Review: The Four Tops/Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, “50th Anniversary: The Singles Collection” – Part 2: Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
Were there a time capsule emblazoned with the word “MOTOWN,” meant to convey the sound and style of the once-and-always Sound of Young America to future generations, its central artifact just might be Gordy single G-7033, from 1964. Sure, The Supremes might have had more success, and The Temptations and The Four Tops might have had more endurance. But the ultimate Motor City anthem could very well be “Dancing in the Streets,” performed by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. And that’s just one of the 82 tracks present on 50th Anniversary: The Singles Collection: 1962-1972. This new 3-CD box set from Motown Select/UMe (B0017485-02, 2013) captures a decade of Motown magic from Martha Reeves and the girls via the group’s complete singles discography (in their original mono presentations), a smattering of alternates and foreign language singles, and most enticingly, an entire disc of previously unheard Vandellas gold. This disc alone sets Martha and the Vandellas’ volume apart from the other 50th Anniversary Singles Collections recently issued for Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Temptations and The Four Tops.
William “Mickey” Stevenson, Ivy Jo Hunter and Marvin Gaye’s song “Dancing in the Street” became more than just a hit single; in the ensuing years, it’s become a cultural touchstone, forever associated with the civil rights movement. Yet, as revealed in the liner notes, Gaye originally pitched the song to Martha Reeves as a sensual ballad: “Marvin was singing it as if he was singing it to a girl,” Reeves recalled, “so romantic and in a mellow tone.” Reeves’ instincts were to take the song to a more urgent, forceful place, and her final vocal was informed by an undercurrent of anger when she found that her original recording wasn’t captured on tape. Yet such is the stuff that legends are made of.
“Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat? Summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the street!” Thunderous drums and iconic, exultant horns set the stage for Reeves’ performance of a lyric that’s direct as can be, yet imbued with a subtext that may or may not have been known to its authors. The song could have been just another party-time ode – “All we need is music/Sweet music/There’ll be music everywhere/There’ll be swingin’, swayin’, and records playin’, dancing in the street!” et cetera. But – much as Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff’s “Love Train” would years later – “Dancing in the Street” played up its universality. This dance craze wasn’t just limited to Detroit. Philadelphia, New York, New Orleans – all were name-checked in the song. “It doesn’t matter what you wear, just as long as you are there/So come on, every guy grab a girl, everywhere around the world/There’ll be dancin’ in the street!” At a time when divisiveness at the forefront of the news, Reeves was extending an invitation to all, no strings attached, and with a casual air: “It’s just an invitation across the nation/A chance for folks to meet.” It’s “just” an invitation – black/white, male/female, young/old – such was the ethos at Motown, being shared by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas in a peaceful, exuberant way on the world’s stage. A Top 10 hit on both the Pop and R&B surveys, “Dancing in the Street” was a message of empowerment being delivered by a young African-American woman (and future Detroit councilwoman) as a message of pride and joy to all in just 2-1/2 minutes, contained on a little slab of black vinyl.
Of course, that’s just one of the songs here. Hit the jump to dig deep into many more!
The Vandellas’ Singles Collection, like its companion volume for The Four Tops and previous volumes for The Temptations and Diana Ross and the Supremes, is a mini-history of Motown in Detroit, from the company’s early days to the cusp of the crucial move to Los Angeles. The immediacy and grit in Martha Reeves’ voice – deployed to such mighty effect on “Dancing in the Street” – was at the forefront of the group’s very first single as Martha and the Vandellas, 1962’s very girl group-esque “I’ll Have to Let Him Go” (the first track on the first CD here). (This doo-wop-goes-Latin number was spiffed up for a 1966 LP with a new vocal, new arrangement and handclaps.) It didn’t take the Vandellas long to grow from that embryonic sound to something more recognizable and altogether more distinct. The third track on the first disc here, Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland’s “Come and Get These Memories,” was the track that Berry Gordy felt crystallized the Motown sound, as recalled by Dozier in the notes here. But even the sassy blend of “gospel music, pop, country and western and jazz” was eclipsed by another H-D-H production. “Heat Wave,” from 1963, pointed in the sizzling direction of “Dancing in the Streets.” It was positively lustful: “Whenever I’m with him, something inside starts to burning/And I’m filled with desire/Could it be a devil in me or is this the way love’s supposed to be? It’s like a heat wave, burning in my heart…” Reeves and Vandellas Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard were young, in love, and unafraid to tell about it. And Mike Terry’s familiar, honking baritone sax seemed to be expressing the same sentiments musically as Reeves was lyrically. The sexy “Heat Wave” established their spot at Motown’s top girl group, toppling the primacy of The Marvelettes…until H-D-H set their sights on another group called The Supremes.
