Martha Reeves: still dancing in the street
Ahead of her Belfast show next week, Motown legend Martha Reeves tells Audrey Watson about challenging racism and why she doesn't ever want the music to stop
They really don't make them like Martha anymore and as long as fans still want to hear songs such as Jimmy Mack, Nowhere to Run, Dancing in the Street, Heatwave, Quicksand and her many other hits, she's determined to keep performing.
"I'm going to sing for as long, and to as many people, as I can," she says.
Born in Alabama in 1941, Martha was the third child and oldest girl of 11 children born to Ruby and Elijah Reeves. By the age of three, she was singing in her Methodist minister grandfather's church.
"Mama was a great singer and a huge Billie Holiday fan," she recalls. "She taught us all to sing and how to learn lyrics. My father played blues guitar and he and John Lee Hooker hung out a lot."
By the time she was three, the family had moved to Detroit and after high school, the teenage Martha performed in a number of girl groups with various friends, while working in a dry cleaners during the day. It was a long way from there to the hallowed halls of Hitsville (the nickname given to Motown's Detroit HQ), but the story of how she ended up there is legendary in itself.
"The problem with girl groups is that they always break up," she laughs. "So, I started singing solo as Martha LaVaille. In 1961, I won a contest and the prize was the chance to sing in a nightclub called the Twenty Grand.
"It's now defunct, but in its day, all the major acts played there. I had to perform really early, because even though I was almost 21 at the time, my father said I had to be home by midnight.
"When I came off stage, a man named William 'Mickey' Stevenson (the A&R director of Motown Records) gave me his card and asked me to come to Hitsville and audition.
"So I quit my day job in the dry cleaners and showed up at 9am the next morning. It was a Tuesday and Mickey was there working on a song for a drummer called Marvin Gaye.
"He told me auditions were only held on the third Thursday of each month, but the phones were ringing off the hook and he had to go out, so asked me to answer the calls until he came back.
"I took messages, tidied the place and organised payments for musicians. When Mickey came back, he was so impressed he hired me as a secretary!"
However, Martha was determined to prove her credentials as a singer and a few weeks later got her chance when Mary Wells, one of Motown's first singing superstars, was too ill to record a song Mickey had written for her called, I'll Have to Let Him Go.
Along with two friends from her girl band days – Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard, who were working as backing singers for Motown artists – she nailed the track in one take.
In 1962, Berry Gordy gave the girls a contract and Martha decided on the name Martha and the Vandellas (her surname Reeves was added in 1967) after her then idol, 1950s gospel singer and talk show host Della Reese.
I'll Have to Let Him Go was released as a single, but it was second single, Come And Get These Memories in 1963, that was to be their first chart hit.
For a woman in her Seventies, Reeves has a remarkable memory of her early Motown days and talks about Marvin (Gaye), Smokey (Robinson) and numerous others as if it were only yesterday.
"One day, this 11-year-old blind kid called Stevland Hardaway Judkins came in. He had been spotted playing the organ in church and directing an adult choir – at 11-years-old!" she exclaims.
"Well that kid started playing every instrument in the place and when Berry Gordon saw him, he said, 'That kid's a wonder' – and that's how Stevie Wonder got his name.
"I've never met a more talented, beautiful boy, inside and out," she adds of the icon (below).
"Marvin also really blew me away. He could play drums, guitar and could sing and produce. Of course, he was also really handsome," she laughs.
"In 1964, he gave us a song he had written called Dancing in The Street because he thought I could sing it better than him, and it was a huge hit.
"He was very generous and a genius. In fact, we had three geniuses at the label: Stevie, Smokey and Marvin.
"Motown was like a school, a factory and a music-making machine all rolled into one. We all worked damned hard and had so much energy."
As a young black woman breaking into the pop charts in the Sixties, Martha was no stranger to racial abuse. In 1962 she took part in the first Motown Revue, a 94-night tour across America that took in much of the segregated South.
"That was a different time," she says of the experience. "There were toilets with 'white only' and 'coloureds only'. They threw rocks at us. And the audiences were segregated.
"But when the music started everyone started dancing and at the end of the night when it finished, no one was sitting where they were at the start.
"Some hotels wouldn't take us and restaurants wouldn't serve us because we were African-Americans on a bus. But we had a great show and we made sure we were heard. When we got back, we all had hit records."
Of course, there was another female coming to the fore at Motown as the Sixties progressed, Diana Ross.
Rumours have always circulated about rivalry between Diana and The Supremes, and Reeves and The Vandellas, and Berry Gordy's favouritism toward Ross, but Martha adamantly denies any ill-feeling, then or now.
"Our music was before the Supremes," she says sharply. "They were good, but we were good too. Our sound was completely different. There was no such thing as a feud.
"We were never friends, but we were once workers in the same place. Diana Ross is a wonderful hard-working woman, whom I really admire."
Martha is equally matter-of-fact when asked about her dark period in the 1970s after her contract ended and Motown upped sticks to Los Angeles without telling her.
"I was a single mom, with no job, so I had to start again," she says. "I left my son Eric with my parents and also moved to LA where I released a solo record on MCA. I was lucky because I knew my parents would look after my boy as well as they had looked after me."
Although well-received, the album didn't sell well and a period of drug addiction and depression followed.
"When you're famous, people give you drugs," she says. "You don't even have to ask. They bring you 'gifts'. It was tough, but the Lord helped me through."
In 1977, she moved back to Detroit and became a born again Christian.
"I had never lost my faith. Just lost my way for a while, but the Lord guided me back."
She got back on track and in 2004, released her first album in more than two decades – Home to You. Many 'greatest hits' and 'definitive collection' releases followed. Martha also successfully sued Motown for unpaid royalties.
She has also performed in Broadway musicals, penned a best-selling autobiography and spent five years serving on Detroit City Council.
Over the course of 50 years in the business, there have been more than 100 Vandellas. The present line-up includes her sisters, Lois and Delphine, and the group is busier than ever touring for 35 weeks every year, all over the world.
"I sure am dedicated," she laughs. "But I love it. If I were to retire, I'd just end up sitting in a corner dying. I'm not married, my son is all grown up and I'm a great-grandmother, so what else would I do?"
"My whole life has been about music and I don't want it to stop."
Martha Reeves and The Vandellas perform in the Festival Marquee on Friday, May 9, at 8pm. For details, visit www.cqaf.com or call: 028 9023 2403
Big hitters at this year's CQAF...
Martha Reeves isn't the only big name snapped up by organisers of this year's Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival. Other highlights include:
Ginger Baker (Festival Marquee, May 7) – arguably one of rock music's rudest characters, the irascible Cream drummer (right) will be hitting town with fellow musicians Pee Wee Ellis, Alec Dankworth and Abass Dodoo as part of the Ginger Baker Jazz Confusion. It promises to be hard-hitting in every sense!
De La Soul (Festival Marquee, May 11) – arguably one of the most influential hip hop acts ever, the trio from Long Island are celebrating a quarter century since the release of their seminal debut album 3 Feet High and Rising.
Shonen Knife (Black Box, May 9) – the Japanese girl-punk trio toured with Nirvana after Kurt Cobain described being transformed "into a hysterical nine-year-old girl at a Beatles concert" upon first seeing them live. They have inspired legions of bands with their fast and tight sets.