Motown, really, is kind of hard to define. It was probably one of those “you had to be there” moments in history and most of us weren’t, which makes it even harder.
Motown originated in Detroit of course, and in many ways the music was put together in assembly line fashion. Songs were written by teams and assigned to groups, musicians stuck to the plan and records flowed out of the Motown “factory” like clockwork.
And there are so many great performers that came out of Motown that you could listen for days and days without repeating anything. The musical and cultural impact is phenomenal: Smoky Robinson. The Temptations. Mary Wells. The Supremes. Stevie Wonder. Marvin Gaye.
It was glorious.
One of the groups that maybe gets a little overshadowed is Martha and the Vandellas, one of Motown’s finest “girl groups,” as they were called then.
The group had several classic hits like Jimmy Mack and Dancing In The Streets, a celebratory party song that for a time, bizarrely, was misinterpreted as celebrating riots, but perhaps their greatest song was Heat Wave.
This video is wonderful on several levels. First, Martha Reeves had a very powerful voice and the harmonies provided by Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard are just spot on. Second, it had every bit of Motown’s indefinable allure. And third, unlike today, there was a shyness and sweetness to the performance. It’s the exact opposite of the narcissism we see in so many modern performers.
Motown has a lot to brag about. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder changed music and culture. But what Martha and the Vandellas accomplished in this song was nearly perfect.