Certain Songs #1094: Martha and the Vandellas – “Heat Wave”

Album: Heat Wave
Year: 1963

Oh man, “Heat Wave,” a song that is such a primeval force of nature that I’ve probably taken how important it is for granted. It might not have been first single from the Motown record machine, but it was absolutely one of the very first full-blown Motown sound singles, and its importance to what came after cannot be understated. Even now.

Want a hit? Figure out how to do a variation on the “Heat Wave” rhythm. Ask Outkast or Janelle Monae or even Portugal.The Man.

An unfettered whoop of joy written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and played to with an inch of its life by the Funk Brothers, what puts the original version of “Heat Wave” over isn’t he metaphor of the lyrics or the infectious rhythm (with handclaps!) or even Joe Hunter’s rollicking barrelhouse piano — though all of that stuff is amazing — but the over-the-top vocals of Martha Reeves, Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard.

At first, it’s just the normal lead vocals / backing vocals split: as Reeves sings the first verse, Ashford & Beard are oohing behind her, echoing the lyrics, repeating “like a heat wave” during the chorus.

After that though, things start falling apart a bit, as Ashford & Beard start singing an almost unintelligible counterpoint during the second verse, only to recover by the time of the chorus.

It’s the last third of the song where things get crazy, as Reeves repeatedly screams “Yeah yeah, yeah yeah” while Ashford & Beard yell “go ahead girl!” and later on “Don’t pass up this chance / It’s time for a true romance” while Reeves is singing “burning right heeerree in my heart” before they all come together on one last “Heat wave!”

Whether this was planned or improvised in the studio, it’s a big of unhinged genius that none of the covers of “Heat Wave” even bothered to try and replicate them.

“Heat Wave,” of course was a massive hit single — Billboard pop #4 R&B #1 — Grammy nominated, and 65 years later remains an absolute unmatched classic.

“Heat Wave”

“Heat Wave” performed on TV in 1963

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