Martha Reeves: From Motown Secretary to Vandellas Star
When Motown Records burst on the scene in the early 1960s, it changed the face of popular music forever. Billing itself as “the sound of young America,” Motown was the seedbed for a group of extraordinary artists, including the Temptations, the Four Tops, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and Marvin Gaye. To this day, they remain music legends.
Included in Motown’s collection of all-time greats was a group called Martha and the Vandellas. With a string of more than 25 top hits, including "Heat Wave," "Quicksand," "Nowhere to Run," and "Jimmy Mack," they helped define the “Motown Sound” for an entire generation. Their 1964 mega-hit, "Dancing in the Street," has had such a lasting impact that in 2018 it was celebrated by National Public Radio as “an American anthem.”
Martha and the Vandellas were the Supremes’ tougher, more grounded counterpart. With her cheeky, fervent vocals, Martha Reeves led the group in a string of dance anthems that are irresistible to this day.— The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame
Martha Reeves became the lead singer and driving force of the Vandellas. But in 1961 she was an aspiring young solo vocalist whose dreams seemed about to come true when she was hired by Motown—except that she was hired not as a singer, but as a secretary!
But Reeves, a young woman of grit and determination, wouldn't stay a secretary for long.
Martha Tries to Get Started as a Singer
By 1961 Martha Reeves had been working on developing a professional singing career for several years.
Born on July 18, 1941 in Eufaula, Alabama, she moved with her family to Detroit and grew up singing in the A.M.E. church her grandfather pastored there. Even before she graduated from Northeastern High School in 1959, Martha and some school friends had formed a vocal group called The Fascinations. But that turned out to be a professional dead end.
In 1960 she was invited by a friend, Gloria Williamson, to join a group called the Del-Phis, which also included Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard. Martha did so, and sang second lead behind Gloria. Popular in the Detroit area, the Del-Phis were signed by Chess Records, and released a single called, “I’ll Let You Know.” But when the record didn’t sell, the members of the group had to find jobs, and the Del-Phis disbanded.
Martha worked at several jobs, including housekeeping, telephone solicitation, and even in her uncle's restaurant. She finally found steady employment as a counter person at City Wide Cleaners. But she never gave up on her commitment to her singing career. In 1961 she entered a talent contest and won, with her prize being a three-night engagement during the 5:00 to 8:00 pm happy hour at a local night spot, the Twenty Grand Club.
Performing under the stage name of Martha LaVaille, she was paid the magnificent sum of $5 per night. But her efforts were not wasted. In the audience for her final performance at the club was William “Mickey” Stevenson, the A&R (Artists and Repertoire) Director at Motown.
Martha Is Invited To Audition at Motown
A record label’s A&R department is responsible for finding and developing new talent, and Mickey Stevenson would often visit clubs during happy hour looking for gifted amateur performers. After listening to Martha sing, Stevenson thought she had potential. He gave her his card, and invited her to come to Hitsville USA (the name Motown had given its studio) for an audition.
Although she wasn’t exactly sure what Hitsville USA was (she had heard a lot of Motown music on the radio, but hadn’t known where it came from), Martha was ecstatic. She was 21 at the time, and still living with her parents. So she asked her dad if she could quit her job at the cleaners to go to the audition. With his blessing, she set out the next morning on the cross-town bus trip to 2648 West Grand Boulevard, the home of Motown Records.
A Motown Surprise!
When she got to the 2600 block of West Grand Boulevard, Martha felt a bit confused. She expected a record company’s headquarters to be a two or three story office building. Instead, what she saw was a small house with a hand-painted sign that said Hitsville, USA. Disappointed, she almost turned around and went home. But she decided to at least give it a chance.
As she got closer, Martha realized that 25 or 30 people were standing outside, hoping to get in for an audition. Now her confidence rose. She had Mickey Stevenson’s business card – she had been personally invited! So she walked right past the crowd, into the building, and up to the receptionist’s desk. Here’s how Martha remembers that day:
When I got to the desk I asked for William Stevenson. This beautiful girl with a high-pitched voice, said, "You mean Mr. Stevenson? Mickey?"
"Well, yes," I said, "Mickey."
And there on the other side of the door was Mickey, the same guy who had asked me to come to Hitsville USA. His sleeves were rolled up, his tie loosened, his hair messed up. He was working on a session for this drummer, Marvin Gaye. It was a beehive of a building. People were running all around.
But when she was buzzed into the small A&R office and Mickey Stevenson saw her, his reaction wasn’t exactly what she expected.
"What are you doing here?" he demanded.
When Martha reminded him that he had given her his card and told her to come for an audition, Stevenson replied that she wasn’t supposed to just show up. He only held auditions every third Thursday, and this was the first of the month. She should have called for an appointment.
Martha recalls that at that moment she felt like sinking into the floor. But then the phone started ringing. Mickey Stevenson, much distracted and probably feeling like he was being pulled in seventeen different directions at once, said to Martha, "Answer the phone! I'll be right back." Then he ran out of the office.
