(Written by Berry Gordy)
Trying to tell the story of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, one of the most successful Motown groups of the label’s mid-Sixties Golden Age, involves negotiating one of the most tangled, complicated branches of the Motown family tree. It doesn’t help that almost every source on the Internet seems to have got the story garbled in some form, with names and dates jumbled up indiscriminately; even first-hand accounts vary wildly from each other, and even worse, people’s stories seem to have changed over time, to the point that giving a definitive account is almost impossible. Still, with all that in mind, I’m going to give it my best shot here anyway.
In the second half of 1962, the group that became Martha and the Vandellas appeared on no less than six different Motown singles, including this one, all billed under different names, and Martha Reeves only sang lead on one of them. By the end of the year, Martha was the confirmed frontwoman and the group was settled.
Yet before the year began, there were no “Vandellas” at all. How did we get from there to here?
THE STORY OF MARTHA AND THE VANDELLAS
In the beginning, there were the Del-Phis. Alabama-born Martha Reeves, who’d moved to Detroit as a little girl and learned to sing in church, had had some proper training from legendary Motor City vocal coach Abraham Silver, and started to sing informally with a couple of other local groups (the Fascinations and the Sabre-Ettes are the usual names put forward) in the mid-Fifties before auditioning for a new group being put together by promoter Edward Larkin in 1957.
Martha passed the audition and became a member of the newly-minted Del-Phis, joining up with Rosalind Ashford, Annette Beard and Gloria Jean Williamson (she’s credited all over the Internet, including her own Wikipedia article, as “Gloria Williams”, but both The Complete Motown Singles and the Vandellas’ official site say “Williamson”, and so that’s what I’m going with.)
The teenage Del-Phis worked around their school studies, performing live all over Detroit for years, and they built a good reputation, impressing the great Maxine Powell (later head of Artist Development at Hitsville) and earning a few prestigious headline appearances, which led to offers of recording deals.
As the “Del-Fis”, the girls backed local musician Mike Hanks on a single for Spartan Records in 1960; they didn’t appear on the instrumental A-side, The Hawk, but the group’s vocals were featured on the B-side, When True Love Comes To Be. Sources are split as to whether Martha was with the group for this record; some accounts have her drifting in and out of the line-up, others (which it seems can be safely discounted) state she hadn’t even joined them by this point.
Whatever the case, what is certain is that the Del-Phis – featuring all four girls – recorded a one-off single under their own name, I’ll Let You Know b/w It Takes Two, for Chess subsidiary Checkmate in 1961. (Again, a lot of sources are garbled here – many of them list that Checkmate single as My Baby Won’t Come Back, which was actually the B-side of the first Motown single by Martha & The Vandellas, of which more later). Gloria Williamson sang lead.
The record flopped, and the Del-Phis drifted apart in mid-1961. Although she hadn’t been the lead singer of the Del-Phis, Martha Reeves fancied her chances as a solo turn, and started performing live in Detroit under the stage name “Martha LaVaille”; one such performance, at a talent contest, earned her a first prize of a three-night residency at the famed 20 Grand Club, where she caught the eye of the newly-installed Motown A&R director William “Mickey” Stevenson. Stevenson invited Martha for an audition, and handed her his card; as a mark of her general cluelessness as to how the music industry worked, rather than phoning to book an audition, Martha turned up at his office first thing the following morning.
Here, the story starts to get more solid. Most accounts agree that Stevenson, befuddled, didn’t have time to see her right then, had to go out for a brief meeting that morning, and told her to wait in his office until he came back, with a vague instruction to answer the phone if it rang. He ended up leaving her there for several hours, during which time Martha had not only answered and dealt with a large number of calls, but also booked several meetings and sorted out a few other administrative problems in Stevenson’s absence. She was offered the job of A&R secretary the same day.
(I promise I’m getting to Saundra Mallett and this record soon. Bear with me, we’re almost there.)
As an administrator, Martha proved invaluable to the company as it grew. Under Stevenson’s guidance, the A&R department started to take a firm hold of the company’s books and schedules, which had previously been dealt with on a “crisis control” basis by whichever member of the Gordy family or the sales team happened to be nearest. Stevenson started to corral the Funk Brothers together and get people like James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin, vital members of the Motown band from the very start, signed up to formal, exclusive long-term contracts; Martha was there to smooth over any problems.
