My favorite professor in college, Dan Bukvich, talked to me a few times about his ideas on pop music. The gist of it was that all the classic pieces of pop music you could think of that stand the test of time and remain well-loved break down into three categories: Great arrangement, great song, or great performance. “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” - Great arrangement. “And Your Bird Can Sing” - Great song. “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas falls into the third category of great performance.
That’s not to say that the song itself or the arrangement is lacking, of course. The Holland–Dozier–Holland team struck gold with this one and it’s one of my favorites in their catalog. It’s great how the verse is in Cm and as it builds towards the chorus it modulates to the relative major of Eb. But the highlight of this song is the energy and passion put into the performance. You can almost hear the room shaking with energy from the aggressively spirited saxophone to the rattling of the tambourine on all four beats to the way the kick drum hits hard during the chorus on a syncopated beat that echoes the rhythm played by the piano during the verse.
All that and we haven’t even gotten to the vocals yet! Martha Reeves delivers an amazing vocal performance that it is almost outdone by the spectacularly fun backup vocals provided by Rosalind Ashford and Betty Kelly. Those background vocals even come to the forefront following the third chorus when Reeves gets to riff a bit while Ashford and Kelly belt out those classic lines of “Well, it’s alright, girl. Go ahead, girl. Ain’t nothin’ but love, girl.”