Martha and the Vandellas – “Jimmy Mack”

jimmy mack
Martha and the Vandellas – “Jimmy Mack,” Pop # 10, R&B # 1

By Joel Francis

“Jimmy Mack” capped a remarkable four-year run by the trio that started with “Come and Get These Memories” in 1963. Like most of the group’s hits during that time, “Jimmy Mack” was written and produced by the redoubtable Holland-Dozier-Holland team. Coincidentally, “Jimmy Mack” was not only the Vandellas final Top 10 hit, but the last time the trio worked with Holland-Dozier-Holland before the songwriting team departed Motown in early 1968 over a royalty dispute.

Although HDH had a half-dozen major hits with Motown before their work slowdown/standoff with Berry Gordy, “Jimmy Mack” was recorded in 1964 but shelved after it failed to pass the weekly Quality Control meetings. When it was rescued from the vaults three years later, the lyrics took on a whole new dimension.

President Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of troops in Vietnam brought new poignancy to Martha Reeves’ musings of when her man would return. Originally written as a tempted woman’s plea for her boyfriend to return, many separated young couples interpreted the song as an overseas missive to a lost loved one.

Not that the song’s arrangement could support such a weighty metaphor. “Jimmy Mack” is little more than handclaps, perky piano and vocals. Reeves’ sunny vocals are void of any heartache, but the melody is catchy enough to compensate. Listen to this once and you’ll be signing it for the rest of the day.

Nearly 20 years later, Sheena Easton revived “Jimmy Mack” and took it to No. 65 in 1986.


The Marvelettes – “Don’t Mess With Bill”


The Marvelettes – “Don’t Mess With Bill,” Pop #7, R&B #3

The three years between this hit and the Marvelettes’ previous chart entry, “Beechwood 4-5789,” saw them slide from Barry Gordy’s go-to girl group to third fiddle behind Martha and the Vandellas and the Supremes. After passing on “Where Did Our Love Go,” which became a hit for the Supremes, they finally found success with this Smokey Robinson number.

Lyrically, this relationship may not be the most stable: Bill has put tears in lead singer Wanda Young’s eyes “a thousand times or more.” But “every time he would apologize/I loved him more than before.” Furthermore, Young isn’t sure Bill will come back; that said, she wants no competition.

The vocal deliveries may not be threatening, but the slinky organ underpinning the melody and saxophone solo add an element of danger. Any girl that’s tough enough to put up with what Bill hands out can definitely hold her own. – by Joel Francis

Martha and the Vandellas – “Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)”


Martha and the Vandellas – “Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things),” Pop #70, R&B #22

By Joel Francis

Martha and the Vandellas didn’t do many ballads. Their best-known songs – “Heat Wave,” “Jimmy Mack” and “Nowhere to Run” – are all relentlessly upbeat. Despite the drastic change in tempo, the three songs above share at least one similarity with “Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)”: They were all written by Holland-Dozier-Holland.

The HDH team really came into its own in 1965, the year “Love” was released. Rare was the week that one or more of their songs wasn’t found near the top of the charts. This number, however, was a rare misstep for the team.

Martha Reeves turns in a fine vocal performance, but the song never really ignites. The number never peaks. Once Reeves’ voice enters, everything just kind of sits there until the fade-out. Although the trio wrote captivating arrangements for “It’s the Same Old Song” and “I Hear a Symphony,” the arrangement here isn’t anything to write home about. The drums are prominent in the mix, but aren’t really saying anything. Likewise, one gets the impression the strings were just added to make the mix more full. Finally, the lyrics are solid, but don’t expose anything not given away in the title.

“Love (Makes Me Do Foolish Things)” never ignited with other artists, either. Berry Gordy tried to farm the song off to a couple other Motown artists, most notably the Supremes. The results of Kim Weston’s adventures with the tune languished in the Motown vaults until the historical reissues of 2005.

That said, it is never wise to write off a Holland-Dozier-Holland number, especially from this era. In the right hands, the song could be a surprising hit today.

Martha and the Vandellas – “Nowhere To Run”


Martha and the Vandellas – “Nowhere To Run,” Pop #8, R&B #5

Every element positively soars in this song. The brief, simple horn riff lifts off and Martha Reeves’ voice pushes the listener into the stratosphere. Funk Brother Benny Benjamin’s bouncing drums and ascending backing vocals from the Vandellas keep the track in the air well past the run-off groove.

Reeves’ vain search to shake a no-good lover from her mind is further propelled by a light tickle of piano and hard-driving percussion than included a pair of snow chains bolstering the tambourine placed front and center in the mix. Holland-Dolland-Holland clearly knew what they were doing with this number. Heartbreak has never sounded so jubilant. – by Joel Francis

Martha and the Vandellas – “Dancing in the Street”

Martha and the Vandellas – “Dancing in the Street,” Pop #2

By Joel Francis

Poor, poor Kim Weston. Had she not passed on this song, she may be remembered for that being Marvin Gaye’s first duet partner. Instead, Martha Reeves got to place another jewel in her crown.

Funk Brother Benny Benjamin’s great drumming and the incessant, propulsive tambourine get the feet going before Marta Reeves opens her mouth. But once she does, Reeves embraces every syllable with her full voice, squeezing each note for maximum pleasure. The single was released at the end of July, 1964, but its not hard to imagine that even in the dead of winter, legions of listeners would heeded Reeves “invitation across the nation” and joined her in the streets.

The growing race riots throughout America soon cast the song in a different light. (Five years later, the Rolling Stones recast the number into the dark, political anthem “Street Fighting Man.”) It’s hard to erase the imprint that history has left on the number, but the heart of Reeves’ words is utopia: Whoever you are, whatever you wear, wherever you’re from, get outside, grab a guy (or gal) and dance. “All we need is music, sweet music.” If only life were this simple.

