After high school, Martha joined several girls groups and performed locally. She won a talent contest, and her prize was a three day engagement at a local nightclub called The Twenty Grand. On her last night, an executive of Motown Records named William R. Stevenson approached Martha and offered her a job... as a secretary. Martha wanted to be a part of Motown so badly that she quit her job at the local dry-cleaning plant, and showed up the next morning.
Her Motown duties included supervising Little Stevie Wonder during office hours, and holding auditions for other artists. She also sang background and lead vocals on the producers demonstration tapings for their evaluations. Impressed by the power and flexibility of her voice during a Marvin Gaye session, Berry Gordy offered her the chance to record for the label.
Martha quickly contacted her friends, Rosalind Ashford, Annette Sterling and Gloria Williams, with whom she had appeared with as 'the Del-Phis'. The quartet cut an unsuccessful single for Motown's subsidiary, 'Melody', under the name, 'The Vels'.
Gloria Williams left the group when the record flopped, but the remaining trio were allowed a second opportunity, recording "I'll Have To Let Him Go" in late 1962, when the artist for whom it had been intended, Mary Wells, failed to arrive for the session. Choosing the name, 'The Vandellas', by combining 'Van' from a Detroit street named Van Dyke, and 'Della', from one of Martha's idols, Della Reese, the group divided their time between backing other Motown artists and recording in their own right. They were featured on Marvin Gaye's 1962 hit "Stubborn Kind Of Fellow", and managed to crack the U.S. Top 30 with their own release, "Come And Get These Memories", which brought their career as back-up vocalists to an end.
Their next single, the dynamic "Heat Wave", was masterminded by the Holland/Dozier/Holland production team, and captured the Vandellas at their finest. The song soared into the national Top Ten and became a Motown classic, launching a string of hit records. "Quicksand" repeated the hit formula with a U.S. Top 10 chart placing, while "Dancing In The Street" went to number two.
1965's "Nowhere To Run" was an irresistible dance hit, which was given political connotations in some quarters. It introduced a new group member, former Velvelette Betty Kelly, who replaced Annette Sterling. This line-up scored further Top 10 hits with "I'm Ready For Love" and the infectious "Jimmy Mack', and celebrated Motown's decision to give Reeves individual credit in front of the group's name with another notable success, "Honey Chile".
Reeves was taken seriously ill in 1968, and her absence forced the group to disband. By 1970, she was able to resume her career, recruiting her sister Lois and Sandra Tilley, a former member of the Velvelettes and the Orlons, to form a new Vandellas line-up. Unfortunately, the 60's Motown sound had lost its appeal to many U.S. record buyers, and the group could no longer reach the charts. They were however, able to capitalize on the belated 1969 success of "Dancing In The Street" in England, and had several Top 30 entries there in the early 70s.
After two years of dampened success, Martha reacted bitterly to Motown's decision to relocate from Detroit to Hollywood in 1972, and fought a legal battle to be released from her contract. The eventual settlement entailed the loss of her use of the Vandellas name, but left her free to sign a solo contract with MCA in 1973. Despite the fact that her album called simply 'Martha Reeves' was the most expensive album released to that point, it failed to recharge her career. It earned much critical acclaim, but was commercially disappointing, failing to satisfy either rock or soul fans with its hybrid style.
Moving to Arista Records in 1977, she was submerged by the late 70's disco boom on a series of albums that allowed her little room to display her talents. Her subsequent recording contracts proved unproductive, and during the early 80's, she found consistent work on oldies tours, featuring former Motown artists. Her sister Lois joined Quiet Elegance, while Sandra Tilley retired from the music business, and passed away in 1982.
During the late 80's, Martha toured with a 'fake' Vandellas group, before being reunited with the original group (Annette Sterling and Rosalind Ashford) on Ian Levine's Motor City label. They released 'Step Into My Shoes' in 1989, but the song failed to gain much attention.
In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked Martha and the Vandellas #96 on their list of the 100 greatest artists of all time.
Martha Reeves continued touring, mostly on the casino circuit, throughout the United States. From 2005 to 2009, she took a hiatus and was elected to Detroit's city council. When she lost her seat in August of '09 she told the press that she would return to performing. Her 2012 touring schedule had her booked for dates in England and Italy before returning to America in February.