Martha Rose Reeves was born on July 18, 1941 and was the lead singer of the Motown girl group Martha and the Vandellas. During her tenure with The Vandellas, they scored over a dozen hit singles including "Dancing in the Street", "Nowhere to Run" and "Jimmy Mack"
Martha was born the third of eleven children (and the first girl) to Elijah Joshua and Ruby Lee Gilmore Reeves on July 18, 1941 in Eufaula, Alabama. The Reeves family moved to Detroit, Michigan right after Martha's birth. Reeves was brought up in church as her grandfather Elijah Reeves was a minister at Detroit's Metropolitan Church. As a teenager going to Northeastern High School, she was vocally coached by Abraham Silver, who also coached future Motown stars Florence Ballard and Mary Wilson (of The Supremes) and Bobby Rogers (of The Miracles).
In 1957, she first connected with Rosalind Ashford, Gloria Williams and Annette Beard in what became The Del-Phis after a man named Edward "Pops" Larkins was starting a sister singing group to a male vocal group of his. The Del-Phis performed at local benefits, YMCA parties and high school functions. During times when the group temporarily disbanded, Martha joined other groups including the Sabre-Ettes and the Fascinations. Before leaving high school, she performed an operatic number at her graduation party and received a standing ovation. In 1960, she reconnected with the Del-Phis and under the lead of Williams, the group signed with the Chess subsidiary, Checkmate, which issued the single, "I'll Let You Know", in 1961. The song failed to impact the charts and the label was later sold to Motown.
Later on that year, Martha worked odd jobs and worked as a singer during nighttime hours singing jazz and blues standards at Detroit's nightclubs. During one performance, a Motown A&R man and staff songwriter named William "Mickey" Stevenson spotted Martha singing a song while performing at the Twenty Grand club. Going under the name Martha LaVaille at the time, Stevenson was impressed by the singer and opted to have her audition for the label. Oddly enough when Reeves showed up the next day, Stevenson told her that she had to come on a certain day of the week, noting that Motown auditioned singers on Thursdays. Stevenson then told Martha to watch his office while he tended elsewhere. Almost accidentally Reeves found herself earning pay as Stevenson's secretary opting to recruit local singers setting up auditions, a fact made known on The Temptations, when she set up an audition for the struggling group, then known as the Elgins.
During off times, Martha again recorded as member of the Del-Phis (later known as the Vels), now recording under the Motown subsidiary, Mel-O-Dy. The single, "There He Is (At My Door)", was first recorded under the lead of Gloria Williams, who was frustrated after the song failed to grant them a hit. Williams left the group in 1962 giving leeway for Reeves to assume the lead singing position. Martha and her friends Annette and Roz often helped other Motown acts in the background, most prominently, the group played a pivotal role in Marvin Gaye's early career singing backup for Gaye's hit singles, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow", "Hitch Hike" and "Pride & Joy".
After Mary Wells failed to make it to a recording session feigning illness and The Andantes found themselves out of town performing for another Motown act, Martha, Annette and Roz showed up to record a demo record titled "I Have to Let Him Go". Response from the record was so strong that Motown president and founder Berry Gordy opted to sign the group under a recording contract. Choosing a new name, Martha and the Vandellas, the group signed to Motown on September 21, 1962. Martha chose the name Vandellas after a street her family grew up around and after idol Della Reese, herself a native of Detroit.
With her brassy and gospel-reared alto vocals, Martha Reeves helped ascend Martha and the Vandellas from background singers with early songs such as "Come and Get These Memories" and "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave" distinguishing the group from contemporaries and label mates The Marvelettes and The Supremes, who were more influenced by doo-wop. Though the group's early recordings under their different monikers were doo-wop oriented, the majority of songs released under the Vandellas' name produced a rougher, soulful sound with frenetic musical backing from The Funk Brothers. Martha's alto, Rosalind Ashford's soprano and Annette Beard's contralto vocals gave their harmonies dimension and made their recordings unique. After "Heat Wave" became the group's first million-seller, the Vandellas quickly rose to become the label's top draw both as recording stars and as a successful live act. Martha was the one consistent member of the group staying throughout all the group's incarnations and lineups. After the exits of original members Annette Beard and Rosalind Ashford, members replacing them included Betty Kelly, Sandra Tilley and Martha's youngest sister Lois Reeves. Among the singles released that became signature hits for the group included "Quicksand", "In My Lonely Room", "Live Wire", "Nowhere to Run", "A Love Like Yours (Don't Come Knocking Everyday)", "I'm Ready for Love", "Jimmy Mack", "Honey Chile" and the group's most popular single, "Dancing in the Street".
