catalogue, there are four records so outstanding that they demand a place: Heat Wave, Dancing In The Street, Nowhere To Run and Jimmy Mack. Those four are instant floor-fillers for a DJ, every one of them irresistible. Even within that list of four she had outstanding B-sides like A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking) on the reverse of Heat Wave, later a hit for Kim Weston then Ike & Tina Turner, and Third Finger, Left Hand on the flip of Jimmy Mack. It’s also true that Motown in their normal fashion, milked a hit by doing another record that sounded like it. So wonderful as Quicksand is, it’s derivative of Heat Wave. Then Wild One resembles Dancing In The Street. Heartless sounds like Nowhere To Run.

Heat Wave was H-D-H, and its hit status was boosted by its release during a massive 1963 West Coast heatwave, meaning it was played non-stop. Martha Reeves recalls doing five shows in Baltimore on one hot August day, then flying to Detroit, entering the studio at midnight and cutting the entire Heat Wave album (the rest were covers) in one session, and adding two background vocal sessions for Marvin Gaye on the same night.

Dancing In The Street. After trying to follow Heat Wave with the similar Quicksand and Live Wire, Motown switched them to the writing team of Mickey Stevenson, Marvin Gaye and Ivy Jo Hunter. Well, the producer (Mickey Stevenson) inevitably gets a co-writing credit at Motown. Marvin Gaye had written it for himself as a cool romantic song (this is hard to imagine). Martha Reeves says:

Marvin was singing it as if to a girl, in a romantic and mellow tone. I said ‘let me sing it my way,’ So I raised it … he was singing on the fifth and I went up to the third of the chord, and when I finished they were elated, jumping around, ‘Hey, man, we got a hit!’

But they hadn’t rolled tape on it, so she had to do it again. She only did it twice, and there’s just the one recorded take. She says you can hear her anger at having to repeat her performance in it, but that also gave it that live feel that makes you have to get up and dance.

Dancing Slow is the B-side of Wild One (itself a Motown reaction to the Shangri-Las hit with Leader Of The Pack). Dancing Slow brings the tempo down, lets the Vandellas wail out behind her, and it all sits on James Jamerson’s bass, plus handclaps.

Nowhere To Run in late 1964 was the first ever Motown promo film, or as we would say video, filmed at Ford in Detroit with the three girls sitting in a car on the production line. It’s not on YouTube. It was a return to H-D-H writing and production. James Jamerson puts in one of his greatest bass lines … all his idea. The percussion is a large towing chain which Ivy Jo Hunter dropped. Though it’s usually on the beat, it’s sometimes very slightly off which creates an intriguing rhythm effect. Martha Reeves was ill when they recorded it. it doesn’t sound like it.

Jimmy Mack was released in February 1967, but it was originally recorded in their prime 1964 period, in March of that year. The loud handclaps and backing vocal were added to tidy it up in January 1967. It was an H-D-H song, and it got shelved when attention went to Dancing In The Street. The head of Motown quality control disliked the song, and left the box on the shelf. In late 1966 Martha was raging because all attention was on The Supremes, and to placate her Berry Gordy asked to hear all the unreleased stuff. As soon as he heard Jimmy Mack, he ordered its release. The appeal is the laid back, languid delivery, floating on the backing rather than driving the song. It’s cooler Motown, more Marvin Gaye in its relaxed take.

If I Had A Hammer from the Motortown Revue album, recorded live is tempting because of the way it’s so clearly live and interactive.

From 1967 on, records are Martha Reeves and The Vandellas. The late 60s produced a run of fine songs, some which are lower profile with the non-specialist Motown fans, though none of her singles failed to chart R&B in the USA. I would really want Honey Chile, Forget Me Not, I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playing, Sweet Darlin’, Without You (B-side of Sweet Darlin’), (We’ve Got) Honey Love, Bless You. Her last Motown recording in 1972 was Tear It On Down/I Want You Back, the B-side being an adult take on the Jackson 5’s hit.

Honey Chile in 1967 is the first track credited to Martha Reeves and The Vandellas. In fact the backing vocals are The Andantes. It starts out in such Four Tops style that you expect Levi Stubbs to come roaring in to belt it out, instead of Martha. It was a Sylvia Moy song, written specially for her and deliberately filled with Southern expressions.

Forget Me Not was recorded as the B-side of I Promise To Wait For Love in 1967 and released in 1968. It was also written by Sylvia Moy whose brother had just shipped out to Vietnam, hence the military start. Martha Reeves lost her brother in Vietnam. It was on the Ridin’ High album along with Honey Chile. In 1971 Motown compilations were selling fast in Britain, and the back catalogue was being combed by the UK division for forgotten gems and this B-side gem was reissued as an A-side, becoming a UK #11 hit in 1971, making it her second highest UK chart placing.

After leaving Motown, she went to MCA for what was said to be the most expensive recording session of 1974 for Martha Reeves aka Power Of Love. It was produced by Richard Perry. It had some of Motown’s finest playing for the opposition. James Jamerson is on bass guitar on several tracks, Klaus Voorman on others. Then Jim Keltner and James Gadson are on drums, Joe Sample and Nicky Hopkins on piano, Billy Preston on organ. She did songs by Van Morrison (Wild Night), Joe Simon (Power Of Love), Carole King (Dixie Highway), Smokey Robinson (Ain’t That Peculiar), Hoyt Axton (Sweet Misery) and Jimmy Cliff (Many Rivers To Cross) all in powerful versions.

Power Of Love has to go in. The horns were arranged and conducted by James Taylor, Clydie King and Friends replace the Vandellas and Dennis Coffey and Dean Parks play the guitars, and the rhythm section is Jim Keltner and James Jamerson. The song was written by Gamble & Huff with Joe Simon, and had already been a US #1 R&B hit for Joe Simon.

Wild Night was the other single. I’m tempted towards Dixie Highway or Sweet Misery because they’re in that “Country Got Soul” genre. But Wild Night is flat-out fantastic, while sticking tight to Van Morrison’s concept, but with James Jamerson again. The album was intended to be a major smash, and wasn’t. But as the years have passed, its stature has grown.

Home To You is her 2004 album. Watch Your Back is a live staple. If you get the CD from her website it apparently contains a cover of God Bless The Child, but the one around in the UK doesn’t have it, nor does iTunes. My choice for the final place was a decider between Why You Treat Me So Bad and I Can’t Believe It. Both are drenched in horns with significant high backing vocals, probably by the current Vandellas. I start to compare her to those tough female 70s soul vocalists like Millie Jackson, Doris Duke and Sandra Phillips on these tracks, but Martha Reeves can soar higher and purer than they can.

There are albums on Arista and Fantasy from the late 70s that I haven’t heard. With early Motown, I can’t see the point of exploring the albums stuffed with filler covers.

Martha Reeves official website

Martha & The Vandellas biography (Wikipedia)

Peter’s topper-ten is in chronological order with UK catalogue numbers for the singles. Miss Martha Reeves is currently on tour in the UK.

TopperPost #244

3 Comments

  1. Ilkka Jauramo
    Apr 5, 2014

    Good to see Klaus Voorman mentioned in your text. Can’t help but thinking of another bassist John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin) who was said to be having Motown bassists as his inspiration. These rhythm sections are too often forgotten but so significant in rhythm and blues.

  2. Andrew Shields
    Apr 5, 2014

    Great list on a superb singer and will have to check out her version of ‘Wild Night’ – Tupelo Honey in my top five Morrison albums…

  3. Peter Viney
    Apr 6, 2014

    Martha & The Vandellas, Bournemouth 6th April 2014 review added here.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

↓