Locked Up: Martha and the Vandellas, “Heat Wave” (1963)

A popular music performance is either going to be convincing or not in two most important dimensions:  out front in the lead, depending on how the singer or lead instrument takes charge, and on the bottom, depending on whether the rhythm section is tight.  The people who actually play and record the rhythm part talk about getting the bass and drums “locked up” together.  Without that togetherness, from their (justified) point of view, all’s in vain.

Now the singer might be locked up with a rhythm part too—I mean not just singing “in time,” but noticeably locked up—with superconvincing effect.  A great Motown hook comes in “Heat Wave” with Martha Reeves singing a wake-up phrase on the two-beat, “Whenever I’m” and “Whenever he,” exactly on top of (or under?) a corresponding drum phrase.  The drum pickup is okay, useful for turnarounds in bouncy tunes, but it’s not special.  Ditto the little B-C#-B-G# bass line.  The vocal-lyrical phrase wouldn’t be very special by itself either.  When you put those three things together, though—and control the pace so each note registers with punch—you get a knockout.

“Heat Wave”

Is the locking up too strong in this case?  Is it scary?  What if Martha is locked to the drumming by a mechanical necessity, like Charlie Chaplin caught in the giant gears of the factory in Modern Times? 

For Charlie, the sprockety factory gears all too plainly represent the coercive powers of film projection and the film industry.  Martha’s captivity would be to the exploitive Motown operation.  (Kept in the sub-basement, yanked out by a chain to sing another Holland-Dozier-Holland hit [ouch], then put back  . . . !)  No, we don’t hear the song with that perspective, but I bet we either gain or drain a little psychic energy from tacitly avoiding it.[1]

More to the point, the song tells us she’s on the tight chain of love.  Whenever she’s with him, whenever he calls, love takes her over; she doesn’t understand it, but she can’t withdraw from it, there is no wiggle room.

That could happen to anybody—even though it ain’t exactly the way love’s supposed to be.  “Whenever I’m” is the world’s wake-up call, its Martha-Motown reveille.


If you haven’t seen it, Joan Osborne’s “Heat Wave” with the reunited Funk Brothers (the Motown house musicians) is fantastic.  It’s from the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown.


[1] To check on this, if your mind is a PC, hit Control-Alt-Delete while listening to “Heat Wave” and look down the list of Processes.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Arrangements and Sounds, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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