The soulful trio Martha Reeves and the Vandellas earned their place at Motown through talent, good timing, and persistence.
After Motown’s Artists & Repertoire Director William “Mickey” Stevenson heard Martha Reeves perform solo at the Twenty Grand, he handed her his card and told her she should audition. She showed up at Hitsville first thing in the morning. Undeterred when Mickey told her she needed to schedule an audition first, Martha appointed herself his secretary and worked for weeks without pay, hoping to get her foot in the door.
Her secretarial gig led to back-up singing assignments for Martha and fellow members of the Del-Phis, Rosalind Ashford, Annette Beard, and Gloria Jean Williamson, most notably on Marvin Gaye’s earliest hits “Hitch Hike” and “Pride and Joy”. When solo star Mary Wells failed to show up for a recording session, Martha stepped in, backed up by the Del-Phis. Impressed by their performance, Motown signed the group (without Gloria) to the Gordy label in 1962 under a new name, Martha & the Vandellas.
Shortly after signing with the company, the group recorded Holland-Dozier-Holland’s “Come and Get These Memories” in 1963. The single reached #29 on the Top 40 pop and #6 on the R&B charts. This recording is especially notable because it was also the first song produced by hit making trio, Holland-Dozier-Holland. The collaboration with HDH continued with the release of “Quicksand,” which reached the Top Ten. In 1964, the partnership of Ivy Hunter, Mickey Stevenson and Marvin Gaye produced Martha and the Vandellas’ anthem, “Dancing in the Street.” Over the next three years, the group charted with multiple beat-driven releases that include “Wild One,” “Nowhere to Run,” “My Baby Loves Me,” “I’m Ready for Love” and “Jimmy Mack.”
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas secured Motown’s first Grammy Award nomination in 1964 for “(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave”. For their many contributions to R&B, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, only the second female group to receive that honor.
Always a trio, the Vandellas experienced personnel changes over the years and have included Betty Kelley, Lois Reeves, and Sandra Tilley, in addition to Ashford and Beard.
Martha & The Vandellas record Motown’s first music video for “Nowhere to Run” in a Ford Mustang plant, 1965.
Martha & The Vandellas perform “Dancing in the Street” on the Ed Sullivan Show, December 5, 1965.
All Members of Martha and the Vandellas
- Martha Reeves
- Annette Beard
- Rosalind Ashford
- Betty Kelley
- Lois Reeves
- Sandra Tilley
The women named themselves the “Vandellas” by combining a Detroit street name (Van Dyke) with the first name of Detroit-born singer Della Reese.