Episode 111: "Heat Wave" by Martha and the Vandellas
Episode one hundred and eleven of A History of Rock Music in Five Hundred Songs looks at "Heat Wave" by Martha and the Vandellas, and the beginnings of Holland-Dozier-Holland. Click the full post to read liner notes, links to more information, and a transcript of the episode.
Patreon backers also have a ten-minute bonus episode available, on "My Boyfriend's Back" by the Angels.
Tilt Araiza has assisted invaluably by doing a first-pass edit, and will hopefully be doing so from now on. Check out Tilt's irregular podcasts at http://www.podnose.com/jaffa-cakes-for-proust and http://sitcomclub.com/
As usual, I've created a Mixcloud streaming playlist with full versions of all the songs in the episode.
For Motown-related information in this and other Motown episodes, I've used the following resources:
Where Did Our Love Go? The Rise and Fall of the Motown Sound by Nelson George is an excellent popular history of the various companies that became Motown.
To Be Loved by Berry Gordy is Gordy's own, understandably one-sided, but relatively well-written, autobiography.
Women of Motown: An Oral History by Susan Whitall is a collection of interviews with women involved in Motown, including Martha and the Vandellas.
I Hear a Symphony: Motown and Crossover R&B by J. Andrew Flory is an academic look at Motown.
The Motown Encyclopaedia by Graham Betts is an exhaustive look at the people and records involved in Motown's thirty-year history.
How Sweet It Is by Lamont Dozier and Scott B. Bomar is Dozier's autobiography, while Come and Get These Memories by Brian and Eddie Holland and Dave Thompson is the Holland brothers'.
And Motown Junkies is an infrequently-updated blog looking at (so far) the first 694 tracks released on Motown singles.
Girl Groups by John Clemente contains potted biographies of many groups of the era, including Martha and the Vandellas.
And Dancing in the Street: Confessions of a Motown Diva by Martha Reeves and Mark Bego is Reeves' autobiography.
And this three-CD set contains all the Vandellas' Motown singles, along with a bunch of rarities.
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Today we're going to take a look at the career of one of the great girl groups to come out of Motown, and at the early work of the songwriting team that went on to be arguably the most important people in the definition of the Motown Sound. We're going to look at "Heatwave" by Martha and the Vandellas, and the beginning of the career of Holland, Dozier, and Holland:
[Excerpt: Martha and the Vandellas, "Heatwave"]
By the time she started recording for Motown, Martha Reeves had already spent several years in groups around Detroit, with little success. Her singing career had started in a group called The Fascinations, which she had formed with another singer, who is variously named in different sources as Shirley Lawson and Shirley Walker. She'd quickly left that group, but after she left them, the Fascinations went on to make a string of minor hit records with Curtis Mayfield:
[Excerpt: The Fascinations, "Girls Are Out To Get You"]
But it wasn't just her professional experience, such as it was, that Reeves credited for her success -- she had also been a soloist in her high school choir, and from her accounts her real training came from her High School music teacher, Abraham Silver. In her autobiography she talks about hanging around in the park singing with other people who had been taught by the same teacher -- Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard, who would go on to form the Supremes, Bobby Rogers and Claudette Robinson, who were founder members of the Miracles, and Little Joe Harris, who would later become lead singer of the minor Motown act The Undisputed Truth.
She'd eventually joined another group, the Del-Phis, with three other singers -- Gloria Williams (or Williamson -- sources vary as to what her actual surname was -- it might be that Williamson was her birth name and Williams a stage name), Annette Beard, and Rosalind Ashford. The group found out early on that they didn't particularly get on with each other as people -- their personalities were all too different -- but their voices blended well and they worked well on stage. Williams or Williamson was the leader and lead singer at this point, and the rest of the DelPhis acted as her backing group.
They started performing at the amateur nights and talent contests that were such a big part of the way that Black talent got known at that time, and developed a rivalry with two other groups -- The Primes, who would later go on to be the Temptations, and The Primettes, who had named themselves after the Primes, but later became the Supremes. Those three groups more or less took it in turns to win the talent contests, and before long the Del-Phis had been signed to Checkmate Records, one of several subsidiaries of Chess, where they released one single, with Gloria on lead:
[Excerpt: The Del-Phis, "I'll Let You Know"]
The group also sang backing vocals on various other records at that time, like Mike Hanks' "When True Love Comes to Be":
[Excerpt: Mike Hanks, "When True Love Comes to Be"]
Depending on who you believe, Martha may not be on that record at all -- the Del-Phis apparently had some lineup fluctuations, with members coming and going, though the story of who was in the group when seems to be told more on the basis of who wants credit for what at any particular time than on what the truth is.
No matter who was in the group, though, they never had more than local success. While the Del-Phis were trying and failing to become big stars as a group, Martha also started performing solo, as Martha LaVelle. Only a couple of days after her first solo performance, Mickey Stevenson saw her perform and gave her his card, telling her to pop down to Hitsville for an audition as he thought she had talent.
But when she did turn up, Stevenson was annoyed at her, over a misunderstanding that turned out to be his fault. She had just come straight to the studio, assuming she could audition any time, and Stevenson hadn't explained to her that they had one day a month where they ran auditions -- he'd expected her to call him on the number on the card, not just come down.
Stevenson was busy that day, and left the office, telling Martha on his way out the door that he'd be back in a bit, and to answer the phone if it rang, leaving her alone in the office. She started answering the phone, calling herself the "A&R secretary", taking messages, and sorting out problems. She was asked to come back the next day, and worked there three weeks for no pay before getting herself put on a salary as Stevenson's secretary.
Once her foot was in the door at Motown, she also started helping out on sessions, as almost all the staff there did, adding backing vocals, handclaps, or footstomps for a five-dollar-per-session bonus.
One of her jobs as Stevenson's secretary was to phone and book session musicians and singers, and for one session the Andantes, Motown's normal female backing vocal group, were unavailable. Martha got the idea to call the rest of the DelPhis -- who seem like they might even have been split up at this point, depending on which source you read -- and see if they wanted to do the job instead. They had to audition for Berry Gordy, but Gordy was perfectly happy with them and signed them to Motown. Their role was mostly to be backing vocalists, but the plan was that they would also cut a few singles themselves as well.
But Gordy didn't want to sign them as the Del-Phis -- he didn't know what the details of their contract with Checkmate were, and who actually owned the name. So they needed a new name.
At first they went with the Dominettes, but that was soon changed, before they ever made a record What happened is a matter of some dispute, because this seems to be the moment that Martha Reeves took over the gr…