Martha often cites her performance highlights as one being a performance with Vandellas worshiper, Brit soul singer Dusty Springfield, on the UK show, Ready, Steady, Go! and performing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Despite the success of the Vandellas, Martha was dismayed by Berry Gordy's decision to promote The Supremes and the group's lead singer Diana Ross in particular more so than for the Vandellas and other girl groups. Other issues including group infighting (Martha often tangled with Betty Kelly), a stringent recording and touring schedule and other matters led to Reeves abusing prescription drugs and alcohol. Near the end of the decade, Reeves suffered a nervous breakdown from a bad reaction to a hallucinatory drug she took and had to be institutionalized in 1969. The breakdown led to a brief disbanding of the Vandellas in which Ashford left for good. When Reeves was well enough to return, she recruited Sandra Tilley and the lineup of Martha and Lois Reeves and Tilley continued until 1972 when the group disbanded shortly after issuing the Black Magic album. In 1973, Martha planed on continuing to release solo work with Motown but when the label moved from Detroit to Los Angeles, an angry Reeves negotiated out of her contract with Motown ending her twelve-year association with the label.
Martha released her first solo album in 1974 for MCA. The self-titled album was reportedly the most expensive album of that time costing $250,000. Featuring the singles, "Power of Love" and "Wild Night", the album was a critically-favored smash though it failed to generate commercial success as did Reeves' subsequent follow-ups on other labels including Arista and Fantasy. In 1977, with the help of good friend, David Pesnell, Reeves ended her long bout of drug and alcohol addiction and became a born-again Baptist. After one more album in 1980, Reeves semi-retired from the spotlight though she continued to perform onstage usually as an oldies act, while Pesnell continued to help her by promoting her concerts, but never taking a fee for doing so. In 1983, she successfully sued her former label, Motown, for back royalties and the same year, performed solo on the famed Motown 25 special.
She then performed in a Broadway production of Ain't Misbehavin' and reunited with original members of the Vandellas in 1989 both on record (recording for the London-based Motorcity Records that year issuing the single "Step Into My Shoes") and on tour. Pesnell and Reeves ended their business relationship in 1989 due to his lack of desire to proceed with a concert tour after she had cancelled the previous one for no apparent reasons. Further complicating the relationship was that Pesnell's wife, a major songwriter and producer at the time did not get along with Martha and she and her writing partner, William Zimmerman refused to pin songs for her. In 1995, Reeves and the Vandellas were inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and eight years after that were inducted to the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003. In 2004, Reeves released her first album in 24 years with Home to You with records she had written and produced herself except for a Billie Holiday cover and an updated version of her big hit, "Jimmy Mack". Between leaving the Vandellas and her solo career, Martha served time as an early contributor to the music newspaper, Soul, for which she was honored for by the Black Women in Publishing organization. She was also honored for her best-selling 1995 autobiography.
"Wild Night" was featured on the soundtrack to the movie Thelma & Louise, the song can be heard during one of the several crucial moments in the lead characters lives in the movie. "Nowhere to Run" is the first record played by Robin Williams as manic DJ Adrian Cronauer in the movie "Good Morning Vietnam".
In 2005, Reeves ran for and won a seat on the Detroit City Council. Reeves said she was running for the "youths of the city" and for adequate policing of the neighborhoods. One of her ideas to boost Detroit's economy was a series of downtown statues of such Motown figures as Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson.
Reeves has been a vocal critic of landlords that own decaying lots. However, on June 6, 2006, the Detroit News reported that Reeves is the owner of at least fifteen lots and two rental properties in Detroit. According to city, county and court records Reeves owns properties that have been cited for 25 code violations that have never been repaired and one of her houses had to be razed, at a cost to the city of $5,000, money that Reeves has not paid back.
She made a cameo appearance in the film Tenacious D in The Pick of Destiny, as a passer-by listening to the duo on the boardwalk. This information was revealed in the film's DVD audio commentary DVD by Kyle Gass.
Martha continues to perform concerts under the bill Martha Reeves of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas with sisters Lois and Delphine Reeves. Martha Reeves is twice divorced, has one son, Eric (b. 1970), and three grandchildren all living in Detroit, Michigan.
In 2007, Martha Reeves returned to the Old Motown Studio in Detroit to sing "(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave" with Australian group Human Nature for their get ready album.
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