Reeves, Martha (1941—)

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Reeves, Martha (1941—)

American Motown singer who formed the girl-group Martha and the Vandellas. Born on July 18, 1941, in Eufala, Alabama; daughter of Elijah Reeves, Jr., and Ruby Reeves; graduated from Northeastern High in Detroit, Michigan, in 1959; married "Wiley," in 1967 (divorced); married Willie Dee (divorced); children: Eric Jermel Graham (b. November 10, 1970).

Formed girl-group Martha and the Vandellas (1962); recorded first Top Ten pop single (1963); recorded last Top Forty pop single (1967); released last album as Martha Reeves and the Vandellas (1972); awarded the Dinah Washington Award from Detroit's Ballentine Belles; won Dionne Warwick 's Soul Award; won Heroes and Legends Award; received Pioneer Award with the Vandellas (1993).

Selected singles:

"Heat Wave" (1963); "Quicksand" (1964); "Dancing in the Street" (1964); "Nowhere to Run" (1965); "Jimmy Mack" (1966); "Honey Chile" (1967).

Martha Reeves was born in 1941 in Eufala, Alabama, the daughter of Elijah Reeves, Jr., and Ruby Reeves , both musicians. Part of the "great exodus" of African-Americans out of the American South, the Reeves family migrated from Alabama to Detroit in 1942. There, Reeves' singing won her a church talent contest at age three—an event, she later recalled, which got her "hooked on pleasing a crowd" with her voice. By the third grade, she was often selected to sing solos in music class. As a schoolgirl, she dreamed of attaining stardom, inspired by other working-class Detroiters who had made it big.

After graduating from high school in 1959, Reeves spent the next year or so working at a host of low-paying jobs and singing on the side whenever she could. Only 19, she used borrowed identification cards to get into nightclubs, singing on open "showcase" nights and hoping for a break. In the summer of 1960, she joined Rosalind Ashford, Annette Beard , and Gloria Williams in their girl-group, the Del-Phis, and they competed in Detroit talent contests alongside other groups who also later became famous Motown acts. Reeves did solo performances as well, and after one such show in 1961 got her big break when she was asked by a Motown Records scout to audition for them. She arrived at their offices the next morning, and after learning no auditions were held on that day of the week, found herself answering phones all day and thus landed a job as secretary of the A&R department.

Her secretary's wages were soon supplemented with earnings from singing backup or hand-clapping on other acts' records. By 1962, after filling in for Mary Wells in one recording session, Reeves signed a contract, along with two of the Del-Phis (Beard and Ashford), and became lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas. Later that year Motown creator Berry Gordy sent them, along with other young Detroit acts including The Supremes , Marvin Gaye, The Temptations, and Stevie Wonder, out on a successful tour. Though the group endured some bigotry on the road, their new sound soon began to transcend racial boundaries. In 1963, Martha and the Vandellas became the first group to get an encore on Dick Clark's American Bandstand, and that summer they had their first Top Ten hit with "Heat Wave." By 1965, they had churned out other popular hits, such as "Dancing in the Street" and "Nowhere to Run." In 1965 and 1966, they toured successfully in England, appearing on television shows, including one hosted by Reeves' good friend Dusty Springfield .

While not performing, Reeves, like all Motown performers, was tutored in modeling, choreography, music theory, and even etiquette. She later said that this was like attending a university. However, behind the success and new poise, Reeves' personal life was often tumultuous. After a few early romantic relationships which ended disastrously, in 1967 she impetuously married a man named Wiley in Las Vegas after a peculiar, sporadic nine-month affair. The marriage ended shortly in divorce. After a brief liaison with a man named Gerald, a rocky relationship marked by drugs and violence, Reeves gave birth to a son in November 1970. In the early 1970s, Reeves' second marriage, to Willie Dee, also quickly dissolved. Violence, misfortune and abuse of prescription and non-prescription drugs continued to plague Reeves off and on until around 1980.

The year 1967 marked the Vandellas' last Top Ten hit for Motown, "Honey Chile." By 1968, Reeves' friendship with Betty Kelly , who had joined the Vandellas four years earlier, became strained almost to the point of assault, and Betty was replaced by Reeves' sister Lois Reeves . More disrupting personnel changes followed. After a 1968 incident in which Reeves refused to finish recording a song with lyrics she disliked, her relationship with Berry Gordy and Motown began to deteriorate. She acquired a reputation for being difficult to work with. Gordy began attending Reeves' shows on occasion with another of Motown's stars, Diana Ross , and criticizing Reeves afterward. Suspicious of Motown's accounting practices, Reeves was reputedly the first star to question them, which further damaged her bond with the company. "I think I was the first person at Motown to ask where the money was going," said Reeves. "Did I find out? Honey, I found my way out the door." By the end of the 1960s, Gordy was pouring more effort into the Supremes than into the Vandellas, and by the early 1970s Reeves' more hard-edged

soul sound had been virtually cast aside. Gordy concentrated his energies on what he felt was Motown's best bet for moving into movies and television, the pretty Diana Ross with her "littlegirl coo."

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas released their last album in 1972. Reeves then went solo, touring and producing several rather fruitless albums with various labels throughout the mid-1970s. Living fast in Los Angeles by then, she balked at the disco trend through the late 1970s, but finally recorded a disco album, Gotta Keep Moving, in 1980. By 1983, she had moved back to Detroit, and happily participated in a Motown retrospective television special. The resulting Motown resurgence of the 1980s revived her career, and Reeves toured and recorded again successfully on the "oldies" circuit. By 1991, Reeves, by then a grandmother, was recording for film soundtracks and still performing her old hits. One of the last few Motown "survivors," Reeves received a Pioneer Award in 1993. In the mid-1990s, having plowed through decades of career highs and lows, violent lovers, financial troubles, and bouts with drug abuse, Martha Reeves was still in love with her craft and eager to share it with others.


Gaar, Gillian G. She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. Seattle, WA: Seal Press, 1992.

Reeves, Martha, and Mark Bego. Dancing in the Street: Confessions of a Motown Diva. NY: Hyperion, 1994.

Jacquie Maurice , freelance writer, Calgary, Alberta, Canada