It Was 50 Years Ago Today: The Long-Shelved ‘Jimmy Mack’ Gives Martha & the Vandellas a Belated #1 Hit

May 16, 1967
“Jimmy Mack” by Martha & the Vandellas
#1 on the Billboard Hot Rhythm and Blues Singles chart, May 13-19, 1967

The Marvelettes may have been the first successful girl group to emerge out of Motown, and the Supremes may have been the most popular, but Martha & the Vandellas were the most potent, combining equal parts gospel righteousness and playful sass.

Martha Reeves’ no-nonsense alto, which made even the most lighthearted dance song sound like a manifesto, was squarely framed by Rosalind Ashford’s soprano and Annette Beard’s (later Betty Kelly’s) contralto. Their reign may not have lasted long, but in the year or two between the decline of the Marvelettes and the ascent of the Supremes, the Vandellas were the queens of Motown.

Having proven their hit-making ability as backing singers for Marvin Gaye — they’re the voices behind “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” “Hitch Hike,” and “Pride and Joy” — Martha & the Vandellas soon signed to Motown as artists in their own right.

The group’s debut single, 1962’s “I’ll Have to Let Him Go,” didn’t make much of a splash. For their second try, however, Motown founder Berry Gordy, Jr. handed the Vandellas off to the newly established songwriting/production team of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland.

The resulting record, 1963’s “Come and Get These Memories,” was the first hit for both the Vandellas and the newly minted Holland-Dozier-Holland. However, it was the follow-up, 1964’s “Heat Wave,” that established both trios as Motown royalty, in the process redefining the label’s template from the sleek pop of the Miracles and Mary Wells to a punchier, harder-edged sound.

Martha & the Vandellas, c. 1964

Unfortunately, the partnership didn’t last long. After another Top 10 hit with 1963’s “Quicksand,” the Vandellas’ next two singles with Holland-Dozier-Holland, “Live Wire” and “In My Lonely Room,” missed the Top 40 altogether.

 

Meanwhile, H-D-H’s collaborations with the Supremes and the Four Tops had begun to eclipse their productions for the Vandellas. While Martha & co. would occasionally work with the trio after 1964, their primary producers became Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter. The pair, along with old friend Marvin Gaye, gave the Vandellas their biggest hit: 1964’s “Dancing in the Street.”

As successful as “Dancing in the Street” was, however, Stevenson and Hunter’s other Vandellas records couldn’t scale the commercial heights of the group’s early singles. The relative differences between the two production teams were cast in sharp relief on the occasions when Vandellas reunited with H-D-H.

Nowhere to Run,” released in 1965, became the group’s first Top 10 single since “Dancing in the Street,” and 1966’s “I’m Ready for Love” their first Top 10 hit after that. Sensing a pattern, and recognizing that H-D-H were too busy to produce new material for the Vandellas, someone at Motown got the bright idea to dig through the archives for any neglected classics. Miraculously, they found one.

“Jimmy Mack” had been recorded back in 1964, but Gordy rejected it at one of his legendary quality-control meetings. One rumor was that it sounded too much like the emerging Supremes — although Reeves, with her take-no-prisoners alto, could never be confused with the helpless, masochistic victim of so many of the Supremes’ early hits.

The heroine of “Jimmy Mack” isn’t worried that her commitment to her sweetheart is too strong, but that it’s fading. When she sings, “Jimmy Mack, you better hurry back,” it’s both a plea for his return and an implicit warning: she’s not going to sit around and wait forever.

 

Martha & the Vandellas, c. 1967

Lamont Dozier had been inspired to write “Jimmy Mack” after attending a conference where the mother of songwriter Ronnie Mack accepted an award on behalf of her late son. The real Mack, who penned “He’s So Fine” for the Chiffons, had died of lymphoma at the age of 23.

 

Perhaps that’s why, for all its giddy handclaps and chirpy harmonies, “Jimmy Mack” harbors an undercurrent of suppressed tragedy. After all, the song never states where Jimmy Mack went — or even if he might ever really come back.

The song’s delayed release inadvertently added another layer of poignancy. In March 1964, when the Vandellas had recorded “Jimmy Mack,” American presence in Vietnam was still in its early stages. That August, however, the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution gave President Johnson the authorization to escalate US military involvement.

By the time “Jimmy Mack” was released in 1967, roughly half a million US troops were stationed in Southeast Asia. Much as “Dancing in the Street” had become an unexpected civil rights anthem, “Jimmy Mack” resonated with soldiers stationed abroad who wondered how long their loved ones would hold out for their return and if they would ever have the chance to find out.

Maybe it was this accidental timeliness that made “Jimmy Mack” such a big hit, or maybe it was just that magic Holland-Dozier-Holland touch. Either way, “Jimmy Mack” topped the Billboard R&B charts, becoming the Vandellas’ second #1 (after “Heat Wave” three years earlier), and climbed to #10 on the Hot 100.

“Jimmy Mack” also marked the closing of an era for the Vandellas. It would be their final collaboration with H-D-H, who would leave Motown soon afterward to start their own labels, Invictus and Hot Wax. Perhaps as an inevitable result, “Jimmy Mack” would also be the Vandellas’ last Top 10 pop hit.

After one more single, “Love Bug Leave My Heart Alone,” the group wouldn’t even be “Martha & the Vandellas” anymore, but “Martha Reeves & the Vandellas” — a subtle change, modeled on the renaming of Smokey Robinson & the Miracles and Diana Ross & the Supremes, but one that recast the Vandellas from a more-or-less democratic girl group to the Martha Reeves Show.

After “Honey Chile,” the group’s first single under its new handle, the Vandellas would never again score a Top 40 pop hit or Top 20 R&B single. They would eventually record a more explicit record referencing the Vietnam War, 1970’s “I Should Be Proud,” but it couldn’t recapture the unexpected synchronicity of their last major hit.

It Was 50 Years Ago Today examines a song, album, movie, or book that was #1 on the charts exactly half a century ago.

About Sally O'Rourke 199 Articles
Sally O’Rourke works in an office and sometimes writes about music. She blogs about every song to ever top the Billboard Hot 100 (in order) at No Hard Chords. She has also contributed to The Singles Jukebox, One Week // One Band, and PopMatters. Special interests include girl groups, soul pop, and over-analyzing chord changes and lyrics as if deciphering a secret code. She was born in Baton Rouge and lives in Manhattan. Her favorite Nugget is “Liar, Liar” by The Castaways.