Released a mere fifty years ago this month was an album that signified the end of a career yet it was among the best to be recorded during that career. With a change of name from “Black Lace” to “Black Magic”, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas delivered in style their last official album for Motown. (I’m relieved about the name change because “Black Lace” is/was the marketing name of Mills & Boons’ rather naughty books that were usually found on the top shelf. Erm, so I’m told) So I’ve dug out my vinyl of the Gordy release; it’s in good shape too, and amazed myself at how the music is so inspiring as it gravitates from one track to another – a healthy blend of variety updating the trio’s sound thanks to a brilliantly diverse selection of writers and producers that included Johnny Bristol, Ashford & Simpson (who were also session singers), Hank Cosby and, of course, The Corporation, hot from success with the Jackson 5, incorporating some of the company’s finest – Deke Richards, Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, and Berry Gordy this time.

“Berry wanted us to spread our wings,” Deke explained one time. “He decided rather than find a new act to perform magic on, he wanted us to resurrect an established one. The first one that came to mind was Martha Reeves. I had always felt bad about ‘I Can’t Dance To That Music You’re Playin’.”  I’ll quickly explain what he meant. The song which Mr Richards wrote with Debbie Dean, was his first contender for a top-side on a major artist, but unfortunately even his best laid plans failed. Through a series of recording situations that Deke had no control over, part of Martha’s vocals were clipped from the final edit mix. She was on tour, Motown wouldn’t pay for her to return to the studio to re-record the chorus, yet wanted the single out soonest. So, Deke had no choice but to find a Martha replacement. He asked Syreeta to step in and it’s her voice we can hear singing lead on that section. If you listen closely you can hear Martha, Syreeta and the Andantes, not the Vandellas, singing at the end of the song. Naturally, Syreeta was uncredited on the record label and Deke was mortified that he had misled the public.

It’s rather ironic that in hindsight Martha’s last album, “Natural Resources” (which I always found difficult except for the controversial cry against the Vietnam war with “I Should Be Proud” which is movingly brilliant) had faltered due to Motown’s lack of interest because, she said they were “concentrating on this new group of children from Indiana”. And it was the very team behind the Jackson 5 who were now working with her, albeit only on four tracks.

Anyway, back in the day, fans nicknamed “Black Magic” the “Jackson 5 album” and we were fed several versions of how Martha came to record it, including her own. I remember her telling me the tapes were destined for either The Supremes or then-solo Diana Ross but that she got to them first. I suppose it was general knowledge in the industry that at that time Diana and Martha weren’t exactly fond of each other but I reckon this had more to do with Berry Gordy’s decision to exclusively focus on Diana and the Supremes – in that order. Having said that, he insisted he also had strong, positive feelings for Martha and her work. “I liked Martha’s performances in some ways better than Diana’s because she had the sex appeal going for her….Martha had soul….and we were close…So I can understand (her) disappointment when I focused on The Supremes.”

Nonetheless, despite the lack of personal interest by the company boss, Martha and the girls’ popularity continued to grow across the world, they were in demand for tours and became frequent visitors to Europe. However, things started to fall apart following the release of “Nowhere To Run” as Lamont Dozier wrote in  his book, How Sweet It Is – “(They) released a handful of singles that didn’t do much. None of them were Holland, Dozier, Holland songs. About a year and a half later they issued another one of ours ‘I’m Ready For Love’.”

By December 1966 Martha and the Vandellas were back in the US top ten and ready to lock into a more consistent run of hits. A month after the success of “Nowhere To Run”, a pissed off Martha told Lamont she believed she was “getting the short end of the stick” because she knew there were far better tracks in the can than those she was being asked to newly record.

Her next port of call in January 1967,  she said, was Berry Gordy. Martha’s request was granted: Berry instructed Billie Jean Brown to find all the unreleased tracks and deliver them to him. Now, it was this lady who had originally hidden away “Jimmy Mack” because she disliked it, despite protestations from its writers. When Berry heard the story behind the song’s incarceration, he was far from happy as Lamont Dozier continued: “Everybody gave it a thumbs up. Berry pounded his fist on the desk ‘how long has this been on the goddam shelf? ‘ When he found out it was two-and-a-half years, he barked, ‘I want this out next week!'” Originally called “Ronnie Mack”, Holland, Dozier, Holland wrote the song in tribute to the young composer who died in his twenties, and who will be remembered for writing “He’s So Fine” for The Chiffons. The rest is musical history – but I’ve digressed so much…

So, back to “Black Magic”, and how Martha got her hands on the tapes. By all accounts, Diana listened to the tapes, all demo-ed in her vocal range, but decided they didn’t suit her future recording plans. The songs were offered to Martha. “Most of the tape cases had Diana’s name on them. She evidently didn’t like the songs, but I did. However, ‘Tear It On Down’ was all mine, written for me by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, and it has always been one of my favourites.”   Mine too: it’s strong, big and emotive with a powerful presentation. The gal means business, and so did Vince Aletti’s review in Rolling Stone that included, “One of the tastiest production jobs on the album and featured the best use of the Vandellas.” Marvin recorded the song for his 1968 album “In The Groove” and having just played that now, both versions are wonderfully credible. However, the track was originally earmarked for The Marvelettes but it appears they either their version was erased or they never recorded it in the first place.

The Corporation wrote and produced several tracks. “Bless You” was one, the first lifted for single release and about which Deke Richards said, “…I didn’t want her record to sound like a J5 track. I think that would have killed her, and started all kinds of speculation and opinions from deejays and J5 fans alike. …I felt some amount of familiarity would be the best way to go. Finally, I decided on what I call ‘back in time, with a twist.’ …Her fans loved it and were excited to see Martha was back on the charts. It was a classic comeback and I was thrilled to be a part of it.”

