Classic Music Review: Martha Reeves & the Vandellas: The Definitive Collection

My initial research for the Motown series led me to one inescapable conclusion: I needed to visit my father. He has a pretty extensive collection of soul records including enough 45’s to fill a few jukeboxes. More importantly, he experienced the Motown phenomenon first-hand. And yes, I’m always looking for an excuse to pop down to Nice.

That still blows me away—I can “pop down” to Nice! That is so cool!

Once downpopped, my dad and I spent an afternoon and evening listening to dozens of records, primarily focusing on the likely candidates for my Motown series. He helped me think things through and narrow things down to the four finalists. Once all that unimportant stuff was out of the way, we got down to the real reason for my visit: the inevitable argument.

“Martha,” I offered.

“Diana,” he replied.

“No fucking way! Martha blows her out of the water!”

“Diana.”

“You’ve got to be kidding. Martha’s voice could fill the church—Diana’s would peter out before it reached the third row of pews.”

“Interesting argument for an atheist to make.”

“I’ve got you beat on covers. The Kinks covered Martha. Vanilla Fucking Fudge covered Diana. No contest!”

“By that measure, The Shirelles beat them both. The Beatles covered them twice.”

“Out of order! Different era!”

“Fair enough, but I’m sticking with Diana.”

“How can you be so goddamned stubborn?”

“Pot. Kettle. Black.”

I spent the next week listening to both The Supremes and Martha and the Vandellas, and my preference for Martha intensified. While I love debating music with my father, arguments are solely sporting events: personal taste is what it is and you have to respect another person’s preferences. While music critics, halls of fame and awards shows like to pretend they have the necessary qualifications to discriminate between good music and bad, they don’t. The Grammies prove that every year. I am equally fallible. My reviews reflect my preferences and my preferences alone. In this case, I prefer Martha over Diana. My dad feels otherwise and I respect him for that.

The stubborn asshole.

Martha and the Vandellas hit the big time a year or so before Motown began its ascent to household word. At the time “Heat Wave” burst into the top 10 in 1963, they were just another girl group of the early 60’s. They made regular appearances in the top 10 through the end of 1966, then began a slow decline, primarily due to crappy material. Some people blame Berry Gordy for channeling most of his attention on Diana Ross; others cite the departures of Holland-Dozier-Holland and producer/mentor Mickey Stevenson as the cause behind the shortage of decent songs. There were also problems in the group, including onstage spats. Whatever the reason, an opportunity was lost. Martha Reeves proved again and again that she was a great R&B and soul singer with tremendous power. Although she was not the first employee to suffer from dumb-ass management, she deserved a better fate.

Oh, well. No use crying over spilled milk! Do you know why you shouldn’t cry over spilled milk? Because the fairies come and lick it all up! And speaking of obscure folkloric references, what the fuck is a Vandella, anyway? You have two choices: a.) it’s a hybrid of Van Dyke Street in Detroit and Martha’s favorite singer, Della Reese or b.) it’s an Amharic word for dream-invading demons. While you’re pondering that conundrum, I’m going to get on with the review. Please note that The Definitive Collection fails to sync the track order to the release date (grrr!) and I will ignore that unconscionable decision by presenting the songs chronologically.

“Come and Get These Memories”: The group’s first top thirty hit came from Holland-Dozier-Holland and clearly distinguished Martha Reeves from other singers of the time. Like The Shirelles’ “Soldier Boy,” the song opens with the refrain, with Martha and the Vandellas (Annette Beard and Rosalind Ashford) united in harmony. When Martha takes the stage, her voice sounds much fuller than the lead singers of other girl groups of the day, who favored a more subdued approach (or simply weren’t capable of producing much in the way of wattage). Martha doesn’t sound like a girl—she sounds like a fully-formed adult woman, though she was only twenty-one at the time. Her phrasing is marvelous and her diction exceptionally clear without sounding labored. Martha was a reverend’s daughter, and as noted in my debate with dad, I have no doubt her voice could fill the church up to the rafters. Even with all that power making it easy for her to engage in histrionics, Martha consistently showed the ability to temper that power over her career. Even when she’s allowed to do some vocal riffing on the fade-out in this song, you don’t get the sense that she’s showing off or trying to knock you out with her gifts. She’s just singing naturally, and it sounds fantastic.