Martha Makes a Life-Changing Decision
By 1961 Motown had already released a number of hit records. But, the company’s office operations were still far from being a well oiled machine. Just two years earlier, on January 12, 1959, founder Berry Gordy had started the company with $800 he borrowed from a family fund set up by his sister. He purchased the house he now called Hitsville, USA, and converted its first-floor rooms into offices, recording studios, and production facilities. The garage became the famous Motown Studio A. Gordy, with his wife and young son, lived on the second floor.
The result of all this was that when Martha Reeves showed up unannounced in the Motown offices, the still-infant company was understaffed and squeezed into too little space. It was only in such a chaotic environment that a company executive could be so overwhelmed that he turned to an unexpected visitor to his office and asked her to answer the phone while he ran off to handle other pressing matters such as overseeing a recording session with Marvin Gaye!
In that moment Martha Reeves was confronted with a critical decision. She was not an employee and had no obligation to spend her time bailing the company out of its organizational mess. And besides, she hadn’t exactly been welcomed with open arms.
But instead of walking out and trying to get her job at the cleaners back, she decided to dig in and help out any way she could.
If you had been in Martha's shoes, how would you have reacted if someone asked you to start answering their phone for no pay?
As it turned out, Martha ended up doing a lot more than she initially expected.
First of all, Mickey Stevenson’s “right back” extended to almost four hours before he returned, and the phone was ringing every few minutes. Martha had taken a commercial course in high school and knew how to answer a business phone in a professional manner:
"A&R Department. May I help you?"
When someone would ask who she was, she’d reply confidently, "This is Martha Reeves. May I help you?"
When the caller asked for Mickey, she’d say, "Mr. Stevenson stepped out of the office. May I help you?"
And when someone came to the door and asked if she was the secretary, she simply replied, “Yes.”
Martha took over 50 messages that day. But it went far beyond just answering the phone. People would call asking to schedule auditions. Martha got them scheduled. Musicians would call to find out when their sessions were scheduled. Martha actually ended up assigning musicians to their sessions. When two session musicians (members of the house band that would later be known as the legendary Funk Brothers) arrived and refused to record again until they were paid for their last recording session, Martha helped to get the issue resolved. She also arranged for another musician to be paid.
By the time Mickey Stevenson got back to his office, his unofficial assistant had made herself indispensable. He asked her to come back the next day as his new A&R secretary.
Looking back on that first-day experience decades later, Martha would say, “I'm proud to have been there. I'm glad I stayed.”
Martha Gets Her Chance to be a Singer
The fact that Motown was so understaffed in all departments actually worked in Martha’s favor. As Mark Kurlansky points out in his book, Ready for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America:
“Motown recordings were often put together with whoever was available. Can you go in the studio and sing backup? We need someone for hand clapping. This was why young hopefuls liked to be there.”
The result was that even as she worked as A&R secretary, Martha Reeves was afforded many opportunities to get her voice heard as a backup singer on hit recordings of other Motown artists. Plus, as part of her A&R duties, she would assign replacements when scheduled backup singers were suddenly unavailable. One such occasion took her career to a new level.
In 1962 Mickey Stevenson was producing a song for a singer who was still looking for his first hit. Martha called the Andantes, who were Motown’s wonderful in-house backup group, for the session. But they were unexpectedly out of town. With competent backup singers needed immediately, Martha knew just what to do. She called her old group-mates in the Del-Phis, Gloria Williamson, Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard, and asked them to come in to do the session. And that’s how Martha Reeves and her friends got to be the backup vocalists for Marvin Gaye’s first hit, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.”
Having proven themselves by singing not only on “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow,” but on “Hitch Hike” and “Pride And Joy” as well, Martha's group, now renamed the Vels, were officially welcomed into the Motown family as background vocalists.
Martha and the Vandellas Finally Take Center Stage
It was by stepping in for another no-show that Martha and the Vels got their opportunity to become headliners in their own right. One of Motown’s earliest stars, Mary Wells, who had hits with "You Beat me to the Punch" and "My Guy," had decided to leave the label. She was scheduled to record a demo of a song called “I’ll Have to Let Him Go,” but claimed to be sick that day. So, the Vels were called upon to make the demo, with Martha performing as lead singer. Motown CEO Berry Gordy was so impressed by what he heard in that recording, that he not only had the intended demo released as a single in its own right, but he also offered the Vels a recording contract.
The one stipulation that Berry Gordy made in signing the Vels was that the group had to come up with a new name. Martha chose “the Vandellas,” combining parts of the names of Van Dyke, a street near her parents’ neighborhood, and Della Reese, her favorite singer as a child.
(Gloria Williamson decided to leave show business, so the Vandellas consisted of Martha Reeves, Rosalind Ashford, and Annette Beard).
Although “I’ll Have to Let Him Go” didn't become a hit, it was soon followed by many other Vandellas recordings that did. As a result, Martha and the Vandellas were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995.
A Secretary's Dream Come True
Martha Reeves worked as Motown's A&R secretary for nine months. She says that when she left that position, it took three young ladies from a secretarial school to replace her.
But she didn’t leave because she was overworked. Rather, one of her final acts as A&R secretary was to type up her own recording contract, giving Martha and the Vandellas the opportunity to become one of Motown's most valuable musical assets.
For Martha Reeves, patience and faithfulness in a position she hadn't sought opened the door to reaching heights few artists ever achieve.
© 2018 Ronald E Franklin