MARTHA REEVES: SWINGIN', SWAYIN', RECORDS PLAYIN'
by Paul Freeman (2009 and 1997)
The Motown Sound surged to an energetic zenith with Martha and the Vandellas hits “Dancing In The Street,” “Heat Wave” and “Nowhere To Run.”
Martha Reeves still gives vibrant performances. “People met, fell in love and married to the Motown sound,” tells PopCultureClassics.Com. “I’ve seen people cry sometimes when they hear these songs. It reminds people of their childhood, their teenage years, going into adulthood.
“For me, it brings back great memories, too. When you’ve done this for 50 years, you’ve got to have some fond memories.”
But the past several years, she’s also been busy serving in Detroit’s city council. Reeves managed to get a thoroughfare outside the Motown studios site renamed Berry Gordy Jr. Boulevard.
Her current pet project is to have the city display life-sized statues of the Motown greats, as well as other Michigan notables, such as Eminem and Madonna.
“Detroit is known for its music, as well as its car manufacturing and I’d like to see a lot of the people who are involved in the arts, in sports, people who have done wonderful things in our city, be commemorated,” Reeves says.
Despite troubled times, Reeves sees optimism in Detroit. “We’ve got a lot of new development in the areas that were deserted when we had our exodus to the suburbs. We were once three million people. Now we’re down to 950,000. There’s a lot of unemployment. But the spirit of Detroit will hold us until we get the city back in the shape that it should be.”
Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, Motown has long uplifted Detroit’s spirit. “What is good will last. Some of the today’s music won’t be around in 50 years. Berry Gordy and his wonderful staff of producers scoured the city, went to amateur shows, and gave everybody a chance who had natural talents.”
Born with an inspiring voice, Reeves worked hard to hone her skills. She remembers singing “Jesus Met The Woman at the Well” at her grandfather’s church.
“My mom was so happy that I could remember the lyrics that she taught me, she made me a new dress on her old-fashioned sewing machine. It always made her happy to hear me sing. Today, she’s in heaven, but I can still hear her saying, ‘Sing that song, baby. Sing it like Mama taught you.’ “
When signed to Motown, where she had worked as a secretary, Reeves dubbed her girl group “The Vandellas,” combining Van Dyke Street, the studio’s location, with Della Reese, her singing idol.
“We had artist development - four years of training entitled us to have the Motown sound, the Motown look. We had Professor Maxine Powell, who taught us personal development, self-worth. We had “Cholly” Atkins, who taught us vaudeville steps and choreography and we had Maurice King, who taught us music theory.
She credits the studio musicians for much of the label’s success. “Motown’s music was unlike any other. It was intricate. We had the same musicians playing everybody’s music. But no two artists ever sounded alike. Stevie Wonder, the Marvelettes, the Supremes, the Contours, the Spinners or the Temptations - each had their own sound.
“These were professional musicians who had degrees in music. The writers could come up with lyrics, melodies and beats. But the musicians did most of the arranging at Motown.”
When the label’s roster went on the road, each act performed two numbers, then a big finale, backed by a 12-piece band. Reeves’ first tour consisted of 94 one-nighters.
“The Holiday Inn will always be my favorite hotel chain, because they allowed us to stay in the ‘60s. Other hotel wouldn’t let us in, because of racism.
“It was at the time of Martin Luther King’s freedom riders. Many times, because we were a lot of blacks on a bus, we were mistaken for them and shot at and denied access to different facilities, especially bathrooms. It was something you accepted as a way of life. We’ve come a long way,” she laughs.
“I guess that’s the beauty of living. As you get older, you see how things have progressed. I’m very happy to say that Motown was a part of the movement. We didn’t march or demonstrate, but our music spoke for itself. I saw segregated audiences get up and dance as we prompted them to and forget where they were sitting and then wonder why there had been a barrier of separation in the first place.”
The star-studded ‘60s Motown lineup resulted in dynamic shows. “On the Motown Revues, the Crystals and the Shirelles were our competition. We all had the knack of making the stage hot for the next act. We would have a difficult time following one another. And no one wanted to follow Junior Walker, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder or Martha and the Vandellas, once we got ‘Dancing in the Street.’”
Especially in the early years, Motown was like a family for its artist roster. “We all helped each other,” Reeves recalls. “We sang on each other’s product. We would loan each other clothes. We would help with each other’s makeup. We would grow together as amateurs, seeking information.
“Motown had a knack of establishing an act and the moving on to the next one. I’m sure Mary Wells, who was the first act at the label, felt a little, not betrayed or deserted, but a little competitive when the other acts started coming to the company. But she shared what she had learned. She told us a lot about how women had survived on the road, what things to do and what things not to do. We had chaperones, too. So we were guided.”
As years went on, rivalries grew. Label founder Berry Gordy, Jr. turned much of his attention to The Supremes. “He was very involved in everyone’s career,” Reeves recalls. “He was available and directing everybody until he fell in love. When you fall in love, you concentrate on the one you love.”
When Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Ivy Hunter wrote “Dancing in the Street,” Motown A&R chief William “Mickey” Stevenson brought the tune to Reeves. He was married to Kim Weston, former Reeves choir mate, and one of Motown’s top vocalists .
“I’ve got a feeling that Kim, who’s an amazing singer, thinks that that was her song, because every time she looks at me, she’s sort of angry, because I sang it. I asked Mickey why he gave it to me and not to his wife at the time. He just told me, frankly, he thought I could do a better job.
“When I first heard it, Marvin Gaye sang it like he was singing to a girl in the bedroom. I couldn’t feel it that way. I didn’t feel like it should be a personal thing, because I had been to Rio de Janeiro and I’d been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. So I knew what it was like to dance in the street with a bunch of people. I added the energy, the feeling of rejoicing in the dance.”
After a flawless first take, everybody was high-fiving each other, proclaiming the song a hit. “Then the engineer said, ‘Man, I didn’t have the machine turned on.’ So they asked me, ‘Can you do it again, Martha?’ I was a little angry. So when you hear it, I sang it all the way through again and there’s a little bit of an edge to my voice.”
Mojo magazine recently named “Dancing in the Street” the greatest of all the Motown records.
“The music still sounds fresh and new to me,” Reeves said. “People expect you to perform the way you did in the ‘60s. I think I’m able to pull it off. I feel as young as I did when I first recorded these songs. There’s a fountain of youth here. Every time I perform these songs, it’s such a joy. It brings me back to happy thoughts and great times, when the records were hitting, when were meeting all of these great fans, making friends all over the world. Every time on stage is another great time.
“People still hear the music and rejoice the same way they did when they first heard it. It’s got that magic.”
Though Reeves has endured more than her share of troubles since the hit-making days (including a prescription drug addiction and a nervous breakdown prior to becoming a born-again Baptist in the late ‘70s), She’s now a happy and healthy grandmother. And she has no complaints.
“I feel like I’m leading a one-in-a-million life. I’m blessed to be in this position. Not very many people can say they’ve had the experiences or have survived the things that I have.
“I can still sing about those things, still make great memories.”