Interview: Martha Reeves
Evidently, Martha Reeves is a morning person. Speaking to me from her home in Detroit, the 67-year-old Motown legend was already on her fourth interview of the day – and it was still only 8.45 in the morning.
As an elected, full-time city councillor – a position she has held for the past three years – Martha had to be at work in 45 minutes’ time. In the meantime, she was more than happy to talk about her five decades in the music business, and about next year’s “Once In A Lifetime – Motown Legends Live” package tour.
Martha’s introduction to Motown’s “hit factory” was unorthodox, to say the least. One fateful Sunday evening in the early 60s, the aspiring singer was handed a card by the label’s A&R man, William “Mickey” Stevenson, and invited for an audition. Somewhat recklessly, she quit her dry-cleaning job the following morning, and showed up at the front door of “Hitsville USA”.
As it turned out, the legendary building was little more than a regular house on a regular street.
“When I saw the front door with a hand-painted sign saying “Hitsville”, I started to turn around, and I said: oh my God, what have I done!”
Matters went from bad to worse when Martha discovered that no auditions were being held that day. Instead, a busy Stevenson asked her to field an incoming phone call.
“I answered the phone – “Martha Reeves, A&R secretary” – and I sort of spoke my way into the position. He was gone mostly all of the day, preparing a session for this drummer named Marvin Gaye. When he got back, I had practically taken over. I was issuing cheques and assigning the piano, as there were 17 writers in that office. It was just a little cubbyhole of a place.”
Although hired as a secretary rather than as a singer, it didn’t take long for Martha’s musical talent to be recognised.
“I left the job to three girls from secretarial college, and boarded my first Motown revue. All of us got on the bus, with our shoeboxes full of home-made pound cake and fried chicken, tied with a string. We rode for 94 one-nighters, until we arrived at Hitsville again with hit records. Everyone’s records charted after that tour.”
Recognition in the UK was quick to follow.
“Luckily, Dusty Springfield had a BBC special that she did every week, and she and [her manager] Vicki Wickham invited the Motown revue to England. I think the Temptations came over for the first time, and the Miracles. Heatwave was our record at the time, but I think the Supremes had no hits in the UK. However, they were discovered and we were all embraced.”
As an early champion of the Motown sound, Dusty Springfield often included Martha and the Vandellas’ signature hit Dancing In The Street in her live set. On her BBC show, the two acts collaborated on a version of Wishing And Hoping. However, when it came to exposure on the live stage, the Vandellas already had a head start on their label mates.
“We had already performed prior to that with Georgie Fame, when Yeh Yeh was a big hit. He let us do 40 one-nighters with him, and so we were already familiar with England. When we came over with the Motown revue, it was just a welcoming home by the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society!”
As for my rash suggestion that Martha left the label in the early 70s, it was swiftly and crisply corrected.
“Wait a minute: Motown left me. I stayed in Detroit, and they moved to California. There’s a difference!” (Laughter)
“I had a young baby, and I wasn’t able to travel. And I didn’t know that they were moving, actually. I was not informed. There was no baby planned in the contract, and I was away recuperating. In that short distance of time, they made plans to move. The only thing left of the company, when I went to report for my next assignment, were a few computers that were being put on a truck to leave the city.”
Needless to say, the move to Los Angeles fundamentally changed the character of the label.
“It ended the Motown saga. There were no real successes, other than maybe a discovery of disco with the likes of Rick James and Teena Marie – but the Motown sound stopped at that point.”
The label’s trademark sound may have come to an end more than 35 years ago, but the unique Motown “family spirit” endures to this day – as evidenced by the gathering of the clans which occurred at last month’s funeral for Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops. Martha spoke at the service, describing Stubbs as “my Pavarotti”.
“It was a very difficult time to say goodbye to Levi. He had been ill for seven years. We all hoped that he would recover and sing to us again. However, it never happened. On his 60th birthday, they had a celebration. Aretha Franklin joined the Tops and the Tempts at a concert, where he did sing a little bit – and then that was the last time that his voice was heard.”
“It’s unreal. You don’t think they’re gone. You say, how can they take Levi? And the realisation is that we’re all going, eventually. I just have his music now, to remember him by. Just Ask The Lonely still tugs at my heart. That was one of my favourite songs that he sang, and he will always be my Pavarotti.”
Perhaps it’s at sad occasions like these that the old family spirit feels at its strongest.
“We never stopped being family, no matter what. We don’t work together as often as we would like, because we have our own music and do our own shows.”
For next year’s Once In A Lifetime tour, Martha and the Vandellas will be sharing the bill with The Miracles, The Commodores, Mary Wilson of The Supremes, and the late Junior Walker’s All-Stars: a line-up which evokes memories of those old Motown revues.
“This reunion is a very well-thought-out tour, and one that I’m anticipating, because there’s a strong, good feeling when everybody performs. The competition starts then.”
These days, the Vandellas are strictly a family affair. Martha’s sister Lois (“my longest standing Vandella”) started with the group in 1968, and her other sister Delphine started in 1980. (“That makes her a senior citizen too”, she laughs.) Back in the 60s, their chief rivals in the girl group stakes were The Supremes, but Martha is quite clear on the difference between the two acts. “You can classify our music as soul, and you can classify theirs as pop”, she states.
