Nowhere To Run
Though always defined in opposition to Motown supergroups such as The Supremes and The Temptations, Martha and The Vandellas contributed a rich discography that stands on its own in terms of musicianship. The pressure of performing in such a tense aesthetic atmosphere drove the group--always driven by the exceptional virtuosity of Motown house musicians including James Jamerson (bass) and Benny Benjamin (drums) to create dance records of unparalleled intensity. The production team Holland-Dozier-Holland infused their finest records -- "Heatwave" (Gordy 1963), "Dancing In The Streets" (1964) and "Nowhere To Run" (1965) -- with a sense of hypnotic reverie communicated through layer upon layer of instrumental activity.
Schooled In The Church
The early musical background of lead singer Martha Reeves (b. July 8, 1941 Eufaula, AL; 1942 to Detroit, Michigan) was given shape by experiences within her father's Methodist church. There she became schooled in the techniques of arrangement, the vocal and instrumental tools, and the performative practices of Black gospel. Her mentors exposed her to the recordings of The Soul Stirrers--influential gospel vocal group formed in 1927 (Trinity, Texas) fronted at various times by Johnnie Taylor (of "Disco Lady" fame, 1977), Sam Cooke ("You Send Me", 1957), and R.H. Harris (1911-2000), known for its visceral, deeply emotional hard gospel sound--and The Five Blind Boys, Clara Ward (1924-1973) and Mahalia Jackson (1911-1972).
Martha Reeves paired the gospel church training with vocal lessons at Northeastern High School by Abraham Silver, who had also worked with Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard (The Supremes). In 1960, Reeves joined forces with high school friends Gloria Williams, Rosalind Ashford, and Annette Sterling to form Martha and The Vandellas (then known as The Del-Phis). They released one surprisingly strong single called "I'll Let You Know" (Checkmate 1960).
Secretary At Motown
She attempted a solo vocal audition at Motown in 1961. Many attribute her failure in this audition to the decision not to audition The Del-Phis as a group; Motown was, after all, a group-oriented label that admired collective chemistry over individual virtuosity. They hired Reeves, instead, as a secretary. She wisely accepted the offer to assist Mickey Stevenson, a producer, to book studio time for recording sessions. When Mary Wells (known for "My Guy", 1964, R&B #1-2) could not attend a particular session, she brought in The Del-Phis to record "There He Is At My Door". They were signed to Chess Records, so they were renamed The Vels for this 45.
Stubborn Kinda Fella
The success of Marvin Gaye's debut single "A Stubborn Kinda Fellow" (Tamla 1962, R&B #8) -- one of his finest and most colorful dance tracks -- can be attributed in no small part to the gritty harmonies contributed by Martha and The Vandellas under the direction of producer Mickey Stevenson. Holland-Dozier-Holland noticed the unique vocal chemistry of the group, and brought them in to record "Come And Get These Memories" (1963, R&B #6, Pop #29), an excellent chart debut. It was at this point that Annette Sterling, who sang the lead on the track, left to marry; she was replaced by Betty Kelley.
Sex and Synergy
In the early 1960's, Martha and The Vandellas became the most popular live act from Motown among Black audiences. The Supremes ("Stop! In The Name Of Love", 1965) and The Marvelettes ("Please Mr. Postman", 1960) suited white audiences with their restrained choreography and sugary-pink outfits. At such gritty venues as Brooklyn Fox and The Inferno, The Vandellas invested their Detroit live act with unbridled sexual tension and rhythmic heat. Such performative practices -- valuing emotional expressiveness over conformative restraint, rhythmic complexity over melodic precision -- endeared The Vandellas to a generation of Black youth. Billboard R&B charts illustrate this preference; of all Motown vocal groups, only Martha and The Vandellas consistently charted higher among urban Black audiences than white.
Dancin' In The Streets
From the summer radios of 1964, at the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, emerged a powerful new single from Martha and The Vandellas. Pulsating with neurotic energy and earthy, gospel-infused mayhem, "Dancing In The Streets" climbed to the number 2 slot on the R&B/Pop charts where it lit up the dancefloors of urban nightclubs for weeks without end.
