Martha Reeves & The Vandellas – 1972 – Black Magic

Martha Reeves & The Vandellas Black Magic

Review by RDTEN1

The final studio credited to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, 1972’s “Black Magic” tends to get ignored by critics and fans.  That’s unfortunate given that while far from perfect, the collection had more than its share of pleasures.  Looking at the credits, Motown seems to have decided to give the group one last shot at the big time, bringing in the cream of the company’s songwriting talents including Ashford & Simpson, Johnny Bristol, and The Corporation (which had written a string of hits for The Jackson Five).  The downside to all this talent came in the form of an album that was all over the map in terms of genres and styles including stabs at cocktail jazz, white-bread pop, and old fashioned Motown soul.  There simply wasn’t much consistency here.  Adding to the problems, throughout much of the collection Martha Reeves, sister Lois Reeves, and Sandra Tilley simply didn’t sound very engaged by the material.  It almost sounded like they realized this was the end of the road for their collaboration.  Those criticisms aside, Reeves was simply too good an artist to turn in a collection without some merit.  

A1 No One There 3:32
A2 Your Love Makes It All Worthwhile 3:24
A3 Something 2:41
A4 Benjamin 3:29
A5 Tear It On Down 3:27
A6 I’ve Given You the Best Years of My Life 2:58
B1 Bless You 2:58
B2 I Want You Back 2:50
B3 In and Out of My Life 2:56
B4 Anyone Who Had a Heart 3:57
B5 Hope I Don’t Get My Heart Broke 3:41

Martha Reeves & The Vandellas Black Magic back

Opening up with some pretty harpsichord, ‘No One There‘ was a catchy ‘heartbreak’ ballad that made it clear Reeves instantly recognizable voice remained in prime form.   Yeah, the heavy orchestration took some of the song’s urgency away, but the performance was energetic enough to survive.
Penned by the Corporation. ‘Your Love Makes It Worthwhile‘ was a wonderful throwback to the group’s original sound.  Upbeat and brash, this one sounded way more 1966 than 1972.  Reeves didn’t handle lead vocals on this one and while I’m not sure if it was Lois Reeves, or Sandra Tilley, I will say their performance was a bit on the pitchy and shrill side.  Still, it made for one of the album’s best performances.
Their cover of George Harrison’s ‘Something‘ was one of the album’s low points.  Motown had an irritating habit of forcing its artists to record MOR covers of pop and rock hits and this string smothered version was one of the lamest songs in The Vandellas catalog.  Very Las Vegas showroom and simply horrible …
I’m not sure why, but the ballad ‘Benjamin‘ has always reminded me of something Lul, or Barbara Streisand might have recorded.  Apparently meant to have that ‘sophisticated’ pop sound, the results were simply lame.

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Thankfully Ashford and Simpson’s ‘Tear It On Down‘ (previously recorded by Marvin Gaye), returned Reeves and company to a soul footing.  With Reeves finally finding something she could sink her teeth into, this track momentarily recaptured some of the group’s former energy.  Released as a single, it should have been a massive hit for the group, but didn’t even hit the top-100 pop charts.
Opening with some nice fuzz guitar, ‘I’ve Given You the Best Years of My Life‘ was another track that harkened back to their initial successes.  Very old school Motown and the better for it.
I remember the first time I hard ‘Bless You‘ I thought it was a late-inning Diana Ross and the Supremes tune.  By the way that wasn’t meant as a criticism.  Musically, with it’s weird hybrid of soul and pop orchestration  this was another track that sounded more 1968 than 1972.  Easy to see why it was pulled as a single, through it’s a little too MOR for my taste.

While nice, their cover of ‘I Want You Back‘ won’t make you forget the Jackson Five version.  The main problem with this one was that the fussy arrangement managed to stray from the song’s amazing melody.  Even the instantly recognizable refrain lost traction in this arrangement.
– Credit Reeves with salvaging ‘In and Out of my Life’ with one of her best vocals.

 Motown artists and Bacharach-David covers are normally losing causes and that was the case for ‘Anyone Who Had a Heart‘.  This was another track that would have been far better had the arrangement been paired way back.  As it was, this one also sounded too Las Vegas showroom for its own good.  That said, the electric sitar was a cool touch.
With Reeves at her raspy, don’t mess-with-me best, ‘Hope I Don’t Get My Heart Broke” was my pick for standout performance.  What a voice she had.  Shame Motown didn’t replace some of the more conventional pop tracks with more stuff in this vein.

Still, had Motown ditched a couple of the MOR covers, this would have stood as one of their classic performances and saved their careers. One last non-LP single for Gordy and it was over for the group.

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