While throughout the 60s Diana Ross was the highest profile female singing star at Motown and was the major recipient of Berry Gordy's marketing efforts and personal affection, Martha Reeves was the other female anchor, an underrated performer who fronted a number of the label's biggest songs and ultimately became perhaps the most revered of the Motown stars in the Motor City. While Ross charmed with her seductive, slight soprano voice, Reeves showed a whole lotta church in her interpretations, belting out a series of memorable uptempo hits like she was singing joyous praises to God.
Born in Eufaula, Alabama and raised in Detroit as the daughter of Ruby and Elijah Reeves, Martha spent her childhood singing in church and became somewhat of a local sensation while she attended Detroit's Northeastern High School. Along with friends Annette Beard and Rosalind Holmes, Reeves formed the Del-Phis, later renamed the Vels. They encountered Motown VP William "Mickey" Stevenson at a local nightclub and he invited them to audition at Motown's Grand Boulevard headquarters. The visit landed the Vels a minor contract on Motown's Mel-O-Dy Records division and provided Reeves with a secretarial position at the label.
The Del-Phis' initial work on Mel-O-Dy garnered little attention, but the trio received some luck when they were tabbed to sing backup on Marvin Gaye's smash "Stubborn Kinda Fellow" in 1963. A bigger break occurred the following year when an absence by Motown star Mary Wells from a recording session gave Martha and the newly named Vandellas the opportunity to record their first major single, "I'll Have to Let Him Go." It was a success, and its follow-up, the hit "Come and Get These Memories" gave the group enough visibility within Motown to be teamed with hitmaking producers Holland-Dozier-Holland for future recordings.
The initial collaboration between the Vandellas and HDH was "Heat Wave," an across-the-board smash that set the pattern for future singles - gutsy and glorious, fitting Reeves' booming voice in the same way that pop/soul tracks like "Where Did Our Love Go?" and "You Can't Hurry Love" worked with Diana Ross's light, sexy voice. "Heat Wave" was followed by a string of now classic singles, including "Nowhere to Run," "My Baby Loves Me," "Jimmy Mack," "Honey Chile," and the group's signature song, "Dancing In the Streets." Despite the success of the trio, there was a series of personnel changes throughout the 60s, with with Reeves' younger sister Lois replacing Beard and Sandra Tilley replacing Ashford.
HDH's acrimonious departure from Motown, along with Reeves' personal and medical problems, devastated the Vandellas in 1969, and the group never really recovered, ultimately disbanding in 1972. And when Motown made its ill-fated move to Los Angeles in 1972, Reeves refused to move from Detroit, leaving the label to become a solo artist on MCA Records. During the rest of the decade she recorded a number of generally unsuccessful albums on MCA, Arista and Fantasy Records, before ultimately becoming a fixture on the oldies circuit, both as a solo artist and with various versions of the Vandellas (most recently including sisters Lois and Delphine).
Reeves briefly worked in the UK with producer Ian Levine's Motorcity Records in the early 80s, but generally spent the last two decades of the 20th Century as a fixture in the Detroit entertainment and charitable scene. She also released a well-received autobiography, Dancing in The Street, (Confessions of a Motown Diva) and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
Reeves later became a member of the City Council of the City of Detroit for one term and continued performing around the world. 2014 brought the 50th anniversary of "Dancing in the Street," and Reeves marked the occasion by announcing a 50-city "Calling Out Around the World Tour" with dates in the US, Canada, England, France, Italy, Mexico, Scotland, Spain and Wales. She also was chosen for the "Lifetime Achievement in Soulful Music" at the Memphis Black Expo.
By Chris Rizik