Dave Marsh -- author of "The Heart Of Rock & Soul", an invaluable explication of 1000 great singles -- writes that it "can never be entirely removed from the moment when it was made. A moment when 'Dancing In The Streets,' after all, was also a reference to the tens of thousands of American who'd taken their energies to the pavement as part of the civil rights movement." Indeed certain rural radio stations banned the Marvin Gaye-authored tune as its subtext points to a protest / riot-like taking back the streets.
Got Nowhere To Run
The following spring's "Nowhere To Run" (1965, R&B #5, Pop #8) continued The Vandellas' tradition for literally groundbreaking sweat-stomps. Marsh aptly describes the record's formal properties: "huge drums and popping bass propel a riffing horn section, while the frantic lead vocal recites straight pop verses with a gospel bridge. HDH's deployment of echo and EQ enables the record to begin at the height of excitement and sustain it all the way through." The paranoiaparanoid frenzy, articulated through instrumental and vocal media, of "Nowhere To Run" perfectly captures the Motown sound of the era; listen to The Four Tops "Bernadette" (1967, R&B #3) and The Supremes "Back In My Arms Again for interesting examples of this phenomenon.
Other notable singles from Martha and The Vandella's golden years include: "My Baby Loves Me" (1966, R&B #3), "Jimmy Mack" (1967, R&B #1) and "I'm Ready For Love" (1966, R&B #2). While it closely mirrors the cyclical structure and diagonality of The Supremes "You Can't Hurry Love" (1965, R&B #1-2) -- also produced by Holland-Dozier-Holland at the height of their creative alchemical powers -- the latter is particularly admirable for its musical economy and sexual frustration. It is as if the singer / protagonist imagines herself as a fertile yet virginal creature of the night.
Gordy Looks Away
While Martha and The Vandellas were busy turning out the nightclubs of Los Angeles, Detroit, and Harlem, Berry Gordy, president of Motown Records, focused his authoritative energies on the promotion and packaging of The Supremes, a profitable if problematic endeavor. In 1972, the group released their last chart single "Tear It On Down" (R&B #37), and appeared in their last public appearance at Detroit's Cobo Hall. Martha Reeves went solo for a few years, and reunited with The Vandellas in a benefit (Santa Cruz, 1978) for actor Will Geer. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Holl of Fame in 1995.
The splendors of Martha and The Vandellas are best enjoyed in small doses -- next to Stevie Wonder, Mary Wells, The Marvelettes, and Four Tops. Remember Motown is intended for radio-play, not album listening. Therefore, check out their Ultimate Collection (Motown CD 1997) which gives the essential singles as well as prime B-side cuts. Enjoy.
Come and Get These Memories / Jealous Lover -- 1963 (R&B #6, Pop #29) -- Gordy 7014
Heat Wave / A Love Like Yours -- 1963 (R&B #1-4, Pop #4) -- Gordy 7022
From 11/30/63 - 1/23/65, Billboard consolidated the R&B and Pop charts. As a result, the consolidated position is the only one listed below in parantheses.
Quicksand / Darling I Hum Our Song -- 1963 (8) -- Gordy 7025
Live Wire / Old Love -- 1964 (R&B #42) -- Gordy 7027
In My Lovely Room / A Tear For The Girl -- 1964 (44) - Gordy 7031
Dancing In The Street / There He Is At My Door -- 1964 (2-2) -- Gordy 7033
Wild One / Dancing Slow -- 1964 (34) -- Gordy 7036
Nowhere To Run / Motoring -- 1965 (R&B #5, Pop #8) -- Gordy 7039
Love Makes Me Do Foolish Things / You've Been In Love Too Long -- 1965 (R&B #22, Pop #70) -- Gordy 7045
My Baby Loves Me / Never Leave Your Baby's Side -- 1966 (R&B #3, Pop #22) -- Gordy 7048
I'm Ready For Love / He Doesn't Love Her Anymore -- 1966 (R&B #2, Pop #9) -- Gordy 7056
Jimmy Mack / Third Finger, Left Hand -- 1967 (R&B #1, Pop #10) -- Gordy 7062
Love Bug Leave My Heart Along / One Way Out -- 1967 (R&B #14, Pop #25) -- Gordy 7062
Honey Chile / Show Me The Way -- 1967 (R&B #5, Pop #11) - Gordy 7067