“(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave“: Oh, baby! That’s what I’m talkin’ about! This iconic single is exceptionally well-designed and executed, taking advantage of an irresistible groove, the infectious simplicity of hand-clapping, the spirit in the Vandellas’ backing vocals and omigod, Martha. The extended rhythmic introduction is the musical equivalent of a strip tease, letting your heat rise along with the theme until Martha enters and brings you to a boil. She takes full command of this song without hesitation or apology; at times you feel she’s reliving a particularly intense act of seduction. In the third verse, Martha’s voice seems to soar to the heavens like the great gospel singers, and her phrasing escapes the steady rhythm as her voice succumbs to the feeling and she sings behind and ahead of the beat:

Sometimes I stare in space, tears all over my face
I can’t explain it, don’t understand it
I ain’t never felt like this before
Now that funny feelin’ has me amazed
I don’t know what to do, my head’s in a haze
It’s like a heat wave, burnin’ in my heart

Diana Ross never came close to reaching this level of passion and intensity. Nuts to you, dad!

“A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Everyday)”: An unusual arrangement marked by piano, organ and what may be a celeste or a glockenspiel set the tone for this gorgeous Holland-Dozier-Holland composition designed to let a singer show his or her stuff. The song, rather complex in chord structure for the time, has been covered by several artists, including Dusty Springfield, Manfred Mann and Cher. Martha’s rendition is superb, somewhere between soul and spiritual, and is a delight despite the spoken word lines that tend to make me cringe. Although the quality of the recording fails to clarify the low end of the spectrum, this is one of James Jamerson’s early bass contributions that drew attention to his exceptional skills. The Vandellas are absolutely solid on background and harmonies, and though the tempo is a bit too fast to quality as a slow-dance number, it has a nice swaying rhythm that makes you feel good inside and out.

“Quicksand”: This follow-up hit has a similar dance-song feel to “Heat Wave,” but is even more oriented to the American Bandstand crowd with an equally long rhythm section intro, a long rhythmic break and another brief pause for the drums to pound away. The groove is so dominant that you’re not even sure if the first verse has begun or the girls are simply riffing along with the band. It’s a great dance song, not a great soul or R&B song like “Heat Wave.” This would be Annette Beard’s last appearance with the group, as she apparently got caught in the quicksand of pregnancy and left to marry and raise a family. Betty Kelly would jump over from The Velvelettes (a group that also deserved a better fate) to join Martha on her rise to stardom.

“Live Wire”: A cheesy Liberace-esque piano intro failed to disguise this song as yet another dance number by Martha and the Vandellas. Motown had the annoying habit of sticking to a formula until the blood ran out, as The Four Tops often demonstrated with follow-up hits that sounded eerily similar to the original hit. This is no exception: it’s a pale imitation of the two stronger numbers. If I’d been alive back then I would have picketed Motown with a sign that read, “Let my Martha go!”

“In My Lonely Room”: This isn’t exactly what I had in mind—an oddly upbeat dance number set to lyrics describing a woman locking herself in her room so she can cry. It’s like Holland-Dozier-Holland tried to improve the recipe and added the wrong ingredients. The recording engineers even managed to make Martha’s voice sound thin and reedy, an accomplishment that I didn’t think possible. Let my Martha go!