Like many of Motown’s signature songs, cover versions abound. The Kinks and The Who cut versions earlier in their career. Both fail to capture the joy in Reeves singing and translate the large soul arrangement to a rock quartet. Artists as diverse as Dusty Springfield, the Grateful Dead and the Carpenters also tackled the song.

Van Halen propelled the song back onto the charts nearly 20 years after the Vandellas’ hit. Eddie Van Halen’s post-disco keyboard part transforms the arrangement as Diamond Dave – never one to miss a party – celebrates the lyrics. The song is a high point on one of the group’s most puzzling albums. “Diver Down” contains not one, but two Kinks covers (which should provide a clue as to why they decided to do “Streets”), a polka featuring Alex and Eddie’s dad on clarinet, and closes with “Happy Trails.”

No discussion of “Dancing in the Street” would be complete without mentioning the horrific, oh-my-god-look-away cover performed by David Bowie and Mick Jagger. While the intent was noble – a charity single for Live Aid – the results were anything but. It didn’t help that the song was delivered at the nadir of these legendary careers. Bowie had just completed his dance-happy “Tonight” album and Jagger was in the middle of “She’s the Boss” and attempting to break up his legendary band. The production is sickeningly slick and the vocals sound tossed off. Never ones to be swayed by taste, the public sent the song to No. 7 on the U.S. chart (and clear to No. 1 elsewhere in the world).

The most intriguing version of “Dancing in the Streets” may not exist. I maintain a secret hope that somewhere there is a demo version of Marvin Gaye’s original performance. I have no idea if tape was rolling when Gaye, who co-wrote the song with Mickey Stevenson, presented the song to Reeves or if he attempted to cut a guide vocal, but I am optimistic an unmarked reel in the Motown archives will be unearthed and reveal this treasure. I got my hopes up a few years ago when the “Cellarful of Motown” rarities compilation was released, but so far nothing has surfaced. In the meantime, Martha and the Vandellas will more than suffice.

Martha and the Vandellas – “(Love is Like A) Heat Wave”

Martha and the Vandellas – “(Love is Like A) Heat Wave,” Pop #4, R&B #1

When the mercury starts pushing past the century mark my first inclinations are to shave my head and hibernate near the air conditioning. If actual heat waves were more like this song, I’d be dancing in the streets.

Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote it and Martha Reeves sang the heck out of it, but the real credit should go to the Funk Brothers, Motown’s stable of uber-talented, under-recognized musicians. The drums open the song with the buoyancy of an oceanic wave, while a swiftly strummed guitar tells your feet when to move. Add a spritely horn section and peppy piano and you’ve got a hit before Reeves nails the first note.
With so many upbeat elements it’s easy to miss the pain in the lyrics. “Whenever he calls my name/Sounds so soft sweet and plain/Right then, right there/I feel this burning pain/This high blood pressure’s got a hold on me/I said this ain’t the way love’s supposed to be/It’s like a heatwave burning in my heart/I can’t keep from crying/Tearing me apart.” Divorced from the melody and arrangement and the words have the same longing and pain as Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” But together bad love and frustration never felt so good.
Berry Gordy tried to replicate his success by lending the number to the Supremes in 1967. A year earlier The Who covered it a for their second album, but neither version measured up. How could it? Stick “Heat Wave” in your summer cookout playlist alongside Sly and the Family Stone’s “Hot Fun in the Summertime” and any number of Beach Boys tunes and you’ve got a recipe for success. — By Joel Francis

Marvin Gaye – “Pride and Joy”

Marvin Gaye – “Pride and Joy,” Pop #10, R&B #2

The bouncy piano that opens and propels this track may be pure Chicago blues and Gaye’s singing more jazz than soul, but the backing vocals are pure Motown.

Supported by Martha and the Vandellas, Gaye reunited with Norman Whitfield and Mickey Stevenson for this jaunty ode to label boss Barry Gordy’s sister, Anna. This songwriting trio may have misfired on “Beechwood 4-5789,” but everything works here. Not only was the song Gaye’s first Top 10 hit, but Anna Gordy went on to marry Gaye. — By Joel Francis

Martha and the Vandellas – “Come and Get These Memories”

Martha and the Vandellas – “Come and Get These Memories,” Pop #29, R&B #6

“Come and Get These Memories” would be less memorable were it not the Motown debut of both singer Martha Reeves and the songwriting team of Brain Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland.

Though Holland-Dozier-Holland would dominate both the charts and the Motown landscape during the mid-‘60s, they got off to an inauspicious start here. Reeves is confident in her delivery, but the songwriting and arrangement is tepid. Before the first minute is over we’ve heard the chorus three times and two verses. The piece sounds more like a jingle than a song at this point. The horns bop back and forth without swinging and the backing vocals of “come and get ‘em” are too peppy to convey any sense of heartbreak.

The song fares better in its second half. The horn break at the halfway mark is like flipping a light switch. The brass arrangement grows more aggressive and supportive and Martha, the Vandellas and the Motown musicians really swing through the bridge (“because of these memories/I never think of anybody but you”) that fades into the outro. It’s as if the cast has finally been given direction.

According to legend, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were in the studio working out the arrangement to “Breakdown,” when someone walking by in the hall recommended they move the guitar lick from the outro to the beginning. It’s a shame that no one offered similar advice here. Instead the public would have to wait five months for Martha and Holland-Dozier-Holland’s follow-up effort, “Heatwave.” They had mastered the learning curve by then. — by Joel Francis