For a while, The Vandellas’ streak was indeed a hot one. The hits kept on comin’: “Quicksand” (a sound-alike follow-up to “Heat Wave,” but one with enough originality to stand on its own), “Nowhere to Run” (another exciting track sung to the hilt by Reeves and the girls – with more than a hint of danger as the singer admitted, “I know you’re no good for me…”), and “My Baby Loves Me” (a subtle, sophisticated song later recorded by Barry Manilow, among others) among them. The group even withstood the departure of Beard in June 1964. She was replaced by Betty Kelley of the Velvelettes, who remained a Vandella for over three years.
The Vandellas’ singles output wasn’t quite prolific, though. Only two singles (four sides) were issued in 1965 and three (six sides) in 1966, including the Top 10 H-D-H hit “I’m Ready for Love.” Signifying the embarrassment of riches being crafted at Motown as well as – in Reeves’ opinion, one shared by many others – the emphasis being placed on Miss Diana Ross and the Supremes, one smash hit single sat collecting dust for three years. H-D-H’s catchy “Jimmy Mack” was recorded in 1964 but not released until 1967, as the group’s first single of the year. As Stevenson, Hunter and Gaye had on “Dancing,” “Jimmy Mack” worked on two levels. The song, sung by a woman torn between her absent boyfriend (“Jimmy Mack, when are you coming back?”) and a new pursuer (“But this boy keeps comin’ around/Tryin’ to wear my resistance down”), took on added resonance for Americans serving overseas in Vietnam and their girlfriends back home. Named after H-D-H’s late friend Ronnie Mack, the songwriter of “He’s So Fine,” the poignant and yearning “Jimmy Mack” would be Martha and the Vandellas’ final Top 10 single.
Though the hits dried up in the latter portion of the 1960s, it wasn’t due to a lack of quality material, as Disc Two in the new set (1967-1972) reveals. There were also more personnel shifts; in 1967, Martha’s sister Lois Reeves replaced an unhappy Betty Kelley, and the following year, Rosalind Ashford departed to be replaced by another ex-Velvelette, Sandra Tilley. “Honey Chile,” which just missed the Pop Top 10, is still a fan favorite today. The B-side of “Love Bug, Leave My Heart Alone,” “One Way Out,” was a recycled album track, but with its patented H-D-H stomp, it should have been the A-side.
There’s a funky, raw sound on 1967’s “I Promise to Wait My Love,” produced by Henry Cosby and Billie Jean Brown. Its flipside, writer-producers Richard Morris and Sylvia Moy’s “Forget Me Not,” had a more traditional Motown sound, but explicitly referenced the Vietnam War, hitting close to home for Reeves. Her brother, Melvin, never returned home from the war. The times at Motown, and in the country, were a-changin’. Various producers were tasked with delivering hits to the Vandellas; among them was Deke Richards, who supplied “I Can’t Dance to That Music You’re Playin’.” Only one problem existed: it wasn’t Martha Reeves singing on the song! Instead, Syreeta Wright took the lead on the song’s chorus, supported by Motown’s omnipresent Andantes on background vocals. For the first time, the song’s evolution can be traced; two previously unreleased versions are added in the bonus section on the box set’s third disc of never-before-heard material, including the version with Martha Reeves’ vocals.
