Da-Professor’s Lounge is honored to celebrate the 75th birthday of Singer/Council Woman/Motown Legend Martha Reeves, who continues to make an impact with her Soulful voice and stage performances.
Martha was born on July 18th to Elijah & Ruby Reeves in Eufula, Alabama as the 3rd of 11 children and shortly after her 1st birthday, she and her family had migrated to Detroit Michigan, where Miss Martha became active in her grandfather’s church. She had later enrolled in the city’s legendary Northeaster High school where she took vocal lessons from Abraham Silver. After graduating, Miss Martha worked several jobs while singing Jazz and Blues at many night clubs building a name for herself around the Detroit area. Miss Martha later teamed up with a singing group called the Del-Phi’s which consisted of Anette Beard, Rosalind Ashford & Gloria Williams who would later leave to work for the city who sang around the city creating a buzz.
One evening at the 20 grand, Miss Martha met Songwriter/Producer William “Mickey” Stevenson who was impressed with her voice and asked her to come to Motown Records to audition. Miss Martha arrived the next day and was told that she was supposed to have schedule an appointment. He later asked her to watch his office while he left to take care of business. By the time he returned, Miss Martha had several neatly written messages for him on his desk and he was so impressed with her secretarial skills, he quickly assigned her to be his personal assistant where she assisted with helping many of the musicians receive their pay checks and she also helped him in the A&R department as well. One day Marvin Gaye had came into the studio to began recording his breakthrough album and was expecting label mate Mary Wells to sing background vocals, but Wells was under the weather and Miss Martha saw this as her opportunity to get noticed, so she recruited Rosalind and Annette to sing background for the Prince of Soul where they came up with the ad-libs on the spot for Gaye’s single “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” which became a huge hit. Impressed with what he heard, the label’s founder Berry Gordy, Jr offered the group a contract. But with one condition; they would have tto change the name of their group or be called The Tillies, so Miss Martha came up with the Vandellas which paid homage Van Dyke Blvd, the street where Miss Martha grew up on while Della was to honor Miss Martha’s all-time favorite singer Della Reese, who inspired her to become a single. Shortly after Martha & The Vandellas teamed up with the songwriting/production team of Holland-Doizer-Holland and released their debut single “Come And Get These Memories” followed by “(Love Is Like A) Heatwave,” “Quicksand,” and “Nowhere To Run” but the group’s biggest hit was “Dancing In The Streets” which became her signature song. On Motown 40, Miss Martha revealed that she didn’t like the song. “Why can I dance in the night club or the ball room” she asked in the documentary. “I asked them (the songwriters and producers which featured Marvin Gaye and Mickey Stevenson) if I can sing it the way I feel it and it was recorded with no overdubs and I feel I have the Motown anthem with “Dancing In The Streets.”
Martha & The Vandellas paid their dues by performing on the label’s historic “Motor City Revue” tour where they performed through out the south during segregation. In her memoirs “Dancing In The Streets: Confessions from a Motown Diva” Miss Martha wrote about the times when they couldn’t stay at hotels due to the color of their skin and about the times when many white folks shot at their tour bus due to them being mistaken as freedom rides and Civil Rights Activist. Miss Martha also wrote about the times when they did find a hotel to sleep at they would be assigned to share rooms with different group members. Some writers even thought that Dancing In The Streets was riot song and Miss Martha said in many interviews Chile that was a party song. Martha & The Vandellas became a favorite among fans and many in the entertainment industry including Cher, Judy Garland, Lesley Gore and Dusty Springfield, with the latter becoming her good friend along with Gore. Springfield was so impressed with her voice, and outgoing and out spoken personality, that she invited Martha to join her and her brother to attend the Annual Carnival in Rio and it was during that trip where Miss Martha had the opportunity to get a sample of traveling overseas and seeing people enjoying themselves to great music. Including hers. Shortly after, Dusty decided to pay homage to Motown by hosting and co-producing a special titled “Dusty Springfield Presents The Sound of Motown” which featured Martha & The Vandellas (which by this time featured Betty Kelly who was recruited to replace Beard, who had to leave due to complicated pregnancy. Kelly would leave a few years later due to slight hearing loss in her left ear and was replaced by Miss Martha’s sister Lois. Rosalind would leave and was replaced by the late Sandra Tiley, who Miss Martha said that she was her favorite Vandella) singing background for Springfield and later a duet with her friend. By the late 1960’s the group along with other Motown acts were being neglected due to Gordy spending time and money making sure The Supremes got the most attention and promotion. The group however did scored a # 1 hit with “Jimmy Mack” which became a fan favorite and would later used for the Hip-Hop term Mack Daddy. In 1967, Holland-Doizer-Holland left Motown after a dispute over royalties and not being allowed to have their own record label, but the group would score a major hit with “Honey Chile” which was co-written and produced by Sylvia Moy. The group also scored a minor hit with “I Should Be Proud” but by the time the 1970’s rolled in the group wasn’t getting the attention they deserved. Plus Miss Martha had began to notice that the group wasn’t getting paid as much as they were supposed to, so she became the 1st Motown act to inquire about her money, which pissed Gordy off. Miss Martha wouldn’t back down and when he told her ‘you can’t tell me how to run my company, Miss Martha responded with well it’s obvious you can’t run your company because you can’t tell me where my money’s at! Around the time Miss Martha took time off to become a mother to her only child a son named Eric Jermel Graham, who went into the navy and has a close relationship with his mom. Miss Martha is also a grandmother and a great-grandmother. After taking time off to care for Eric, Miss Martha was ready to return to work, but she was shocked to learn that Motown had moved to California without contacting her. The group recorded the classic underrated album “Black Magic” before disbanding in 1972. Miss Martha had planned to leave the music industry and apply for a city job, but that changed when label mate Eddie Kendricks showed up to her apartment unannounced and told her she couldn’t quit the industry and not to allow the politics of Motown discourage her for doing what she loved. Miss Martha decided to relocate to California where she performed and did session work as well as recording several solo albums and hits including Wild Nights. It was during that time when Miss Martha reconnected with Motown producer Frank Wilson and became a born again Christian.
