Motown's brightest female star after Diana Ross, Martha Reeves was the earthy, gospel-infused counterpart to her rival Ross' uptown sophistication. With her backing group, the Vandellas, Reeves cut some of the brightest, most infectiously danceable R&B of her time. Unfortunately, she didn't fare as well after leaving Motown for a solo career in the '70s, and although she continued to perform for quite sometime, it was mostly on the oldies circuit, looking back over her past glories.
Reeves was born in Eufaula, AL, on July 18, 1941, and before she was even a year old, her family moved to Detroit. As a child, she sang in her grandfather's church and in school, and continued her vocal training through high school. After graduating in 1959, she joined a girl group called the Fascinations, and the following year co-founded the Del-Phis, whose membership included the future Vandellas. They cut a flop single for a Chess subsidiary in 1961; the same year, Reeves won a talent contest as a solo act and got a nightclub engagement performing as Martha LaVaille. There she was noticed by Motown exec William "Mickey" Stevenson, who invited her to stop by the label's offices. Reeves wasn't able to land an audition right away, but did parlay her visit into a secretarial job in the A&R department. She caught a lucky break when backup singers were needed for a recording session as quickly as possible, and so the Del-Phis wound up supporting Marvin Gaye on his first hit, 1962's "Stubborn Kind of Fellow." Stevenson was impressed enough to record a Del-Phis (renamed the Vels) single, "You'll Never Cherish a Love So True ('Til You Lose It)," and released it on Motown's Mel-O-Dy subsidiary. One day, Mary Wells failed to show up for a recording session, and musicians' union rules demanded that a lead vocalist be present on the mic -- so secretary Reeves was hastily tapped to sing "I'll Have to Let Him Go." That song went on to become the first single credited to the newly renamed Martha & the Vandellas in 1963; their second single, the ballad "Come and Get These Memories," reached the R&B Top Five.
The rest, of course, was history. Martha & the Vandellas racked up an impressive slate of Motown classics that included the Top Five smashes "(Love Is Like A) Heat Wave" and "Dancing in the Street," plus "Nowhere to Run," "I'm Ready for Love," "Jimmy Mack," and "Honey Chile," all of which made the R&B Top Five. Despite the occasional personnel turnover, and the fact that rivals the Supremes had become Motown's female group of choice, Martha & the Vandellas' run of success continued through 1967. Unfortunately, feeling the pressure to keep up, Reeves developed an addiction to prescription drugs, and in 1968 a bad acid trip prefigured a nervous breakdown that slowed the Vandellas' momentum even further. Although they continued to perform and record for several more years, they never matched the success of old and disbanded in December 1972 after a farewell concert in Detroit.
Meanwhile, Motown decided to transfer its offices from Detroit to Los Angeles. Reeves adamantly refused to move along with them and sued for release from her contract; she eventually won her independence and signed with MCA as a solo artist. She entered the studio with producer Richard Perry and a top session cast, and cut a monstrously expensive album that mixed rock, pop, and R&B covers, both vintage and contemporary. Martha Reeves was released in 1974 and sold very disappointingly, especially given its cost. Reeves sank deeper into a host of personal problems until she finally cleaned up and became a born-again Baptist in 1977. That year, she signed with Arista for The Rest of My Life, which blended '60s soul with disco-era production; once again, it sold poorly, and Reeves moved to Fantasy for 1978's even more disco-oriented We Meet Again, which featured four of her own compositions. After 1980's Gotta Keep Moving, Reeves gave up the ghost on her solo career. She spent the early '80s working on various Motown package tours, and eventually put together a new version of the Vandellas. In 1989, she reunited with original Vandellas Annette Sterling and Rosalind Holmes and cut the single "Step Into My Shoes" for British producer Ian Levine's Motor City label. However, she mostly continued make her living on the nostalgia circuit. Reeves was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.