ALBUM OF THE MONTH
FIVE REASONS TO LISTEN:
- Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ highly-rated album adieu to Motown.
- Features R&B hit singles “Bless You,” “In And Out Of My Life,” “Tear It On Down.”
- Four tracks produced by The Corporation, architects of the Jackson 5 success.
- “Tear It On Down,” written and produced by Nick Ashford & Valerie Simpson.
- Includes “No One There,” still in Martha’s concert setlist today.
FOUR FAST FACTS:
- Original release date: March 3, 1972.
- Recorded in Detroit and Los Angeles.
- Top 30 on the Billboard Soul LPs chart.
- Cover art by noted rock photographer Ron Rafaelli.
FULL TRACK LISTING:
- Black Magic was the last of Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ eight albums (excluding “greatest hits” compilations) on Motown’s Gordy label, but widely considered to be among their best. The company committed one of its A-team writing/production units to the group, with Berry Gordy himself spending time at the recording console. During the album’s timeline, Stevie Wonder also produced material for Martha, as did another hot Hitsville team, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Even the photographer employed for the cover shoot was top tier.
- In her autobiography, Dancing in the Street, Martha speculated that her group’s previous album, Natural Resources, had received little support because Motown “was too busy concentrating on this new group of children from Indiana,” the Jackson 5. Whether true or not, the company did subsequently assign those responsible for those youngsters’ first smash hits to Martha. This was the Corporation, comprising Mr. Gordy and three young songwriters, Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell and Deke Richards. “Berry wanted us to spread our wings,” Richards later recalled. “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.”
- The Corporation penned and produced four tracks on Black Magic, including “Bless You,” which was first released as a 45 in September 1971. “I didn’t want her record to sound like a J5 track,” Richards explained in liner notes for one of The Complete Motown Singles series. Nonetheless, the result had much of the energy of the best Jacksons material, coupled with a strong vocal performance from Martha. “Although it wasn’t a huge seller, ‘Bless You’ got tons of airplay,” Richards remarked. “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 part of it.”
- The Corporation also gave a Black Magic spin to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” as well as another uptempo tune, “Your Love Makes It All Worthwhile” (more on that in a moment), and a version of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s epic ballad, “Anyone Who Had A Heart.” The tracks were recorded at the MoWest studio in Los Angeles, although it’s unclear where the vocals were done. On Black Magic, the Vandellas were identified as Lois Reeves, Martha’s sister, and Sandra Tilley; their portraits (and star signs) were prominently displayed on the album’s back cover. Another track, George Harrison’s “Something,” was said to be Tilley’s first recording as a Vandella. This was recorded in Detroit with producer Hank Cosby, and previously released on the trio’s 1970 LP, Natural Resources.
- The second 45 from Black Magic was “In And Out Of My Life,” written by Allen Story, George Gordy and Lawrence Brown, and produced by Gordy and Brown. Martha declared in her autobiography that she directed the song’s sentiments at the father of her son, Eric. It was recorded in Detroit in late 1971, as the singer’s relationship with Eric’s father hit a rough patch. “When a tour of England suddenly came together for me,” she remembered, “it was a family decision to give my mother legal guardianship of my baby.” As for “In And Out Of My Life,” it became the album’s highest-charting single on the Billboard R&B rankings during the first quarter of ’72.
- Another compelling piece of work on Black Magic was its opening track, “No One There,” a vivid portrait of loneliness co-written and produced by a seasoned Motown craftsman, Johnny Bristol. Rolling Stone reviewer Vince Aletti hailed it as “the best thing [the group] has done since their 1970 single, ‘I Should Be Proud.’” Motown’s team in Britain obviously agreed: “No One There” was issued as a U.K. single in early 1973, with solo billing for Martha. More than 40 years later, she still includes the song in her live set.
- More contentious was the Black Magic photo shoot. In Dancing in the Street, Martha revealed that she, Lois and Sandy were angry at being made to sit and wait for hours. “When the photographer was finally ready, he played a tape recording of crickets chirping to set the mood he wanted in the studio, and we were instructed not to smile.” The individual isn’t named in the book, but he does receive a credit on the LP artwork. It was Ron Raffaelli, best known for his images of rock gods Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. Cricket chirping aside, his credentials suggest that Motown was willing to spend money to get the right look on this occasion.
- In March 1972, Black Magic was released in the company of several other Motown albums, most notably, Stevie Wonder’s Music Of My Mind. Simultaneously, it was announced that Stevie and Martha would join the Rolling Stones’ upcoming summer tour of the U.S. and Canada. The 30-city itinerary was to begin in early June, although shortly before that came another declaration: that Martha would not, after all, be on the bill. No reason was given for the cancellation. Wonder went ahead with the Stones, significantly broadening his audience reach during the 40-show, nationwide swing.
- Prior to this, as he polished his writing and producing capabilities with other Motown artists, Stevie Wonder went into the studio with Martha & the Vandellas. In September 1970, they recorded “Let Me Fall In Love With You,” a song composed by Stevie and Syreeta Wright. The following July, he produced the self-composed “Talking ’Bout Love” with the group. Both tracks were unreleased at the time, but appeared in 2005 on the Hip-O/Motown rarities set, Martha Reeves & the Vandellas: Spellbound.
- As 1972 drew to a close, Martha stepped onto the concert stage to play a highly publicized, multi-artist show at New York’s Madison Square Garden. (Also on the bill: the Four Tops and the Four Seasons.) Before the end of December, she and the Vandellas performed their final show together – or, at least, of the 1970s – at Detroit’s Cobo Hall. “It was,” Martha subsequently admitted, “an upsetting evening, knowing that this marked the end of an era for me.” As time has since proved, it may have been the end of an era, but it was not the end of Martha Reeves & the Vandellas. To this day, the trio, now featuring sisters Lois and Delphine Reeves alongside Miss Martha, are still drawing the crowds, at home and abroad. It’s certainly magic of some sort.
“Along the way I have learned that you’ve got to have a dream before you can have one come true. If you learn patience, don’t get discouraged when things don’t exactly work out the way you’d like. Keep still and continue praying; you’ll get exactly what you need.” – Martha Reeves, writing in Dancing in the Street, her 1994 autobiography with Mark Bego.
VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE TRACK ON THE ALBUM:
Producers: Nickolas Ashford, Johnny Bristol, Lawrence Brown, The Corporation, Hank Cosby, George Gordy, Jimmy Roach, Valerie Simpson
Songwriters: Nickolas Ashford, Burt Bacharach, Johnny Bristol, Lawrence Brown, Hal David, Dino Fekaris, Jack Goga, Berry Gordy, George Gordy, George Harrison, Peter Green, Annette Minor, Fonce Mizell, Freddie Perren, Deke Richards, Valerie Simpson, Allen Story, Nick Zesses.
Pre-makes: “Anyone Who Had A Heart” (Dionne Warwick, 1963), “Hope I Don’t Get My Heart Broke” (Marvin Gaye, 1970) “I Want You Back” (Jackson 5, 1969), “Something” (The Beatles, 1969), “Tear It On Down” (Marvin Gaye, 1968; the Originals, 1971).