After winning a talent contest in 1962, Martha Reeves was asked to perform at Detroit’s Twenty Grand nightclub, where Motown A&R man William “Mickey” Stevenson heard her sing and scheduled a meeting. Although she was not signed to a record contract during that meeting, she was hired to be his secretary.
A few months later, Stevenson was overseeing a session for Mary Wells’ “I’ll Have To Let Him Go,” but Wells could not make it, so Mickey called in Martha to substitute. Martha Reeves did such a good job that she and her group, the Del-Phis were signed on as Martha & the Vandellas. The Vandellas (named by combining Detroit’s Van Dyke Street with the first name of their favorite singer, Della Reese) were Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard, who were also part of the Del-Phis. Betty Kelly replaced Beard in 1964, and Lois Reeves (Martha’s younger sister) replaced Kelly in 1967.
The Vandellas struck gold with their first single ”Come and Get These Memories,” which was a Top 40 hit in 1962 under Berry Gordy’s Motown label. This success was followed by a streak of hits throughout the 1960’s which included what some consider to be the Motown anthem, “Dancing In the Street,” (1964) as well as other danceable chart toppers such as “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave,” “Nowhere to Run” and “Jimmy Mack.”
By the time the trio achieved the peak of their success, The Ed Sullivan Show had introduced other Motown acts including The Supremes and Stevie Wonder. Ed Sullivan was known for embracing Motown acts, serving as an essential platform of promotion for the label’s artists. The Vandellas were no exception.
On December 5th 1965, Martha & The Vandellas appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show. That night, wearing matching yellow cocktail dresses, the trio hit the Sullivan stage to perform their most popular hit “Dancing In The Street.” The group, led by Martha Reeves, delivered a captivating performance that evening which helped them gain national exposure and further propel their thriving career.
After appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show, Martha & the Vandellas continued to record over the next few years for Gordy’s Motown label, where they charted 24 R&B hits and became one of the company’s most successful touring acts. Despite their success, they were occasionally outshone by Diana Ross & the Supremes, with whom they competed for resources and attention.
In 1971, Martha & the Vandellas parted ways with Motown. A few years later in 1974, Reeves embarked on a solo career; however, towards the end of the 1970’s, the trio regrouped and their popularity increased once again after being part of the Motown 25th anniversary TV special in 1983.
Their most successful hit to this day remains the classic “Dancing In The Street.” The song became a million-seller, and one of the most played singles in history as well as one of the all-time favorite Motown single releases ever. It is also one of the most covered and popular songs in rock ‘n roll history; the song has been re-done several times including a live recording by Van Halen (1982) and a duet by David Bowie and Mick Jagger (1985).
Martha & The Vandellas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1999 and the Vocal Group Hall of Fame in 2003. Nowadays the group continues to perform, keeping the image of Motown’s glory days alive. Their numerous hit singles, unquestionably helped define the Motown sound.
Martha & The Vandella’s only appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show is available for download on iTunes. Their performance is also available on the “Motown Gold From The Ed Sullivan Show” DVD and “Ed Sullivan Rock ‘n Roll Classics” 7 DVD set.