In celebration of Martha Reeves’ 74th birthday on Saturday, we’re looking back at the Motown group that launched her career, Martha and the Vandellas.
The group began as The Del-Phis in the late 1950’s, consisting of friends Annette Beard, Rosalind Ashford and Gloria Williams. Mostly performing at local clubs and private events, the group began to be noticed when performing backing vocals for various singers including Mike Hanks. The line-up of the group changed frequently with members joining and leaving through their early career, including Martha Reeves.
Reeves’ first introduction to Motown records was as songwriter and producer Mickey Stevenson’s secretary. During this time, the girl group (at this point known as The Vels) were frequently performing as backing vocalists for the Motown label, including performing on Marvin Gaye’s first hit single “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”.
In 1962, artist Mary Wells was unable to attend a scheduled recording, requiring The Vels to step in and record a demo of “I’ll Have to Let Him Go”. Motown CEO Berry Gordy was so impressed by the group’s performance that he offered them a contract with the label. With Williams opting out of show business, the group was renamed The Vandellas, consisting of lead vocalist Martha Reeves along with original members Ashford and Beard.
The Vandellas achieved quick success, with their second single “Come and Get These Memories” proving incredibly popular. The track was the first composition and production from Holland-Dozier-Holland, the famous writing team and was The Vandellas’ first top 40 hit, reaching #29 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In the summer of 1963, the groups success continued, with “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave” reaching number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 1 on the R&B singles chart. The track eventually won the group their only Grammy Award nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance by a Duo or Group.
Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions proved triumphant for the trio, with “Quicksand” becoming their second Top Ten single towards the end of 1963, reaching #8 in the Billboard chart.
By 1964, Annette Beard decided to leave the group to focus on parenthood and family life; she was replaced by former The Velvelettes singer Betty Kelley. Shortly after, in July 1964, The Vandellas released arguably their most well-known track “Dancing in the Street”, which reached #2 on the billboard Hot 100. This also marked the beginning of their UK success, with the song reaching #21 in the UK singles chart. A re-release of the song in 1969 peaked at #4 in the UK, one of the most successful singles for Motown in the UK market.
The group continued their run of US and UK hits over the next 3 years, including “Wild One”, “Nowhere to Run”, “Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)”, “I’m Ready for Love” and “Jimmy Mack”. The Vandellas secured several television spots during this time including American Bandstand, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Mike Douglas Show and Shindig.
In 1967, the group underwent line-up alterations with Betty Kelley leaving the group, replaced by Reeves’ sister Lois. Around this time the trio’s name officially changed to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Later in the 1960’s Ashford also left the group, replaced by former The Velvelettes member, Sandra Tilley. Late 60’s and early 70’s hits included “I can’t Dance to That Music You’re Playing” and “Bless You”.
In December 1972, the group disbanded following a final farewell concert in Detroit.
Beyond the Group
Martha and the Vandellas’ most successful hit, “Dancing in the Street” is also one of their most recognisable, with many covers being recorded in more recent years. In 1985, Mick Jagger and David Bowie released a cover as part of the Live Aid charity movement, topping the UK charts for 4 weeks and reaching #7 in the US.
The original recording of the track has also been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and has been preserved by the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry.
Read our feature on The Supremes.