Compact Command Performances: 24 Greatest Hits –
Martha Reeves and The Vandellas (Motown 1986)
The Compact Command Performance series was an early compilation CD series which put out the best of an artist’s back catalogue some for the first time on CD. The tracks were made from masters from Motown’s studios although this CD claims it was made in Germany. It is pretty much a no-frills release with nothing in the way of notes and just basic information on the writers and producers on each track. Others in the series included Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Four Tops, Temptations. Many of these acts had vinyl “Anthology” releases which had appeared on Double CD’s but this series offered a single CD overview. I didn’t purchase any of the other releases but this 24 tracker offering the best of the under-rated Martha Reeves gets played regularly.
The tracks here span the years 1963-1971 taking Reeves from Motown secretary who was in the right place at the right time and ready to make an impression when other artists were not available to the star unwilling to make a move from her Detroit home when the label uprooted to Los Angeles and so departing from the label which had given her 12 US Top 40 hits over 4 years and 8 UK Top 40 hits over an eight year period. Reeves was often in conflict with label bosses, especially Berry Gordy, over what she saw as favouritism towards The Supremes, and particularly Diana Ross as well as unfair treatment over royalties and was prepared to speak out publicly whilst others kept quiet. In the scheme of things this probably wasn’t the best for her career as it saw her slipping down the pecking order as hits were being dished out and although she made some great music, she felt under-promoted and disgruntled by Motown. It took a while for her to manage to break free from the label but her post Motown years were without commercial success.
She’s still going strong. There have been periods of ill health and a large number of Vandellas as Martha has switched from a solo career to reigniting the group. She has become a valuable figure in politics in the Detroit home she wouldn’t give up on when Berry Gordy saw bigger fish to fry in Hollywood. I saw her perform in our local theatre a year or so back in a show which was disarmingly charming. The voice wasn’t what it was and the heels of her shoes were a little high to make much movement possible but she won an audience over by the strength of the back catalogue and her warm stage personality. When you consider the career trajectories of Diana Ross and Martha Reeves there’s a huge difference. At one time the two women were directly challenging one another to be the Queen Of Motown. Reeves lost that particular power struggle but the battle has left us with some great music. These 24 tracks provide a great introduction to that music.
Martha Reeves -still performing
Martha had early ambitions to be a solo jazz singer but also was part of a group who became the Del-Phis where she was not the lead singer. Invited to a Motown audition the group was rejected but Martha found herself with a clerical job as assistant to A&R man and producer Mickey Stevenson. The communal atmosphere of the early days at the label meant everyone tended to chip in and when backing singers were needed for some Marvin Gaye tracks Martha got her group back and “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow” was a hit single taking those backing vocals to a large audience. When Mary Wells failed to turn up for a recording, Martha, now lead vocalist got the girls Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard back in which led to their first recordings as Martha and The Vandellas (not because they were female vandals as often suggested but because Martha lived in Van Dyke Street and was a big fan of singer Della Reese).
There are four words which explain the early success of Motown’s newest signing. Those words are Holland, Dozier and Holland, the production team which turned the label into Hitsville USA. The female vocal trio were the first girl group to work with the male production trio – predating The Supremes who were still looking for that first hit when Martha’s recordings began to ascend up the charts. This hit was “Come And Get These Memories” a teen-heartbreak song of returning love tokens once the relationship had soured. In her autobiography (written with Mark Bego) “Dancing In The Street: Confessions Of A Motown Diva” (1994) Martha had this to say about the song:
“According to Berry’s eldest sister, Esther Gordy, when Berry heard our recording of “Come And Get These Memories” he exclaimed, “that’s the sound I’ve been looking for. That’s ‘the Motown Sound.” The song had a steady beat, great background harmony parts, horns, catchy lyrics, and a story line that everyone could identify with. I knew instantly that it would be a hit. I’ve always thought that the song really shows off the great harmonies that Rosalind and Annette and I had in the very beginning.”
The opening track on this CD is a very catchy tune that worms its way into the subconscious but it is fairly standard girl-group fare and doesn’t sound to me the revolutionary game-changer that Berry Gordy was reputed to acknowledge. It’s very much in the Shirelles mode but gave the girls a US #29 pop hit in May 1963 and nationwide attention.
It the early Motown sound was to be defined then it is in their follow-up track the tremendous “Heatwave” which is exciting, driving, a little raw around the edges, ever so slightly off-key and with everything thrown into the production it raced up the charts to number 4, helped by the girls’ hard work in the touring Motown revues which was steadily growing them a fan base. A big hit single demanded an album which was recorded in one night and despite this hastiness, the covers of other girl group hits and standards and the odd H-D-H original is always worth a listen and one of the most durable of the early Motown album releases.
Barely contained on that album was the next hit “Quicksand” which could be said to resemble “Heatwave Part 2” but the whole pop industry of the day was built on repeating winning formulas. This track is far more, however, than a throw-away sound-alike. The girls “Whoo-hooing” the intro gives it an identity of its own and it deservedly became their second US Pop Top 10 hit in a row reaching number 8. The frantic pace was kept up for next release “Live Wire” but perhaps that was HDH mining this particular seam a little too much as it missed out on the pop charts. From its dramatic flourish of an intro this is a real Northern soul stomper and if by a more obscure act would have traded for big sums of money on the British Northern Soul scene. Amongst the high-energy there are a couple of calmer tracks included from this period. “A Love Like Yours (Don’t Come Knocking Everyday) began life as the B-Side to “Come and Get These Memories”. Too good to remain a B-Side the song has been covered many times and is considered a soul classic with most notable versions from fellow Motown artist Kim Weston and a 1966 Top 20 UK hit for Ike and Tina Turner. Also dropping the tempo just a little was the next single the delightful, hand-clap heavy “In My Lonely Room” which sounds like it should have been a massive hit but wasn’t.