“Dancin’ in the Street”: Fuck yeah! That’s what I’m talkin’ about! Despite their impressive resume, Holland-Dozier-Holland weren’t getting the job done, so producer Mickey Stephenson stepped in and enlisted Marvin Gaye’s help with a song he was writing after watching kids in the Detroit streets trying to blast away the summer heat by opening fire hydrants. Stephenson thought he had a ballad, but Marvin heard it as a dance number, so they spruced it up and played it for Martha. Her reaction was that the song was too repetitive and she’d like to do her own vocal arrangement. Smart girl! All this collaboration resulted in an endlessly exciting number with a strong bottom, pounding beat, growling saxophones and a key that syncs with Martha’s sweet spot. The intense rhythm of the song is courtesy of Marvin Gaye (who beats those drums like there’s no tomorrow) and James Jamerson, whose moving bass runs must have pushed those mid-60’s speakers to the limit. The horn section is on fire, filling this intensely rhythmic number with memorable and melodic counterpoint fills. The song was released in 1964, during the first summer of major rioting in the African-American ghettoes, and the sensationalist press attached a sinister, revolutionary meaning to it. “My lord, it was a party song!” said Martha, recalling all the hoo-hah. Her command of the vocal is deeply impressive—if you ever want to hear what it sounds like when a singer owns a song, “Dancin’ in the Street” ranks right up there with “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Fever” and Jo Stafford’s “Long Ago and Far Away.” The song is absolutely relentless, never easing up on the powerful beat and collective intensity.

“Wild One”: This was a pretty weak and derivative follow-up to “Dancin’ in the Street,” with a much thinner mix. The story line of giving one’s heart to the bad boy in town had been done a hundred times anyway.

“Nowhere to Run”: Holland-Dozier-Holland must have learned something from Mickey Stephenson, coming back with a solid R&B song that gives Martha plenty of room to maneuver. The partial stop-time sections are exquisite and The Vandellas do a super job on spot harmonies and a smörgåsbord of background vocal effects. Martha is at her best, gliding through the melody with utter confidence, occasionally reaching for a higher note that she seems to pluck out the sky. The rhythm is intensified by the use of snow chains, an innovative thought if there ever was one. The groove is mesmerizing; this is the perfect song for lovers who want to shimmy the night away.

“Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things):” Martha and the Vandellas did surprisingly few ballads given Martha’s versatility. The passion she brings to this performance is intense, in luscious contrast to the softness of the background music. The balance she achieves here is special, for the ballad form is an easy one to ruin with either excessive or inadequate emotion. There are lines where she sounds more mature and life-wise; others she delivers in a state of full longing tinged with a sense of defeat and self-deprecation. Needless to say, she dominates the track in a way that few singers can.

“You’ve Been in Love Too Long”: Ooh—I love the way this song begins: a Funk Brothers duet with bass and low-end piano accompanied by a simple drum beat. The flip side of “Love” takes a darker, tougher view of the downsides of loving a man with other interests on the side. Martha turns the song into a proto-feminist message that warns girls not to turn themselves into co-dependent losers who need a man to survive. You go, girl! You can see Martha shaking her head sadly but insistently as she recounts each indicator of unrequited masochism:

When his wrongs look right
Though he always treats you bad
When you find little excuses
For all the sadness and abuses

Don’t you know, girls
You’re in love? Oh, no
You’re just a fool for your baby

Girls, you’ve been in love
Too long, poor fool

When my dad played both sides of the single back-to-back I had the urge to stand up and applaud, throw roses, shout “Bravo,” . . . you know the drill.

“My Baby Loves Me”: Sometimes Motown’s commitment to formula really pisses me off. “My Baby Loves Me” also begins with a low-register piano run for no other reason than the last hit began the same way. Jeez! Bring back the snow chains while you’re at it! Once I got over that I had to get over Martha leaving feminism behind and surrendering herself to her destiny as bagged game. The juxtaposition is rather jarring, but I’m sure the audiences of the time weren’t as hyper-sensitive as I am. The Four Tops drop by to provide background vocals along with the Motown studio group The Andantes. The track is Vandella-free and interest-free. Not my favorite.

“I’m Ready for Love”: Sometimes Motown’s formulaic approach works—especially when the singer grabs hold of the material and really feels it like Martha does here. The formula is the regurgitation of the bass line that opened The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” a few months before. Martha sings with sincere but restrained joy on this track and the effect is engaging and uplifting. The tone is, “I’m happy and I can’t believe it,” a much more common feeling than truly believing that one has found Nookie Nirvana. Great arrangement, sweet background support and Martha on her game. Yeah!

