Gary: “I just did not do these two Motown female groups justice the first time around, so I will give it another try. I enjoyed both groups, not all songs, and as usual, I enjoyed the songs that were not the most popular. Example: I just loved the vocals and the arrangements of ‘Nowhere to Run’ and “Too many fish in the Sea”.
The first group is the Marvelettes and their first hit was in 1961, and then Martha Reeves was around 1964. The Marvelettes as a group would be my favourite, but the Vandellas song ‘Nowhere to Run’ was just a great arrangement. So lets will start with the group from Inkster High School Glee Club…
Gladys Horton and The Marvelettes
It was a classic scenario: Country girls making good in the big city. But Inkster, Michigan was not ignorant of the rumblings from Detroit. One year, its high school held a talent contest whose three highest winners would audition at Motown. One quintet, formed in 1960, just missed those spots. But according to one version of events, its teacher coaxed both the principal to make an exception and a Berry Gordy cohort to give the girls a listen.
“Gee!” (or just “G!“) would have been an appropriate reaction from Georgiana Tillman, Georgia Dobbins, Gladys Horton, Katherine Anderson, and Wyanetta Cowart. They’d entered the contest as the Marvels. But their original name, the Casinyets, squared with their good-natured modesty.
In the spring of 1961, the Marvels’ Chantels-y, Shirelles-ean audition impressed Brian Holland and Robert Bateman (aka Brianbert). Still, the producers wanted one more thing from the teens: their own song.
That could have been daunting for some singing novices. But Dobbins borrowed the bluesy “Please Mr. Postman” from friend and songwriter William Garrett and upped the pop quotient. Brianbert ironed it further.
Either parental concerns or maternal illness prevented Dobbins from joining Motown with the rest of the group. She left before she even got to record her work.
But the song gave the other girls, new fifth voice Wanda Young, and Motown the boost they needed: As for the Miracles’ “Shop Around,” the public snapped up over a million copies of the feminized Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.“
It was enough to seize the company’s first #1 pop ranking in 1961 and to make it soften the R&B on future records. The Marvelettes, meanwhile, became Motown’s first multi-female phenomenon, before the Del-Phis-turned-Vandellas and the “no-hit” Supremes. Individual members entered the mass consciousness. For example, Horton was the girlishly raspy lead. Anderson was “the tall one.” Cowart had the curiously Hispanic name, which had changed from Wyanetta to Juanita.
“High school graduates” would not be among their titles: Work demands forced the girls to drop out. They earned their letters, instead, through their songs. A follow-up to their first smash, “Twistin’ Postman,” then “Playboy,” broke into the Pop Top 40 and Top 10, respectively.
So the Marvelettes were also excelling with numbers. Particularly with 1962’s inviting “Beechwood 4-5789”!
“Strange I Know,” but after that hit in 1963, they failed to lock up higher chart positions for songs like “Locking Up My Heart.”
Or maybe not so odd. They couldn’t have known that rejecting “Where Did Our Love Go” would more than help their rivals, the Supremes. But even with Motown’s massive marketing resources, the group couldn’t–or more damningly, the company didn’t–establish a tidy “Marvelettes” identity.
Audiences loved the singers on tour. At Hitsville, though, respect was lacking. (Apparently, Motown later lost the Marvelettes trademark to a fake-acts promoter in, of all things, a card game!)
While other Motown artists roared upward in 1964, the Marvelettes stalled. TV worsened their embarrassment when Juanita Cowart made some comment that many found laughable. The subsequent mockery contributed to the strain of work and her nervous breakdown. She was barely into her 20s when her Motown dreams ended.
Internal unpleasantness didn’t make life easier. After Gladys Horton’s “Too Many Fish in the Sea” (by Eddie Holland and Norman Whitfield), Smokey Robinson showcased the sultrier Wanda Young on “I’ll Keep Holding On” and “Don’t Mess With Bill.” Aside from her hits, the mid-1960s brought greater ego and drug abuse, plus mental ailments that would affect Young for decades.
Georgiana Tillman’s fainting spells also undermined the 1965 renaissance. Sickle cell anaemia and lupus forced her to leave the quartet. (She did stick around Motown as a receptionist.)
1967. “The Hunter Gets Captured by the Game” and “My Baby Must Be a Magician,” etc. The Marvelettes could still sing with the best of them, but their own magic waned for the rest of the decade. Like Tillman (who wed the Contours’ Billy Gordon), family became a greater priority for Gladys Horton. She left the group, but Anne Bogan kept its number at three.
The trio’s ultimate destination was anywhere but the Supremes galaxy. It remained earthbound, and when Motown moved to L.A., Wanda Young remained Detroit-bound. By the 1970s, the Marvelettes had closed their discography and careers with “A Breathtaking Guy.“
A decade later, old ills still afflicted the members. Georgiana Tillman never fully recovered her health, and died at 35 on January 6, 1980. The not-so-well-being of Wanda Young (or Rogers, after she wed the Miracles’ Bobby) also persisted.
Katherine Anderson, the lone original member who saw the wonderful startand the gloomy finish, eventually quit entertainment. She’d married Temptations road manager Joe Schaffner, and devoted herself to helping children.