During the spring of 1962, Stevenson had the idea for the band to start cutting backing tracks without the vocalists being present, thus simplifying schedules and increasing productivity (a move in direct contradiction of Musicians’ Union rules then in place); this move bore fruit during the recording of the Marvelettes’ third album, Playboy, the majority of the songs for which were cut this way. The process was now fairly straightforward; the lead vocals, backing vocals and band track for a given record could all be cut on different occasions, depending on when people were available and when the studio was free. Martha was put in charge of organising all of this. It was this change that led directly to the reformation of the Del-Phis, the existence of a group called “The Vells”, the appearance of this record, the rise to stardom of Marvin Gaye, and of course the career of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, all in the course of just over two and a half months. Quite the stroke of fortune, you’d have to agree.
What happened was this. Jackie Hicks, Marlene Barrow, and Louvain Demps, the immortal Andantes, who would go on to become Motown’s regular female backing singers throughout the Sixties, were only just settling into their role and weren’t always available for regular studio session work – as happened in July 1962. Asked to find replacements to fill in for a couple of weeks in the studio, Martha sensed the opportunity to get some recording experience under her belt, and so opted to call her old bandmates together for some ready cash and the chance to cut some more material. All three ex-Del-Phis said yes.
The quartet thus reformed at Hitsville, and impressed Motown boss Berry Gordy with a brief audition, though he insisted they change their name; he proposed “the Tillies” or “the Pansies”, giving the girls fifteen minutes to come up with their own alternative. The initial choice was “the Dominettes”, but a few days later – some time between 9th and 12th July 1962, according to hand-corrected label copy sheets unearthed by the compilers of the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2 – a new name was selected, “the Vandellas”. All published sources say Martha Reeves came up with this new name – for Van Dyke Street (her childhood home) and Della Reese (her heroine) – but Rosalind Ashford disputes this (see the “comments” section below). If it is true, then it speaks volumes; Martha may not have been the lead singer, but as their de facto paymaster, she had seemingly pretty much taken control of the group.
Over the course of the next few weeks, the newly-christened Vandellas provided backing vocals on a number of Motown recordings. Most famously, they featured on Marvin Gaye’s solo breakthrough Stubborn Kind Of Fellow (receiving a label credit into the bargain).
After a run-in with a Musicians Union inspector in mid-July, when the union man turned up in the middle of a “band only” session (the Funk Brothers cutting a track intended for Mary Wells to sing over at a later date), meaning Martha had had to hurry down from the A&R office and hastily fill in on lead, by all accounts giving a knockout performance, the label brass sat up and took notice, such that the group were even afforded a few sessions of their own at the start of August. Berry Gordy is said to have been particularly impressed with Martha, who was now in her element as a performer: gorgeous, about thirteen feet tall and with a voice well beyond any other female vocalist at Motown at the time, save perhaps Hattie Littles. But she wasn’t the group’s lead singer. Not yet.
As the nominal lead singer of the Vandellas, Gloria Williamson sang lead on two of the group cuts, You’ll Never Cherish A Love So True (‘Til You Lose It) and later There He Is (At My Door), but Martha was given the opportunity to reprise the song she’d sung in front of the union rep, I’ll Have To Let Him Go, which ended up being the one Motown chose for release as the group’s début single.
Perhaps unimpressed with the decision, or perhaps just tiring of the relentless pace of life in the Motown studios, Gloria Williamson promptly quit the group (and indeed retired from showbiz altogether, opting instead for steady employment with the Detroit City Council); this enabled Berry Gordy to rechristen the girls as “Martha and the Vandellas”. This left the problem of the two Gloria-led tracks, both decent enough stuff but clearly featuring a lead vocalist who wasn’t Martha Reeves and therefore not really useable for a group with her name in the title; no problem, reasoned Gordy, who bunged the two sides out anyway under the made-up name “The Vells”. (Cue a thousand mistaken sources stating that the Vandellas were once called “the Vels” (sic), or that those tracks were recorded before Martha ever came to Hitsville, or who knows what else.) Martha and the Vandellas gradually moved from providing backing vocals to cutting regular records under their own name, and after hitting the charts in early 1963 with Come And Get These Memories, the song usually cited as the start of the Golden Age “Motown Sound”, the group would spend the next nine years racking up a slew of classic hits for the label, recording some of the best records in the Motown canon in the process.
And that is the story of Martha and the Vandellas.