Par for the course with Motown, many tracks had long gestation periods. “I’m in Love (And I Know It)” was released in 1969 as the flipside of “(We’ve Got) Honey Love,” but it began life in 1966. “Heartless,” the flip of the group’s very next single in ’69, also dated back to ’66. Even psychedelic soul trailblazer Norman Whitfield dipped back into the vaults with Reeves; his 1970 Vandellas single, “I Gotta Let You Go,” originated in 1964! Listening to these, it’s easy to think that Martha and the Vandellas were trapped in a Motor City time warp. Other songs, though, were not only current, but pushed the envelope even beyond “Forget Me Not.” The February 1970 single “I Should Be Proud” was so controversial that Reeves believes radio was pressured not to play the Henry Cosby/Pam Sawyer/Joe Hinton song about one Private John C. Miller, shot down in Vietnam. The singer was at her best, though, confessing from his widow’s POV that “I don’t want no silver star/Just the good man they took from me…My Johnny didn’t have to die for me/He’s a victim of the evils of society.” The red-hot collective The Corporation also did its best to update Martha in a subtle fashion with 1971’s “Bless You” (a virtual Holland-Dozier-Holland tribute with its hints of The Supremes’ “My World is Empty Without You”) and 1972’s “I Want You Back,” a reworking of their own Jackson 5 smash. With “Bless You,” the Vandellas were rewarded with their final Hot 100 hit.
The Motown singles ended with 1972’s “Tear It On Down” b/w “I Want You Back,” and Martha and her Vandellas played a farewell concert in Detroit on December 21 of that year. Reeves went on to pursue solo stardom and eventually a career in politics; she also occasionally participated in reunions with various group members. But the Vandellas’ story wasn’t over in 1972. Various unreleased tracks have trickled out over the years. 2005’s 2-CD Spellbound: Motown Lost and Found offered up two full discs of lost material, and the Lost and Found series continues on the third disc of this box set.
Disc 3, or Sweeter Than Ever: Motown Lost and Found, amazingly proffers 27 more unreleased tracks. (And this still isn’t everything; yet another unreleased song from the group recently surfaced on Ace’s Finders Keepers: Motown Girls compilation!) As this disc is sequenced chronologically, it plays like an alternate history of the group with contributions from such key Motown figures as Clarence Paul, Mickey Stevenson, Stevie Wonder, Ivy Jo Hunter, Deke Richards and Ashford and Simpson. Some choice renditions of familiar songs appear, too, drawn from standards (“I Remember You”), pop (“Memories Are Made of This,” the Sly Stone-penned “C’mon and Swim,” an urgent version of Roy Hamilton hit “You Can Have Her” as “You Can Have Him”), rock (a big, horns-and-strings-enhanced “Light My Fire”) and, naturally, Motown (a tasty “Loving You is Sweeter Than Ever”).
There are quite a few songs that should have made it past Motown’s Quality Control such as Stevenson’s sassy “Better Think It Over” and Berry Gordy’s “Hard to Walk Away” (both 1962); the latter could also have scored for Mary Wells in her coquettish mode. Of the later recordings, Raynard Miner and Janie Bradford’s “We Will” is deliciously energetic, and Pam Sawyer’s funky “I’ve Got Nothing Left to Cling To” had hit potential. “I Can’t Wait Till Summer Comes,” co-written by Gladys Knight, sounds like a Supremes song, which isn’t unintentional. It was originally assigned to the post-Diana Ross group. Ashford and Simpson’s “Hooked Good on a Bad Thing” and The Corporation’s “He’s Good” are also impressive, with the latter boasting a seductive, “My Baby Loves Me”-esque vibe.
This well-designed, hardbound book-style box set produced by Harry Weinger and George Solomon features Bill Dahl and Keith Hughes’ extensive track-by-track notes adapted and updated from those written for the Complete Motown Singles series, with additional editorial content from Weinger and Solomon. These copious annotations are only missing for the recently-unearthed songs on Disc 3 (though recording information is indeed present for all of those tracks). Seth Foster is responsible for the fine remastering of all tracks. The box’s design makes it a perfect companion on the shelf to the indispensable volumes of the Complete Motown Singles series, and the unreleased tracks make it the most invaluable of the 50th Anniversary singles sets. Reviewing its three CDs and ten years of Martha and the Vandellas, one thing is clear: you’ll want to come and get these memories.
You can order Martha & The Vandellas’ 50th Anniversary: The Singles Collection here!