Driven by Martha Reeves' soulful, brassy lead vocals, the Vandellas became Motown's earthier, more aggressive "girl group" alternative to the Supremes. The Vandellas' biggest hits, like "Dancing in the Street" and "Heat Wave," are among the most popular dance records of the '60s.
Reeves, Beard, and Ashford sang as the Del-Phis in high school and cut one single on Check-Mate Records, a subsidiary of Chess. Reeves had also sung professionally under the stage name Martha LaVaille. In 1961 Reeves got a job at Motown in the A&R department as secretary to Motown A&R director William "Mickey" Stevenson. One day Motown head Berry Gordy Jr. needed background singers in short order for a session; Reeves and her friends were called in. They sang behind Marvin Gaye on "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" and "Hitch Hike" before recording "I'll Have to Let Him Go" as Martha and the Vandellas, taking their new name from Detroit's Van Dyke Street and Reeves' favorite singer, Della Reese.
Their first hit, a beat ballad called "Come and Get These Memories" (#29 pop, #6 R&B, 1963), was followed by two explosive Holland-Dozier-Holland dance records: "Heat Wave" (#4 pop, #1 R&B, 1963) and "Quicksand" (#8 pop, 1963). After being turned down by Kim Weston, "Dancing in the Street" (cowritten by Weston's husband, Mickey Stevenson, and Marvin Gaye) was given to Martha and the Vandellas; they turned it into their biggest hit (#2 pop, 1964). Their other big hits included "Nowhere to Run" (#8 pop, #5 R&B, 1965) and "I'm Ready for Love" (#9 pop, #2 R&B, 1966). "Jimmy Mack" (#10 pop, #1 R&B, 1967) and "Honey Chile" (#11 pop, #5 R&B, 1967) were the last Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions they recorded, and were their last big hits.
By 1967 the group was billed as Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. Annette Beard retired in 1963 and was replaced by former Velvelette Betty Kelly; when Kelly left four years later, Reeves' younger sister Lois took her place. Rosalind Ashford quit the group in 1969 and was replaced by another ex-Velvelette, Sandra Tilley (who had also been one of the Orlons of "South Street" fame). Tilley died during surgery for a brain tumor in 1981. The group broke up in 1973 after giving a farewell performance on December 21, 1972, at Detroit's Cobo Hall. Lois Reeves went on to work with Al Green.
As recounted in her 1994 autobiography, Dancing in the Street (cowritten with Mark Bego), Reeves believed that her group's success was undermined by Motown and Berry Gordy Jr.'s obsession with the Supremes. For example, "Jimmy Mack" was held back from release for two years because it sounded too much like the Supremes' then-current singles. The Vandellas and the Supremes' rivalry extended beyond the charts; between Diana Ross and Reeves, it was sometimes personal. A strong personality, Reeves clashed with Gordy, often demanding answers to business questions most other Motown artists didn't ask until years after they left the label. Struggling to maintain a hectic schedule of recording and performing, Reeves became addicted to a range of psychoactive prescription drugs, exacerbating emotional problems that culminated in at least two nervous breakdowns and a period of institutionalization. She has lived drug-free since 1977. In 1989 she, Beard, and Ashford sued Motown for back royalties.
In 1974 Reeves signed with MCA. Her solo debut, produced by Richard Perry, contained a minor hit in "Power of Love." Although that album, as well as her subsequent solo releases, have been critically acclaimed, she never attained the success she had enjoyed with the Vandellas. She continues to tour and record; sometimes the Vandellas consist of her sisters Lois and Delphine. On special occasions, she performs with Beard and Ashford. In 1995 Kate Pierson and Fred Schneider of the B-52's inducted the trio into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This biography originally appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001).