During the early 1980’s Miss Martha decided to return to Detroit where she was asked to participate on the Motown 25 Special. The success of the special got many promoters interested in booking many of the former Motown legends and Miss Martha began to work steadily sometimes sharing the bill with many of her Motown family mates including Mary Wells, Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin, who embarked on the historic Dancing In The Streets Tour in 1989. During that period many fans would ask Miss Martha about the Vandellas and would she ever reunite with them. Miss Martha reached out to Annette and Rosalind and in 1989, they performed in England marking the first time the original line-up performed in 26 years. Annette and Rosalind had performed with Miss Martha on a part-time basis where they were able to keep their day jobs while Martha performed (and continues to) perform with her sisters Lois and Delphine as the second grouping. Betty Kelley had retired from performing due to her hearing loss and moved to California where she raised her son. Sandra Tiley had sadly died in 1981 from a Brain Aneurysm leaving behind her grandmother and husband.
In 1989, Martha, Annette and Rosalind decided to sue Motown for unpaid royalties that the label was making from sales and repacking. The ladies hadn’t received royalty checks since the 1970’s and Miss Martha believe that it was time for the label to pay what was owed and after filing another suit 2 years later, Gordy and Motown came to their senses and settled with the ladies and not only did they receive huge long over-due checks, they also continue to receive royalties from record sales, radio play and from commercials that uses their music to advertise their products.
Throughout the 1990’s Martha & The Vandellas began receiving honors for their contributions to music. In 1993, the group was honored by the Rhythm & Blues Foundation, followed by being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame 2 years later by The b-52s who was heavily influenced by the group. They were also inducted into the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. Miss Martha continues to perform at charity events and has been vocal about fake singing groups using the names of legendary acts to perform, which makes it hard for the original and surviving members to perform and earn a living. Like she said on the Mike and Matty show, ‘if your know the act is fake, don’t sit there. Get up and ask for your money back!’
In the 2000’s, Miss Martha continued to perform. In 2001, Miss Martha and the original Vandellas performed on a PBS television show that celebrated girl groups from the 1950’s and 1960’s hosted by her Motown sister Mary Wilson, who honored The Vandellas and other female groups with their own stamps. In 2005 she released her solo album “Home To You” her 1st solo album in over 20 years. It was that year that Miss Martha became involved with politics and became a council woman in Detroit where she became an advocate for providing funds for music programs in public schools as well as helping to help rebuild Detroit. In 2007, Miss Martha joined Austrialian quartet Human Nature (who had recorded their rendition of “Dancing In The Streets” on their 2nd Motown Covers album) on their rendition of “(Love Is Like A) Heatwave” featured on the quartet’s 3rd Motown covers album “Get Ready” which helped introduced Miss Martha to a new generation of fans. In 2010 Singer/Songwriter/Drummer Phil Collins released his own Motown’s covers album “Going Back” and scored with his version of “Heatwave” which became a huge international hit. In fact, many of Miss Martha’s songs has been covered by many acts including Dusty Springfield David Bowie, Mick Jagger & Linda Ronstadt. Miss Martha has also received many honors as a solo artist including an honorary PHD in Detroit and was inducted into the Alabama Music Hall of Fame as well as being featured in the state’s 2016 Black History calendar.
Miss Martha also mentors many fans and musicians including Motown fan Derek G. Thornton and Singer/Songwriter Antonio Dandrige, the host of the hit radio show “Hitsville Detroit” Both brothers call Miss Martha their God Mother, who she loves and adores like her own son.
Da-Professor’s Lounge is more than honored to with Council Woman Miss Martha Reeves a happy 75th Birthday. Miss Martha continues to inspire many to live out their dreams while continuing to have people Dancing In The Streets