Gladys Horton revived the group with, briefly, Wanda Young, who joined in for a Motorcity recording in 1990. Jean McLain and Echo Johnson, Jackie and Regina Holleman, and others would also tour with the original leader.
After retirement in 2009, a stroke and declining health, Horton’s absence from the stage became permanent on January 26, 2011. Despite a Vocal Group Hall of Fame induction and book, the Marvelettes still haven’t matched their old peers’ success. Even this biography can’t honestly include them with the “biggest” Motown stars.
I will be honest, I never really enjoyed Martha Reeves voice, but that’s just me. Millions did, so I will treat her with respect. Even though I was not a fan, I just love “Nowhere to Run”.
Martha (Reeves) & the Vandellas
Dancing in the Street / Ed Sullivan 1965 /
Nowhere to Run / Shindig 1965 /
Heatwave/ 1964 /
At 19, she shifted her résumé back toward showbiz: Citywide Cleaners employee. Talent contest winner. Three-night soloist at the Twenty Grand Club, as Martha LaVaille.
And, fatefully, Mickey Stevenson’s latest recruit for the Motown roster.
Getting his business card motivated Reeves to dump her Cleaners job and enter Hitsville the next day.
Oops. No appointment meant no audition. But Reeves proved a worthyaddition as a highly efficient A&R secretary. Her dedication even while salary-less at first and while arranging other singers’ auditions would surely pay off.
It did thanks to Mary Wells–or, rather, no Mary Wells. Union rules required a “singer” at the mic whenever the musicians played. So when Wells didn’t come to one recording session, Stevenson brought in his receptionist. He mainly needed her presence, but Reeves gave him–everyone–her voice.
Now they remembered why she’d originally come!
The opportunities snowballed in 1962. All four Del-Phis got to fill in for the absent Andantes on Marvin Gaye’s “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” And “Pride and Joy.” And “Hitch Hike.”
As the Vels, the girls released a Motown Mel-O-Dy single, “You’ll Never Cherish a Love So True (‘Til You Lose It).” It bombed, but the company still wanted them.
Gloria Williams declined. The remaining trio, needless to say, didn’t.
Time for yet another change. Martha the loyalist got her name in front. Instead of something flowery or ego-boosting for the group, it merged her grandmother’s street, Van Dyke, with Reeves’s idol, Della Reese. Martha and the Vandellas it was, and Motown artists they were as of September 1962.
That Wells-turned-Reeves demo tape, “I’ll Have to Let Him Go,” became Martha and the Vandellas’ first release the next year.
The whirlwind picked up with the R&B hit, “Come and Get These Memories,” courtesy of two Hollands and Dozier. With those promising songwriters, Martha and the Vandellas kicked their relentless harmonies up a notch in an itty ditty called, “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave.“
Hot-blooded songs like those kept much soulful steam while pumping up the “pop” in popularity. But after rising ever higher from “Quicksand,” Annette Sterling withdrew in 1964. Betty Kelley of the Velvelettes replaced her just in time for Martha and the Vandellas’–heck, the 1960s’–signature anthem, “Dancing in the Street.”
Martha Reeves vented that she had “Nowhere to Run” in the freaky 1965 smash. But departures were still possible for the Vandellas. In 1967, Betty Kelley was out, making way for Reeves sister Lois.
The same year the singers added “Jimmy Mack” and a post-HDH “Honey Chile” to their discography, they modified their name once more to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
They’d always swept through tours and club gigs with panache. But the breakneck pace and the losing struggle against the Supremes juggernaut now drained Martha Reeves. A few too many prescription drugs later, her nerves revolted, and her health slid.
As did the Vandellas. Sandra Tilley, Velvelette alumna #2, stepped in for Rosalind Ashford at the end of the decade. With its best days in the past, Motown’s ultimate dance group hobbled along until a farewell concert in December 1972.
Martha Reeves geared up for her solo career. However, Motown nearly nipped those plans in the bud when it left Detroit without telling her in advance. Reeves fought back aggressively, suing for her freedom from the deserting company.
Lopping off “and the Vandellas,” the singer released a pricey self-titled album with MCA in 1974. Unfortunately, its genre-blending ambitions far surpassed its sales.
Things got much worse mentally with two breakdowns before they got better spiritually. A born-again Christian in 1977, Reeves renewed her individual efforts with several more labels before letting it all go in 1980.
But who said she couldn’t reverse the clock? Martha and the Vandellas of yore, Annette Sterling and Rosalind Ashford, hooked up now and again from 1978 into the 1990s. Sisters Lois and Delphine did the same with Martha as another pair of Vandellas. Sadly, Sandra Tilley’s 1981 death from an aneurysm had made her retreat from music permanent.
New experiences have come the group’s way. Martha Reeves has managed more solo outings after all, including a 1994 biography. Can’t forget the Motorcity label’s “Step Into My Shoes,” a 1989 single by the original trio. And the Foundation and Halls of Fame for Rhythm and Blues, Rock, and Vocal Groups have affirmed the singers’ gifts for posterity.
Martha and the Vandellas may not have sustained the same commercial heights as other Motown artists. But everything they could have done to ignite their music, they did, with voluptuous vocals and intoxicating zeal.