As for her biggest hit of all, Dancing In The Street, much has been made of its adoption as an anthem for the civil rights movement during the troubled years of the mid-to-late 1960s. However, the song started its life quite differently.
“I’d heard Marvin Gaye sing it, and it was a love song to a girl. He sort of crooned it, and then he said: man, give this to Martha, let her try it. So when I tried it, I called to mind New Orleans, and Rio De Janeiro where I had been at carnival time. Actually, I had seen people get in the street and dance.”
“This song was used to quench a lot of the evil feelings that were out in the streets, because of the riots that happened in every major city. And the words were simple: ‘Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat’. Not the hate that everybody was feeling, but the happiness that it brings.”
“And we’ve changed a lot of ordinances with our song. Now, some cities allow you to block off the street and actually have dance parties.”
“So it didn’t start a riot; it quenched one.”
Pop music is a fickle business. Musical styles come in and out of fashion, but classic Motown music has never gone through a period of sounding dated. Why do you think that is?
I feel the same way. It’s because we had classic musicians. Jazz guys; they called them “cats”. The Funk Brothers [backing band on most of the earlier Motown hits] made music that was classic. We had our first recordings with the upright bass, which is not fashionable now. You’ll hear an upright bass in symphonic music, and maybe some jazz musicians will play the upright and soothe your soul, but we had classic musicians. And the Funk Brothers will always be accredited with 50% of the success of Motown.
And most of the acts are still touring. They’re still out there, still working. I saw the Temptations in this city just two nights ago.
They had a big band, didn’t they?
They did. They had a nine piece horn section and a four piece band. There were nineteen people on stage; it was a real production.
Yes, a joyful ear candy! (Laughs) I can guarantee you: any time that you see a Motown act, they’re gonna have horns, they’re gonna have live instrumentation. Very seldom do we work with tracks. The only time we do is when it’s inconvenient for the band. Our aim is to work with live musicians, and to keep live music as happy and current as we can be.
I’m glad you said that. Diana Ross came here last year, and she didn’t have a brass section on stage with her. So it was very strange when she sang Where Did Our Love Go, and you got the sax break on tape…
Ooh, I’d hate to hear that.
You’ve stayed fiercely loyal to Detroit, and you’re now involved in city politics. When did that start?
Three years ago. I was elected to Detroit city council – a lot of people refer to it as “common council” – and I have to be at work in about half an hour! (Laughs)
So you’re sitting on committees?
Making decisions, and helping a lot of people in the city, because a lot of our citizens believe that their voice isn’t heard. We’ve had quite a bit of news lately, and it hasn’t been all good. However, we’re working it out. We’ll always have problems to work our way through. We’ve made the headlines with our mayor, who is now incarcerated. We have an interim mayor, who is doing a very good job of holding the banner until we have a special election. But the city council is standing strong, and we’re continuing.
We’re improving and enlarging our main arena, where we hope to hold our auto show, which is reputed as being the largest in the USA. Detroit is still known for its good music, and we’re working right now on an album produced with the Motown sound, with live musicians who remember how the Motown sound was developed.
How is downtown Detroit? I visited for a couple of days in the early Nineties, and the downtown area seemed so strange to me. There were buildings, but there were so few people.
You should come again, because we have new buildings erected. We’ve got a place called Campus Martius; in the summer we have live performances, and in the winter it’s a skating rink. We have a river walk, and we have a casino, right in the heart of downtown. There’s three casinos altogether. They’ve lit up the city, so we’ve got three major hotels that coincide with the casinos. And we’ve got the Renaissance Centre, which is run by the car manufacturer GM now. So Detroit’s on the move. It’s beautiful, and I’m very proud to be here, and proud to be on the Detroit city council.
Now that we’re in a download culture, most of your back catalogue is just a click away, so we don’t have to go hunting the racks in the record stores. Since we can easily get hold of some of the lesser known songs in your back catalogue, what would you say is your most underrated record, which you’d like people to hear?
Oh, No One There. The audiences that I have performed for have brought it to my attention. They have shouted it out to me, and I sang it a cappella on a tour with Edwin Starr. On that tour, I was made aware that No One There was a big favourite of a lot of people. It’s a ballad, a moody song, and it’s just good to listen to. Very underrated.
I did come across one song, I Should Be Proud…
It was on a [BBC Radio 4] special: a documentary depicting the Vietnam War. It was played for a while, but the CIA thought it was a little too antagonistic. They thought I was asking for trouble, and they took it off the air.
But it’s a good song about a woman whose husband went to a war, and I’m saying that it’s the evils of society. It’s written by one of your native women, Pam Sawyer, and Marilyn McCloud, who collaborated on a song to be the voice of the women who suffered when their husbands were killed in Vietnam. It was a little deep.
So we did a documentary, and it sort of explained how African Americans were treated in the Vietnam War. This was the first war that was integrated. All the other wars were segregated, but the Vietnam War was the first one where everyone was equal and fought the battle side by side. (Pause) We’re part of history, huh? (Laughs)