Martha and the Vandellas: Heat Waves, Quicksand, and but always Dancing in the Street

May 6, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

At the very beginnings, there was no heat wave or dancing in the streets. There was no Martha, and they called themselves something other than the Vandellas.

In 1957 Rosalind Ashford, Gloria Williams, and Annette Beard — plus a couple of others — were simply teenagers in Detroit, singing in different clubs in the area. They called themselves The Del-Phis. Not long after they started, one of the girls left the group, and she was replaced by Alabama-born Martha Reeves. By 1960, they had a recording contract but no hit records.

Thinking she should try to land a contract with Motown, Reeves left the Del-Phis, and in 1962 she got an invitation from a Motown executive to come in for an audition. She showed up on the wrong day, and he told her to hang around and do some secretarial duties. She did, and she was there on a day when Mary Wells didn’t show up for a recording session. The musicians for the session were there, so they decided to record some tracks, and Reeves was told to stand at the mike — just stand there and not to sing.

When the musicians started to play, she sang, despite her instruction. She sang with such volume, power, and emotion that people in other parts of the building came over to listen. One of those people was Berry Gordy, who decided the song she was singing was indeed a song that Martha Reeves should record. Reeves brought in her ex-Del-Phi colleagues for her formal audition, and Gordy offered Martha and two of them a recording contract. They needed a new name, and Gordy gave them 15 minutes to come up with one. When they didn’t, he said they were the Vandellas. The group consisted of Rosalyn Ashford, Betty Kelly, and Martha Reeves, as lead singer, and eventually became Martha and the Vandellas.

Their second release in 1963, “Come Get These Memories,”  made it to number 29 pop chart and number 3 in the R&B rankings. Later that year, they recorded two monster hits “Heat Wave” (#4 pop, #1 R&B, 1963) and “Quicksand” (#8 1963).

The next year they took a song written by Mickey Stevenson and Marvin Gaye and turned it into what became the unofficial anthem for Motown: “Dancing in the Streets.” Its driving beat, its lyrics of common enjoyment, and its democratic outlook (“it doesn’t matter what you wear just as long as you are there”) made it the signature song for the group.

The group had more hits, such as “Nowhere to Run” and “Jimmy Mack,” but they were overshadowed by the rise of Diana Ross and the Supremes — not because the Supremes were better or more popular but because Berry Gordy willed it so. Gordy had fallen head-over-heels in love with Ross and was determined to make her a superstar.

The Vandellas were also undermined by illnesses, egos, and their own internal conflicts — some of which spilled into their live stage performances. The group disbanded in 1973, and Reeves struck out on her own as a recording artist, but she did not achieve great success. She retired and wrote an autobiography Dancing in the Streets: Confessions of a Motown Diva.

The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.

See these previous posts about Motown:

Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye asked What’s Going On?

Please, Mr. Postman

Berry Gordy began Motown with an $800 loan from his family


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