Paying Tribute to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas
Martha Reeves was born July 18, 1941, in Alabama, the third child and first daughter of Elijah and Ruby Reeves. The family moved to Detroit when Martha was 11 months old. A shy girl, she was encouraged to sing by her mother. "I wasn't the one who wanted to be in front of anybody, but she'd call me out," says Martha. "She'd say, 'Sing that song Mama tauaght you', and when I did well, she'd hug me and give me all kinds of little rewards. Mom's always believed in me and she made me believe in myself.
Martha was also encouraged to sing by one of her elementary school teachers, Mrs. Emily Wagstaff. "She realized I could remember lyrics and hold the melodies in my memory. A lot of the kids didn't like the attention she showed me but she gave me an idea that I could do something vocally a little better than the other students. I'll always be grateful to her."
In high school, Martha recieved encouragement from Abraham Silver, who selected her to sing lead soprano for her performance of Bach's "Allelujah." "That was the first time I had ever seen my name in print as a soloist. That sparked a lot of interest for me in having a sining career."
Martha wa happy to sing second lead behind Gloria, and the group was signed to a Chess Records subsidiary, Check-mate. They sang backing vocals for J.J. Barnes on "Won't You Let Me Know" and recorded an answer record on their own, "I'll Let You Know." "It didn't establish us as artists and upon graduation, we all had to find jobs," says martha. "I tried several things. I tried telephone soliciting. I was a housekeeper. I tried a secretarial job. I sold Stanley home products door to door. I also worked as a waitress in my uncle's restaurant, all in a matter of a year.
The Del-Phis went their separte ways as the four women found jobs, but Martha Lavaille. "My Aunt Bernice gave me that name-she thought it sounded pretty." At age 19, Martha won a local talent contest. Her prize was three nights work at the 20-Grand, a popular Detroit club. "I was there at happy hour, between 5 and 9. I had heard of Motown, but I had no idea that Mickey Stevenson, the head of the A&R department, would come in that day." Martha had seen him around town, performing with a group called the Mellowtones, and thought he looked very sharp. "Everybody seemed to know him. After I finished my two little nubers with the band, he approached me as I was coming offstage and handed me a card, so I knew I was in. He asked me to come to Motown.
At the time, Martha was working at Citywide Cleaners each weekday from 9 to 5. "I quit that job immediately that Sunday night and went to Motown the following morning. When I arrived, Mickey was in his office and the receptionist showed me back." But Martha didn't get the welcome reception she expected. "He asked me in with a puzzled look on his face. He said, 'What are you doing here?" Martha reminded Stevenson of the night before. "He said, 'Yes, and you were supposed to take that card and call the number on it and make an appointment for an audition. We hold auditions once a month.' I felt like I really had made a mistake." Martha was embarrased, but knew she would be alright. "The Citywide job wasn't so important to me, because I wasn't making much money anyway. And I was still living at home so I knew my father would stand by me the way he always had."
Before Martha could leave, Stevenson looked at her and said, "Tell you what. Answer this phone and I'll be right." When someone asked for information, Martha didn't know how to find it. "Most of the guys scribbled. They didn't make good notes. When Mickey came back in an hour, I had a system going." In a few days, martha was reporting for work every day at 9 and leaving at 9 at night. "After about three weeks, my father said to me, 'If you don't get some of that man's money, you won't get any more of mine. Go to that man's company, get a salary.' So I asked for one, because after three weeks I was a full-fledged A&R secretary. I don't get a lot of credit for it, but I was the first to keep records in the A&R department. I was like a girl Friday-not so much for Mickey. There were 17 guys in that A&R department." Martha's work kept her so busy that she never audition. "Everybody knew that I came there to be a singer. I never took them up on that audition because I was the person giving the auditions. I knew in my heart that eventually I would become the singer I wanted to be when I first came there."
Martha's opportunity arrived the day representatives from the musicians union showed up to make sure that Motown was following rule that a singer would always be on the microphone when sessions musicians were playing. Mary Wells hadn't shown up for a session and there was no vocalist on the mike. "Mickey ran and got me just as they signing in at the desk and said, 'Get in the studio and get on that mike and sing that song. The union's here.' I didn't take it lightly. I sang the song as if I wanted it to be mine." The song was "I'll Have To Let Him Go", written by Stevenson. Martha's recording was considered a demo and was placed on the shelf.
Meanwhile, Stevenson was assigned in 1962 to produce sessions for Marvin Gaye. "He was a drummer," Martha explains. "I didn't know he was a singer. When I heard him sing, I knew it was one of the prettiest voices I'd ever heard in my life." Martha called the Andantes, Motown's in-house backing vocalists, to the session. But the three women-Louvain Demps, Jackie Hicks and Marlene Barrow-had taken another job out of town. So Martha called Gloria, Rosalind and Annette from the Del-Phis. she joined them and sang backing vocals on "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow," "Pride And Joy" and "Hitch Hike". Berry liked their sound, and decided to add the other girls' backing vocals to Martha's lead on "I'll Have To Let Him Go."
Martha met Berry for the first time when he came by the A&R department to see who was helping Mickey Stevenson. "He came in one day and said, 'Where is this girl? Who is she? Where is she?' And when we met, I knew I had met a friend. He congratulated me on the good job I'd done in organizing the A&R department and that was our conversation. It was brief. I admired him at a distance. I wasn't close to him as some of the other artists."
Martha was given a chance to record, alongwith Gloria, Rosalind, and Annette. Gloria sang lead on "You'll Never Cherish A Love So True ('Til You Lose It)" and the flip, "There He Is (At My Door)," released on the Mel-O_Dy subsidiary by the Vells. Despite the single's failure, Motown offered Martha and her three friends a contract. "Gloria Jean decided she would stay in Detroit at a city job," Martha says. "She had two sons and she had her obligation to the church. She was very talented, and I admired her so."
Berry was ready to release "I'll Have To Let Him Go" but couldn't call the group the Del-Phis, because Chess Records owned the name. "He called us into his office after Gloria Jean quit, to talk to us about who was going to stay in the group and who was going to go. That was one of our first meetings as a group with Mr. Gordy. He sat us down and said, 'Listen, we've got this recoed here. We know one of your members has quit. Are you going to stay together?' Annette and Rosalind said they liked the idea of recording and would consider it. [I said], 'Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes,' because they knew I was already decicated to the company and worked there for $35 a week and they knew I loved what I was doing. I made a commitment." Berry said he would put Martha's name in the group in case the other girls quit.
But what to call the group? "Berry said to make up a name or he would call us the Tillies," Martha laughs. She wrote down "Del-Phis" and then "Della Reese," "I had seen Della at church a couple of weeks before. This beautiful woman got up and sang 'Amazing Grace' and goosebumped me. The next day after church I saw her on network television singing her hit, 'Don't You Know.' I said, 'She's from Detroit. She made it. Maybe we can too.' So I used the Dell' from her name. Van Dyke is a street near where I live." Martha combined the "Van" and "Della" to come up with "Vandella." Berry liked the name right away. "He said, "That's a good idea. we'll call it Martha Reeves & the Vandellas."
The Biography is still building but the information on this biography is from the CD called Martha Reeves and the Vandellas: Live Wire! The Singles 1962-1972