“Bless You”, with all its J5 tweaks and turns, was a top forty UK hit. Its B-side “Hope I Don’t Get My Heart Broke”, written by Lawrence Brown, Allen Story and George Gordy, was another to be first recorded by Marvin Gaye but stashed away until 1994 when it was part of his “Love Starved Heart” collection. The other Corporation-penned and/or produced items were the Jackson 5’s debut “I Want You Back” and “Your Love Makes It All Worthwhile” which had the makings of single status with both the Vandellas and the Blackberries as support vocals.

After Deke had recorded the first take with Martha in the studios, Berry Gordy took over. He finished the melody and altered some of the lyrics, so Deke admitted most of the credit for the way the song turned out was down to Berry. “He took Martha back in the studio and I thought they’d never come out of there…I thought Berry’s mix was a little strange with the claps up too high and dry….The fade went on too long and exposed an earlier Martha overdub and even Berry’s demo voice in the background near the end…He really liked it the way it was.” You didn’t argue with the boss!

“I Want You Back” was released as a single, and Deke Richards believed Martha was the perfect choice because it validated the song as genderless. He had hoped “Bless You” would work and was concerned that, while it returned Martha to the R&B chart, it missed the mainstream market. He said, “…I wanted the chance to give her a taste of the new sound we created, the sound that brought the J5 to the top.” I think it’s fair to say that if “Black Magic” had been a hit, or if any of the singles had crossed over, Martha’s future would have taken a whole different path.

In my opinion, two tracks which really don’t fit into the feel and mood of “Black Magic” are Bacharach/David’s “Anyone Who Had A Heart” and George Harrison’s “Something” lifted from the ladies’ previous album, “Natural Resources”. The latter track was Sandra Tilley’s first recording as a Vandella but nonetheless I felt the songs were intruders in the ‘black magic’ bubble.

Anyway, moving on, I’m saving the best until last here. The first is a beautifully crafted song with emotionally charged lyrics penned by George Gordy, Lawrence Brown and Allen Story against the sweeping musical backdrop arranged by the multi-talented Paul Riser and David Van DePitte. I was shocked to read the song was conceived with the Jackson 5 in mind. Excuse me?!

Yeah, you’ve got it – “In And Out Of My Life” which Martha recorded with the Andantes, who of course, weren’t credited on the album sleeve. In fact, looking over the Gordy release I have, there’s few credits apart from the obligatory composer and producer citations; no sleeve notes, no nothing! “In And Out Of My Life” was directed at Gerald, who she had been dating for three years and who was the father of her son Eric. Their relationship ended, Martha was a single mum who had to earn a living for her family. “..He was a miracle that God gave me and a reason to live a purposeful life.” However, touring with a baby was impossible:  “When a tour of England suddenly came together for me, it was a family decision to give my mother legal guardianship of my baby….Gerald provided nothing, although his parents, brothers and sisters were generous and loving to my son.”

The second, penned by Johnny Bristol, Jack Goga, Annette Minor and Peter Green, actually kicked off the album, and was credited to a solo Martha Reeves, giving us fans a passing hope that she would continue with Motown as a soloist. Of course, our hopes were later dashed. “No One There” with “(I’ve Given You) The Best Years Of My Life” on the flip was a dazzling combination. The lady at her finest because with lyrics like ‘talking to an emptiness makes such a lonely sound…the future is hard to see, when you’re looking through a tear,’ the song totally summed up her life at this time. I won’t go into all that now as it’s a story told several times already, but suffice to say it was a confusing period for Martha.

On the one hand, she had recorded “Black Magic” being hailed as one of their best ever and on the other, her beloved record company had moved to Los Angeles, with no plans to continue working with her. The pill she swallowed was totally sour and bitter. So, with no recording dates in her diary, Martha and the Vandellas continued with their live gigs until they too ended on 21 December 1972 at Detroit’s Cobo Hall. After a year of indecision, Martha dusted herself off and got down to business. She hasn’t looked back since.

Let’s talk about the packaging on “Black Magic” because those of you who know me, will remember I have this ‘thing’ about album sleeves. So the back cover gives a quick peek at the girls’ birth signs. Am I missing something here? Martha – Cancer, Water sign: Sandra – Taurus, Earth sign, and Lois – Aries, Fire sign, with a few sentences about each atop their individual pictures, which have been snipped from the front cover. Surely there must have been more photos available from this Ron Rafaelli session. Best known for his images of rock stars with Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix high on his list of clients, hiring Mr. Rafaelli suggested that Motown was happy to spend super-money to secure just the right look for this project. Mind you, judging by the sombre, moody – dare I say – angry poses, brought about I suspect by the ladies being kept waiting for longer than was decent, they no longer felt like cracking a smile for his camera lense.

When the photo session eventually started, photographer Ron played a tape of crickets chirping to set the mood he wanted in the studio. Well, that’s enough to set your teeth on edge. Anyway, whatever the reason and against great odds, the front cover was remarkably striking, with its back-lit pose of the trio bathed in deep blue. Actually, looking at it again, the pose was also somewhat intense: check out the expression on Sandra’s face. It says it all. Whoop, whoop, I’ve seen a couple more poses from the cricket chirping session thanks to “The Complete Motown Singles:Vol 11B:1971”. Smiling faces are missing on both.

Happily, Martha Reeves had the last laugh. She has been smiling for a lifetime now because she had staying power with an iron-clad loyal fan base that ensures her global popularity remains intact.

Yeah, black magic indeed.

Sharon Davis

(Acknowlegements to “The Complete Motown Singles Volume 11B:1971/12A:1972” and “How Sweet It Is” by Lamont Dozier)