IT’S early in the morning for Martha Reeves, answering the phone at home in Detroit, while a late-afternoon rain falls on Cork City, as your interviewer gathers his nerves to speak with a living, breathing piece of modern musical history. Reeves’ name is familiar to millions of soul aficionados, but if you don’t know the name, the Motown hitmaking machine will almost certainly have impressed her voice on your memory: ‘Dancing in the Street’, ‘Nowhere to Run’, and ‘Heat Wave’ are among the numerous classics in her and the Vandellas’ collective songbook, comprising an important part of Motown’s drive to capture and crystallise the sound of young America at a time of civic and social change. Involved with the label’s rise to prominence, and its later ascent to legend with the passing of years, ‘Miss Martha’ is rightly regarded as a legend, honoured by everyone frommagazine to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame. Her most recent engagement on this side of the pond was a surprising one, then, a summer turn on , getting a feel for collaboration with a team for the cameras. It came about via a friendship, and provided another perspective on showbusiness for her.
“I had a friend that was a producer of the show, and he thought it might be something good to do, and I said: ‘I agree’, but I told him in advance that I wasn’t a cook, never considered myself any kind of a chef. I never worked in a kitchen. I worked as a waitress when I was 18 years old, but it was okay. The hosts were very, very kind to me. We had an actress, an athlete and a boxer, and we worked together very well, we made a good team.”
While she was on a roll in the UK this summer, she also took the time to take on part one of a tour that celebrates the Motown label’s 60th anniversary this year, featuring some of the label’s iconic songs. It’s beyond legendary by now, its name synonymous with Detroit soul, but for Reeves, who worked with the label in a secretarial position while undergoing its embryonic and forward-thinking artist development programme, the experience has been a lived thing, that continues to give.
“It’s my life! It’s my career. I dreamed and prayed to be a performer. At the
age of three, I sang with my two older brothers in church, and I like the idea of actually singing. Mom taught me to remember lyrics, and songs, and poems. We were the generation before television, so when we finally got a TV, we didn’t stop singing among ourselves.
“We did a lot of singing. Our grandfather being a Methodist minister, we spent a lot of time in the choir, it was a natural thing. To get to Motown, was a beautiful thing, a long story, but I’m proud to say I was one of the first artists that was discovered on Hitsville USA, the Motown label… it’s a blessing.
“Berry Gordy, the genius that he is, made over 40 acts famous. He had a house, and turned it into a studio. He discovered people of all ages, generations, ethnic backgrounds, and made us all sing,
walk, look and dance the Motown way.
“We were taught professional showbusiness, and I’m so glad. I know that Berry had a great plan, to make the sound of young America, and he succeeded.”
Reeves and the Vandellas’ signature tune is, of course, ‘Dancing in the Street’, a soul stomper that was as propulsive as it was defiant, bound by history to the civil rights struggles of the 1960s as it was played at parades and demonstrations. While its ubiquity spawned generations of covers, including the celebrated Bowie/Jagger chart-topper, Reeves prefers to remember the adolescent joy in which the song’s themes were rooted, drawing from life at a time when young people had to make their own fun.
“When I first heard ‘Dancing in the Street’, it was being sung by Marvin Gaye, the writer. They were involved in recording, and I was passing by Studio A after taking my classes in artist development, and the music was so good, and Marvin was singing it in a romantic way, that I was standing in awe, just listening and watching. He looked over while listening to a playback, and he told the gentleman: ‘Try this song on Martha’, and I was surprised he was aware of me standing there.
“I learned the song, and he was crooning it, but I remembered, as a child, that we danced in the street. We had no recreation halls, and none of our houses were big enough, so we would dance in the street.
“My dad worked for the City of Detroit, so he would warn the other neighbours. They got together to ask the policemen to block our street off, and on Saturdays, until the sun went down, in the street, we had our record players. Not woofers and tweeters. You could play your records on your porch, and it wouldn’t disturb your neighbours. We’d dance in the street, eat up everyone’s food, and had a wonderful time. Some people mention civil rights, but that’s all rhetoric, and what has been attached to a beautiful song, about dancing in the street.”
We can’t talk about Reeves’ pop-cultural legacy without discussing ‘Nowhere to Run’, a cracker of a tune penned by Hitsville’s premiere tunesmiths, the Holland-Dozier-Holland team.
It’s been everywhere, and it’s familiar to everyone: being spun by Robin Williams in , appearing in ’s promo spots on Network 2 in the 90s, and even the most recent video game. And it wouldn’t have happened the way it did if Reeves hadn’t been taken by a sense of urgency on the day of recording.
“I explain to people, especially singers, that if you’re not well, you get rested, take your liquids, and your cold medications. When they called me, that’s where I was. I was getting up from a bout of the ’flu. And influenza was epidemic at the time, but I got a call to work with Holland-Dozier-Holland. You did not turn down their songs, they were the most prolific writers at Hitsville USA.
“I’m kind-of whining a little bit on the song, and it added power to the lyrics, the fact that I was a little weak, and a little ill, but anxious to sing a song.
“It reminded me of a song I used to sing in church — ‘There Ain’t No Hiding Place Down Here’. Eddie Holland sang it for me, and I imitated him, because he had the finest voice. It was another one of their masterpieces, but I explain to people, it wasn’t easy, convincing myself I was well enough to get to the studio, but once I did, it came together.”
With so much left to give, and a great legacy to honour, Reeves’ visit to City Hall on Sunday, October 27, is a great occasion for devotees of Motown, and students of modern music.
Having returned to the UK for that summer swing of dates, and taking on residencies and New Year’s dates in the US on the other side of the Jazz, the question inevitably occurs — having accomplished everything that she has, accruing the Motown mystique and receiving so many honours, what keeps Miss Martha Reeves on the road?
“I don’t consider it anything but a lifestyle. I don’t do very much other than perform. It’s been a hobby and a habit for 58 years. It’s something I look forward to, and get a lot of joy from seeing people who welcome us, and want to see us.
“I feel that we were blessed to be in the love-making business, spreading love all over the world, and enjoying good musicians, good musicianship.
“It takes smart and learned musicians to make the Motown sound on stage, and a lot of musicians let us know that they admire us, and the music played by the Funk Brothers.
“I’m a bird. I’ve been a bird a long time. You don’t set up a wake-up call for birds to sing in the morning. It’s a privilege, a gift from God, and I’ll sing until I fall off the limb!”
Martha Reeves plays City Hall on Sunday October 27, at 8pm. Tickets, €45, available from ticketmaster.ie.