They did not have to wait that long for their biggest hit, however and it was a move from the then too busy Holland-Dozier- Holland to Martha’s old boss, Mickey Stevenson who produced and co-wrote with Marvin Gaye and Ivy Jo Hunter one of the label’s most iconic songs. “Dancing In The Street” commences with a brassy call to arms into heavy tambourine crashes to get us out and dancing. Of this song Martha, in her autobiography states that she first heard Marvin Gaye singing it and didn’t really like the song;
“but when I put myself into it and made it my own it became the anthem of the decade. From the very beginning, no matter where it was played, everyone seemed to get up and dance to it…….I’ve always said that “Dancing In The Street” is Mickey Stevenson’s greatest gift to me.”
This particular gift got to number 2 in the US in 1964 and in the British Beat group dominated UK charts of the time became their first Top 30 hit stalling at a lowly number 28. Five years later a re-issue climbed to number 4 and reactivated British interest in the group. A Live-Aid inspired pairing of David Bowie and Mick Jagger gave the song a British number 1 placing in a version which is luke-warm compared to the original.
The Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter combination was used to produce more singles for the group. On this CD we get “Wild One” and “Motoring”, neither of which had the magic of the big hit. There were also personnel changes with Betty Kelly replacing Annette who retired from the music business at this time. The career cranked up another gear with the return of Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier in production duties with another H-D-H original “Nowhere To Run”. It sounds like this could have been another big hit for The Supremes but Martha and the girls were given the chance with this. Martha’s grittier, more gospel-influenced voice gives this a greater edge than Diana would have done. It feels a chilling, cold song, which HDH proved they could do well, as in tracks like “Seven Rooms Of Gloom” by The Four Tops, a hit a couple of years later for them which has the feel of this particular track. “Nowhere To Run” reached number 8 in the US and 26 in the UK.
Martha claims that one of her most favourite recordings is the gentle “My Baby Loves Me” which gives her a chance to hark back to her jazz roots over a pretty ballad produced by Stevenson and Hunter. It gave her a US#22 hit.
1966 and 1967 were another two great years for the group as they put out a string of great tracks. As far as US pop chart success was concerned it was the last hurrah. “I’m Ready For Love” (1966- US#9, UK#22) is not only up there amongst Motown’s best it is one of my all-time favourite singles. The whole thing reeks with anticipation from the nervous, jiggly, driving rhythms, the plaintive vocals and great lyrics – The message Martha is conveying is “Bring it on!” She’s ready. This is followed by the tale of the rogue Jimmy Mack (1967 UK#10, UK#21) who may or may not be coming back. It’s single release B-Side is also included on this CD as it has always been a favourite in the UK. “Third Finger Left Hand” is an ideal wedding fodder song, but for its singalong charm and as a mantra to remember what finger to put the ring on. It’s a song that I felt going through my head on my wedding day! These are all great Holland-Dozier-Holland productions.
Lamont Dozier & the Holland brothers at the piano
From 1967 serious cracks were showing. The hit production team were in dispute with Motown, Mickey Stevenson had left the label, relations in the group were not good, there were clashes over the label’s promotion of Diana Ross and Martha, driven by a heavy work load and touring schedule, became addicted to prescription drugs. Around this time original member Rosalind Ashford was sacked and Sandra Tilley recruited. Martha’s view at this time was that the Vandellas had became just a support for touring and that other girls could be used on recording sessions. Motown bowed a little to Reeves’ pressure and added her surname to the group which had largely been known to this point as Martha & The Vandellas. With new production and songwriting units the hits continued with “Love Bug (Leave Me Heart Alone)” (US#25) and “Honey Chile” (US#11, UK#30) but neither of these threaten their best material. “I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playing” did not meet with Martha’s approval and she abandoned it during the recording. Motown drafted in Syreeta Wright to finish it and released it under Martha’s name, showing the label’s heavy- handed attitude towards the brand rather than the people. A nervous breakdown followed for Martha soon afterwards, the group was disbanded in 1969 and that ended their US hit career.
A revitalised Reeve returned with sister Lois and Sandra Tilley and had a couple of UK hits with “Forget Me Not” (UK#11-1971), which for some reason is not included on this CD and “Bless You” (UK#33- 1972) which is a great little track and was written and produced by The Corporation, which was in itself a response to production teams getting too big for the label and also did great work with early Jackson Five, later revealed to be Berry Gordy alongside Motown staffers Frank Mizell, Freddie Perren and Deke Richards (the latter also having produced “I Can’t Dance”).
Martha Reeves’ solo career did not amount to much commercial success, which might explain why she is still touring small theatres in the UK in her 70’s singing these Motown hits. I was certainly pleased about that when I saw her but you cannot help feeling that this under-rated star has good reason to feel a little despondent about the music industry, considering the volume of records she sold in her early career.
This single CD of 24 tracks seems to me to be the perfect introduction to these Motown legends. Anyone wanting a little more could look at the 2006 double CD “Gold” and the three disc “50th Anniversary – Singles Collection” from 2013. There’s also much pleasure to be had from the re-released studio albums. Whatever you choose Martha will soon have you “Dancing In The Street.”
Compact Command Performances is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £2.99 and used from £0.95. In the US it is available used for $3.00.