July 18, 1941 -
Although she was born in Eufaula, Motown soul sensation Martha Reeves moved northward with her family to Detroit before she was a year old, growing up in the metropolitan musical climate of “Motor City U.S.A.”
Along with her high-powered backup singers, the Vandellas, Martha Reeves created some of the most irresistible and unforgettable dance records of the 1960s. By the middle of the decade, Martha and the Vandellas had established themselves as Motown’s earthier, funkier alternative to the sweetened urban soul sounds of Diana Ross and the Supremes.
“Her talents are among Motown's longest-lasting,” rock critic Dave Marsh once wrote. “The approach is brassy and rocking.”
As a child, Reeves sang in her grandfather’s church and in school, continuing her vocal training through high school. After graduating in 1959, she joined a girl group called the Fascinations before co-founding the Del-Phis, whose membership included future Vandellas Annette Sterling Beard, Gloria Williams and Rosalind Ashford.
The Del-Phis first recorded for a Chess subsidiary in 1961, the same year that Reeves won a talent contest as a solo act and began performing a nightclub engagement as Martha LaVaille. There she was noticed by Motown executive William “Mickey” Stevenson, who invited her to stop by the label's offices. Reeves did not audition right away, but did parlay her visit into a secretarial job in Motown’s A&R department. Her breakthrough occurred when backup singers were urgently needed for a recording session, and the Del-Phis – now made up on Reeves, Beard and Ashford – were recruited to support Marvin Gaye on his first hit, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” (1962).
Stevenson was impressed enough to record a Del-Phis single, “You’ll Never Cherish a Love So True (’Till You Lose It),” renaming the group the Vels and releasing the song on Motown’s Mel-O-Dy subsidiary. One day Supremes singer Mary Wells failed to show up for a recording session. Musicians’ union rules demanded that a lead vocalist be present on the microphone, so Reeves was hastily enlisted to sing “I’ll Have to Let Him Go.” That recording went on to become the first single credited to the newly renamed Martha and the Vandellas in 1963. Their second single, the ballad “Come and Get These Memories,” hit the R&B Top 5 and became their first major hit.
Reeves and her Vandellas released a steady volley of explosive pop and rhythm-and-blues chart busters during that era, including such perennial party favorites as the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave” (No. 1 R&B and No. 6 pop in 1963), “Quicksand” (No. 8 pop and R&B in 1964), “Nowhere To Run” (No. 5 R&B, No. 8 pop in 1965) “I’m Ready for Love” (No. 2 R&B, No. 9 pop), “My Baby Loves Me” (No. 3 R&B, No. 22 pop in 1966), “Jimmy Mack” (No. 1 R&B, No. 10 pop in 1967), “Honey Chile” (No. 5 R&B) and their unforgettable signature tune – the pulsating, horn-driven 1964 smash “Dancing In The Street” (No. 2 pop and R&B), co-written by Stevenson, Gaye and Ivy Jo Hunter.
After several personnel changes in the late 60s and early 70s, Martha and the Vandellas presented their farewell performance in1972. Reeves then embarked on a solo career, signing with MCA Records in 1973 and producing a critically acclaimed album with producer Richard Perry that included a minor hit with a cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.” In 1977, she moved to Arista Records, where she released material consistent with the disco era.
In the early ’80s, Reeves joined a popular series of package tours featuring former Motown artists before reuniting with the original Vandellas and signing with the Motor City Record label. In 1989 the group released Step Into My Shoes. Reeves collaborated with writer Mark Bego on Dancing in the Street: Confessions of a Pop Diva, a candid autobiography published by Hyperion in 1994. She and the Vandellas were elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, the same year that Reeves was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.