(Written by Berry Gordy)
The early story of Martha and the Vandellas – for that’s who this group really are, under a different name – is a tangled, messy web, and the existence of this record has only served to muddy the waters yet further over the years.
This pair of sides was recorded at the start of August 1962, during the Vandellas’ stint working as backing singers at Motown that summer. The group’s lead singer at the time was Gloria Jean Williamson (the group was a quartet at this point, with Gloria and original members Annette Beard and Rosalind (Roz) Ashford featuring alongside Martha Reeves), and it’s Gloria who provides lead vocals on both sides of this 45. However, Motown had opted to release another track from those sessions as the group’s first single – I’ll Have To Let Him Go, recorded on the same day as this song – featuring Martha Reeves, not Gloria, on lead.
“After the session (to record the B-side, on August 8th) Gloria declined to continue in show business”, says the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2. The truth seems to be a little more complicated than that; Gloria had a young family to raise, and had been offered a civil service job with Detroit City Council. Perhaps weighing the need to put food on the table against the vagaries of a life in showbiz, especially if stuff like this was going to be happening on a regular basis, it appears Gloria understandably opted for the steady paycheck. Whatever the reason, she left the group, leaving the way clear for Motown to install Martha Reeves as leader on a permanent basis, and to rename the group “Martha and the Vandellas”.
The rebranding made marketing sense – Martha was very obviously a star in the making, and putting her name on the records would help both break her and then sell more copies – but it left a thorny problem. There was now a bunch of new, expensively-recorded material in the can with Gloria singing lead, hardly appropriate for release under the name “Martha and the Vandellas”. The solution? Enter “The Vells”.
Now, one thing we can say with absolute certainty is that at no point were the active group ever called “the Vells”, despite what a hundred band histories have stated. Indeed, Berry Gordy seems to have come up with this name of his own accord after the event, in order that this record could wind up in the stores without either cannibalising the Vandellas’ newly-released single I’ll Have To Let Him Go (which came out a mere week before this one), or diluting Brand Martha. Quite what would have happened if this had been a smash hit is anyone’s guess – would Gordy have tried to coax Gloria out of retirement, and had her front either the Vandellas, or a new group of “Vells”, for follow-up releases?
As it happened, that turned out to be a moot point, as this record went nowhere. A pity, as this is good stuff. Gloria Jean Williamson has a strong, soulful voice; like Martha Reeves on I’ll Have To Let Him Go, there are definite hints of Mary Wells’ style in her delivery, but that’s no bad thing.
It’s a fun, midtempo calypso style number, with a steady, driving rhythm very much in the fashion of Marvin Gaye’s Stubborn Kind of Fellow (though if anything, it actually sounds more like the upcoming Hitch Hike) and the Vandellas’ own Camel Walk; the group delivery is sassy and assured, while still youthful and ragged enough to be endearing rather than cold.
The best bit is a strange break at 1:29 – very reminiscent tune-wise of Mary Wells’ I Don’t Want To Take A Chance – which features the other Vandellas doing call-and-response vocals in an echoey, spoken-word fashion (“You know I love you.”), which is both eerie and arresting.
The rest of the song isn’t as interesting as that, and it doesn’t really go anywhere after that break, but it’s all pleasant and fun, and well-sung into the bargain. Hardly life-changing, but as a single it’s highly enjoyable; as a time capsule from some alternate universe where Martha Reeves never became a star, it’s nothing short of fascinating.
Whilst there’s no way in the world that I would have sacrificed the future career of Martha Reeves, and the seemingly-endless string of brilliant records Martha and the Vandellas served up throughout the Sixties, it would have been nice to see where this version of the group might have headed too. Instead, this was it for “the Vells”; all future releases credited to the group would feature Martha on lead.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
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“Too Strong To Be Strung Along”
“There He Is (At My Door)”