“Jimmy Mack”: Their last record to reach the top ten in the Billboard 100 is something of a throwback song that could have easily been covered by any number of girl groups in the early 60’s. “Jimmie Mack” is much more of a group effort, as The Vandellas sing harmony on the majority of lines. It’s a damned catchy number with an easy groove, and it’s too bad Berry Gordy held it back for two years in case The Supremes needed it. This song is definitely more 1963-64 than 1966, and would have been a much better follow-up to “Dancin’ in the Street” than “Wild One.” The video shows to what extent television producers would try to come up with new angles for songs, and while not as outrage0us as Frankie Avalon presenting The Hollies as college football stars on Hullabalooit’s pretty bad. They obviously forgot to find out whether or not any of the girls knew a fucking thing about baseball.

“Third Finger, Left Hand”: Even more dated than “Jimmy Mack,” Martha and the Vandellas sound positively bored while trying to get through this pathetic song about the realization of girl’s dreams of fulfillment in marriage. Marcie Blaine should have done this one as a follow-up to “Bobby’s Girl” and retitled it, “Bobby Gave Me a Ring! I Can’t Fucking Believe Bobby Would Marry a Dipshit Like Me!”

“Love Bug Leave My Heart Alone”: Apparently there was a love bug epidemic at Motown during this period. “The love bug done bitten me,” crooned Diana Ross, and now Martha devotes a whole number to this pesky little insect, one that has the effect of a listening audience repellent. Martha gives a gamely performance, but the love bug symbol is a non-starter for me. Note the introduction of strings and a fuzz tone guitar in this early 1967 release: Motown was trying to cover all the angles in a period that exploded with musical diversity.

“Honey Chile”: A no-bullshit song about the lazy good-for-nothing that Martha can’t live without. Huh? What’s wrong with that picture? Whether the guy is hung like a horse or we’re dealing with another woman suffering from low self-esteem, I would have preferred lyrics depicting a woman holding her ground. Personal preferences aside, the song works due to Martha’s presence and power, so she must have had a high level of skill in cognitive dissonance.

This would be Martha and the Vandellas’ last trip to the Top 20 for a few years. The greater part of the problem was weak material, but this period included one song that has been identified as Motown’s first protest song, the late-1969 single, “I Should Be Proud.” Martha gives a strong performance while playing the role of a young woman who has lost her man to the nightmare of Vietnam. She refuses to be comforted by the insanity of patriotism:

And they say that I could be proud; he was fightin’ for me
They say I should be proud, those too blind to see
But he wasn’t fightin’ for me, my Johnny didn’t have to fight for me
He was fightin’ for the evils of society.

The anti-patriotism message in the lyrics might have killed the song commercially, but it’s just as likely that fans didn’t want Martha singing anything but party tunes. It certainly didn’t come back to haunt her forty years later when she was elected to the Detroit City Council.

“Bless You”: After three long years on the fringes of the charts, this little number managed to reach the mid-fifties in the USA and the top 30 in Britain. It’s a pleasant pop number with a mild imitation of the lead guitar of “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” thrown in for the hell of it. Martha’s performance is more than competent, showing she’s much better than her material.

In addition to “I Should Be Proud,” The Definitive Collection is missing two other songs of note that are included in The Ultimate Collection package (when they run out of superlatives, I’m sure we’ll see “sponsored by” versions like Justin Timberlake and Beyoncé Bring You The Consummate Collection of Martha and the Vandellas). Those two songs are the early tune “Motoring” and the 1972 R&B funk number, “Tear It On Down.” Both feature vocals that are much more R&B than pop, and the latter hints at serious potential as a blues/jazz singer, which is what Martha was doing when she was discovered.

Martha Reeves clearly had the gift and is most definitively one of the great voices of soul and R&B.

Diana? Nah. Martha!

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Altrockchick

Independent music reviewer appearing on altrockchick.com and 50thirdand3rd.com. Originally from San Francisco, I am now a French/EU citizen living in Nice. And I look great in leather.

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