A Look Back at Martha and the Vandellas’ 1965 Performance at a Ford Plant

The trio sang their song ”Nowhere to Run” at the auto company’s Dearborn assembly plant

A classic Martha and the Vandellas performance from the ’60s popped back into pop culture prominence this spring: a music video for the song “Nowhere to Run,” performed as the trio romped among Mustangs being made at Ford Motor Co.’s Dearborn assembly plant.

The song was recorded as part of It’s What’s Happening Baby, a national TV special that aired June 28, 1965, on CBS. The show, hosted by fabled New York disc jockey Murray the K, featured both Black and white recording stars and was conceived as a means to help foster racial harmony through music.

Only brief clips of Martha and the Vandellas’ Mustang escapade had been seen over the past 56 years. But that changed in March, when the original, low-grade copy was recovered, remastered, and aired on PBS stations nationwide, including on WTVS here in Detroit. 

They might as well have included Smokey Robinson’s group, too, because the video’s creation was nothing short of a miracle. It’s fair to say there is absolutely no way that video could be made today. In fact, it’s not completely clear how it came to be back then — how Ford allowed a camera crew free access to shoot amid an active assembly line inside its plant, now known as the Rouge Complex. 

“The crazy thing is, I can’t find anything in our files today about why we participated or how they did it,” says Ted Ryan, archives and heritage brand manager for Ford. “Apparently [Motown’s] Berry Gordy called in some favors, having worked at a Ford plant, and eventually [then-Ford Vice President Lee] Iacocca said, ‘As long as it’s going to support the Mustang, let’s let them do it.’” 

The Mustang was brand-new in 1965. It was Iacocca’s baby and a huge gamble for the automaker. The lure of free publicity on a show aimed at America’s youth market apparently was too much to refuse.

So, Martha and her Vandellas — Rosalind Ashford and Betty Kelly — were allowed to prance through an open painting area wearing no protective clothing, dance among metal quarter panels drying on the line, and sit atop the back seat of an unfinished Mustang convertible as the car’s engine was being installed. OSHA probably couldn’t print citations fast enough today — and the UAW might declare a work stoppage.

“You know, there was no OSHA around back then, so they didn’t have as many rules to comply with,” notes Wendy Burkett, Ford’s director of global safety. “Certainly today we introduce our new beautiful and exciting vehicles in much different ways, and they all happen outside. We finish our vehicles first, then we highlight them. In this case, I don’t think the workers knew what was going to happen, and I don’t think they were prepared for it.”

Reeves, Hour Detroit’s July cover star, seconds that emotion. “The men were shouting, ‘Get those people out of here! Can’t you see we’re trying to work?’” she recalls. “You can see the anger on their faces when you watch the video.” 

Reeves remains proud to have taken part in a sliver of pop music history. “That Murray Kaufman came all the way from Brooklyn,New York, to our Ford Motor Company people and allowed us to be the ladies who did the first music video ever done,” she says. 

Her claim doesn’t take into account the other performances recorded for the CBS special, or the fact that some music historians note that boogie-woogie saxman Louis Jordan was creating mini-videos to accompany his songs as far back as the 1940s. But, hey: It was certainly a once-in-a-Detroit-lifetime experience.

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