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Martha and The Vandellas rivalled The Supremes as Motown’s leading girl group. Yet whereas The Supremes’ singer Diana Ross went on to become a solo superstar, Martha Reeves has had difficulties in her post-Vandellas career.
During her Motown days she blamed the label owner Berry Gordy for promoting The Supremes over the earthier-sounding Vandellas. She suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1960s, which hastened the group’s demise, and struggled with drug and alcohol addiction for much of the 1970s.
In 1989 she and her former band mates sued Motown for back royalties. Just as race riots and the Vietnam war were the backdrop to hits such as “Dancing in the Streets”, so too rancour and resentment lurk beneath the brassy, thrusting sound of The Vandellas in full flight.
Now a grandmother of 66, Reeves was joined at the Jazz Café by two sisters, Lois and Delphine, who stood in for the original Vandellas. The venue was tiny, a far cry from the stadiums that Diana Ross fills, and the large backing band appeared to be composed mainly of young hired hands who peered at musical scores as they played.
Reeves, in a figure-hugging gold sequin dress and gold stilettos, was a picture of defiant glamour. Her gospel-trained voice was powerful but variable. A solo song from her last album in 2004, the distrustful “Watch Your Back”, found her at her best, singing vigorously over a blues beat and soulful horns.
More subtle numbers such as “Come and Get These Memories”, an early Vandellas hit from 1963, exposed how her singing has aged, with a reedy warble replacing the lithe vocals of her younger self. Reeves was preoccupied by her microphone during the opening stages of her set, although one suspected the flaws were mortal not mechanical.
The setlist was packed with 24-carat soul songs, sung with energy and flashes of Reeves’ old technique. It was both poignant and uplifting. The busy sound of classics such as “(Love Is Like a) Heatwave” and “Dancing in the Streets” was irresistible, with Reeves’ urgent though mixed vocals adding a note of fallibility to the music. It was like King Lear in gold sequins set to a Motown beat.