Oh, right, yes, I was meant to be talking about THIS record, wasn’t I? Well, you need to know all of that stuff up there to understand what the heck this single is. Some 1,700 words later, I can explain that this single is the Motown début of Saundra Mallett (Edwards), later the lead singer of the fabulous group the Elgins, who morphed from the all-male group the Downbeats, who’d already had a Tamla single, Your Baby’s Back, that February.
Saundra was a confident, talented vocalist who’d earned a Motown deal after impressing with a few live performances, but after she came to the label, it was decided she’d be better off being placed with a group rather than doing solo material. She didn’t join the Downbeats/Elgins until 1964, however; to begin with, Motown didn’t really know what to do with her.
This record came about, as so many Motown records came about, almost by accident. Berry Gordy, still an important Motown songwriter some four years into the company’s development, had previously toyed with the idea of starting his own dance craze, coming up with the Contours’ little-remembered second single, The Stretch; that single had flopped in the face of the Twist-mania sweeping America in 1961, but he’d never quite given up on the idea. At the same time, he’d also been working on an idea for a record to compete with (or ride the coat-tails of) Little Eva’s The Loco-Motion, which had come out in June of 1962 and which was starting to pick up a lot of airplay across Michigan. (That record in turn bore more than a passing resemblance to Mary Wells’ splendid The One Who Really Loves You, released back in February that year).
Chatting with Saundra at Hitsville on July 3rd, Gordy started to get a tune in his head; someone used the phrase “Camel Walk”, and suddenly the song took shape. As with Gordy’s last Motown writing credit, the Contours’ smash hit Do You Love Me, the boss felt he had to cut the record straight away lest any momentum be lost. Saundra was there, so Saundra got to record it. A quick call to Martha Reeves’ office to arrange some backing singers, and the Vandellas (or “Dominettes”) were assembled in the studio. But what of the marketing plan for Saundra, the group idea? No problem – the record would be credited to Saundra Mallett and the (Dominettes/Vandellas). The record was cut there and then with Gordy producing, and was in stores before the month was out. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
One of the better Motown leading ladies fronting one of the best Motown vocal groups, doing a number written and produced by Berry Gordy himself – it couldn’t miss, surely? What a disappointment, then, to find that this brilliant combination on paper just doesn’t do anything at all on record.
Perhaps it’s just a rush job. Rather than feeling full of freshness and urgency (as with the Contours’ similarly hastily-recorded record), the whole thing sounds underprepared and underpowered. Saundra sounds confident enough, but her strident delivery is slightly ill-matched with the Vandellas and the backing track, her gorgeous lead voice not called for with such would-be raucous material.
I say “would-be raucous” because it just never really lets go; the slow tempo and the hesitant beat style (with lots of instrumentation on the backbeat but almost nothing in between, leaving lots and lots of tiny little breaks and gaps) serve to suck a lot of the impetus out of the record, and overall it sounds polite rather than rebellious. Certainly nothing to justify the full-throated delivery Saundra is compelled to give, at any rate. A pity.
(This, incidentally, was a lesson which would be learned when Marvin Gaye came to cut Hitch Hike later in the year; an extremely similar song, in a similar tempo and with a similar groove, but with a much greater emphasis on keeping that groove going, resulted in a far stronger record.)
It’s not terrible, by any means, it’s not even bad – it’s just a big ol’ plate full of “totally average”, a perfectly adequate Loco-Motion answer record, which given the pedigree of everyone involved is a crushing disappointment.
The record failed to sell in any great numbers, but Berry Gordy wasn’t going to give in that easily. Saundra Mallett didn’t get any more outings with the Vandellas, but both acts remained signed to Motown for several years. Meanwhile, Gordy wasn’t done with the song – it would see a second life later in 1962, with LaBrenda Ben dubbed over Saundra’s lead vocal, and the Vandellas rechristened “the Beljeans”. It still wasn’t a hit.
Still, it’s the starting point for one great Motown group (the Vandellas), and an important step for another (the Elgins), so that’s a tick in its favour. (It did also give me the opportunity to tell the Vandellas story in detail, for which I’m certainly grateful, even if you might not be having ploughed through nearly two and a half thousand words.)
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
Motown Junkies has reviewed other Motown versions of this song:
- LaBrenda Ben & the Beljeans (December 1962)
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“You’re My Inspiration”
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