Martha and the Vandellas

  • R&B and pop vocal group formed in 1957 from Detroit Michigan. The original lineup was Martha Reeves, Rosalind Ashford-Holmes, Annette Beard-Helton and Gloria Williams. Betty Kelly, Lois Reeves and Sandra Tilley also were members during the 60s and 70s as the group’s lineup evolved.
  • 14-year-olds Ashford, Beard and Williams became acquainted after they auditioned at a YMCA in Detroit to be part of a group named the Del-Phis in 1957. Williams was selected as lead vocalist, and they performed at school functions, YMCA events and church benefits. The group originally had 6 members, and then it was shortened to 4. When another member left in 1960, Martha Reeves was selected to join – Reeves had been a member another girl group, the Fascinations, and before that, the Sabre-ettes.
  • In 1960, they signed a recording contract, and they released their first single I’ll Let You Know, with Reeves handling the lead vocals. The record flopped. Their next single, with Williams on lead vocals, was There He Is (At My Door), which also flopped.
  • Reeves briefly left to pursue a solo career, using the name Martha LaVaille. While singing at a Detroit club, a Motown records staffer saw her, and suggested that she audition. She showed up on a Tuesday, while auditions were only held on Thursdays. Forced to wait, she hung around the offices, and soon was offered a job as a secretary for the record label. Meanwhile, in 1961, the quartet was back together, singing backup for Motown acts, going by the name The Vels.
  • In 1962, when Mary Wells failed to show up to the studio for a recording session, The Vels made a demo recording of I’ll Have To Let Him Go, with Reeves on lead vocal. The Motown label was so impressed with the vocals that they offered the group a recording contract. Williams opted out of the group, not interested in the rigors of a national music career. The label insisted that the remaining trio create a new name for the group. Unable to decide on one, Barry Gordy, head of Motown, gave them the name The Vandellas.
  • I’ll Have To Let Him Go was released as their debut single in 1962, but it did not chart. The following year, their next 3 singles were hits. Come and Get These Memories reached #6 on the R&B chart and #29 on the Hot 100 chart. Heat Wave became their first #1 hit, topping the R&B chart, and reaching #4 on the Hot 100. Quicksand peaked at #8 on the Hot 100. 1963 also marked the release of their first 2 studio albums – Come and Get These Memories (by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas) and Heat Wave (by Martha and the Vandellas). While their singles were popular, their albums did not sell well.
  • In 1964, Helton was pregnant, and chose to leave the group. She was replaced by Betty Kelly, who previously had performed with the Velvelettes. Their next couple of singles were less successful, but they had their next hit in July 1964 with the release of the Motown anthem Dancing In the Street. It reached #2 on the Hot 100, and became their best selling single, thanks to its success in the UK also. From 1965 to 1967, they had 3 more top 10 hits on the Hot 100 – Nowhere To Run, I’m Ready for Love and Jimmy Mack. 
  • Kelly was fired from the group in 1967 for missing shows and for fighting with Reeves, which she frequently did on stage while performing. Kelly was replaced by Reeves’ sister Lois. With this, the name of the group was changed to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, consistent with Motown’s policy to name their groups to reflect their lead singers (Motown also did this with The Supremes and The Miracles).
  • From 1967 to 1969, the trio of Reeves, Ashford and Reeves continued to record, but they were not able to create the hits of their earlier years. Honey Chile made it to #11 on the Hot 100 and #5 on the R&B chart, but their other singles did not gain much radio play. In 1969, Ashford left and was replaced by Sandra Tilley. Reeves, Reeves and Tilley recorded and performed until 1972.
  • Martha Reeves began a solo career, releasing 6 solo albums between 1974 and 2004. Lois sang with the group Quiet Elegance and also sang backup for Al Green. Tilley and Williams have both died. The remaining members occasionally reunited for special concerts. The 2 Reeves sisters, and a third sister Delphine, have toured as Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, while Ashford and Beard have performed with other singers as The Original Vandellas.
  • Martha and the Vandellas were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995 – the second all-female group to be inducted. Their song Dancing In the Street was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999. They made Rolling Stone’s list of the Greatest Artists of All Time in 2004, selected at #96 (though they fell off the list when it was updated in 2011). Certainly, they are one of the special sounds of Motown. Watch these R&B ladies sing Dancing In the Street.

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