Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Martha Reeves: Soul Survivor

Martha Reeves
Martha Reeves Martha Reeves (Councilor) Martha Reeves Martha Reeves and The Vandellas

Well you can certainly say Martha Reeves has lead a full life up until now. Hits with the Vandellas came thick and fast, scoring more than a dozen hits with some of Motown's most iconic tracks including: 'Dancing in the Street', 'Nowhere to Run' and Jimmy Mack...

Then came group infighting with Betty Kelly and a brush with prescription drugs & alcohol. This along with a very tough touring schedule caused Reeves to have a nervous breakdown and become institutionalized for a short time in 1969.

Reeves and the Vandellas worked together once more with Betty Kelly, Sandra Tilley and younger sister Louis Reeves replacing original members Annette Beard and Rosalind Ashford. But were to disbanded once more in 1973 after the release of the 'Black Magic' album. Reeves continued to work on solo projects until Motown decided to move from Detroit to Los Angeles. On the strength of this she decided to leave the label, ending a twelve year partnership with Motown Records.

After semi-retirement, film and broadway roles, a writing honour, suing and winning a case against her former label, Motown for royalties AND not to mention an induction into The Hall Of Fame - We bring you smack up to date with Reeves continuing her role as an elected councilwoman for the city of Detroit, Michigan. A position she has held since 2005 whilst keeping an infinity with her beloved Detroit. She now blends that job with her other love - and now part-time job of Soul Superstar and once more leader of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. I caught up with her just before a performance at Brighton's Concord Two on a sultry evening in August...

Where and when were you born?

I am celebrating a month after my birthday which is August the 18th. I was born July 18th in Eufaula, Alabama to Ruby and Elijah Reeves.

Why did your family move to Detroit?

Jobs – My Dad came with his brothers after the Cut and Gem was invented. A lot of blacks couldn’t find work so they moved north to work in car factories. My dad worked for Bud Wilner wheel manufacturers and eventually found a job with the Detroit City Water Department. That’s probably one of the reasons why I am on the Detroit City Council, cause my dad had such a devotion to the City of Detroit. At any time he would get up out of his slumber, and fix broken water mains or whatever crisis the water department had. So that’s why we moved to Detroit- for jobs.

Were your parents supportive of your desire to become a professional singer?

Yeah, mom taught me how to retain lyrics at the age of three and from that age on - singing in my grandfather’s church. Methodist Minister that he was. I realized that I had talent, and realized that made mom happy when I would do what she asked me to do or what she taught me to do. It’s a talent instilled in me and I am eternally grateful that she loved music herself. She used to idolize Billy Holiday and having twelve children, some times she would clip us or put us to sleep and sing to us. I used to prefer the nights she would sing, and alot of time when I am singing I am emulating my mom.

When did you first meet the Vandellas?

The Vandellas was my second group, my first group were The Fascinations. We went onto Checkmate and we recorded a song called 'I’ll Let You Know' with Curtis Mayfield. I didn’t sing with him - somehow we sang together but I didn’t go to Chicago to record it. I think we had a misunderstanding, a disagreement about the structure changing of the group. Rosslyn Holmes, Annette Helton, Gloria Welvelson had a group and a girl named Beatrice left the City, which left us as three members as opposed to 4 and a guy named Charles Jackson – God rest his soul. I thought I could sing with him, and asked if I could - so I met with him. Our voices were beautifully blended we had a wonderful rapport - The Del-Phis. We recorded it on Checkmate Records prior to Motown. So we were already recording artists once I landed a position at Motown.

This is something I have always wanted to ask... I am wondering whether you would have preferred to have had an operatic career or are you happy to have had a soul singer?

When I was in high School my teacher Abraham Silver auditioned all eleven girls in the first primary section, and I was the one who could do the actual bok-aurea-trebles. I could actually sing them, and he also chose me to be featured at a spring concert radio broadcast. I sang at my graduation and we did a concert at the Henry Ford Auditorium for four thousand, five hundred people. This sort of hooked me to want to be a singer, to want to hear that applause over and over again. I would have loved to have had more education as far as operatic music is concerned. I was afforded privilege last year to sing in our orchestra hall, a opera house in Detroit with the cast of Porgy & Bess. That Porgy & Bess let me sing the Strawberry Girl part for just one performance. It was my first experience on stage with just acoustics, violins, no microphones no monitors, just fill that room with your voice and it was amazing. So I have had dreams of doing more opera and maybe in the future I will.

How did you get spotted by Motown?

I was singing for a prize - I had won an amateur contest and my reward was three days at a club called The Twenty Grand. It was where most of the artists which came into the city perform. It was one of the biggest clubs and because my dad didn’t want anyone coming into his house, or coming to his door after twelve. One of his rules even though I was twenty one - I had to make sure I sang the happy hour. I couldn’t sing the regular nightclub time and on my last night - it was three nights. I was given five dollars, the equivalent of two pounds fifty per night, per performance. The third night William Stevenson showed up and approached me as I was leaving the stage, and gave me a card and invited me to Hitsville in the USA. His comment to me was “You have talent, come to Hitsville”. They were doing that all over the City. Berry Gordy sent all his scouts out to find all the best talent in the City of Detroit and I happened to be one of them.

When you got to Motown it wasn’t recording straight away was it?

It wasn’t so much Motown then - Motown was on a label. The Studio was named Hitsville USA and that’s where I went. I was on the Gordy label so a lot of people wonder how could that be. My label was Gordy cos Hitsville USA had maybe 10-15 labels... When I approached the receptionist behind the desk, after passing about ten other artists who were waiting their turn to get to their audition, or to talk to William Stevenson - to enter the Motown mix. The receptionist asked if she could help me. And I said "Yes, could I speak to William Stevenson" and she said “Oh do you mean Mickey?” And I said “I guess so” and she buzzed me in. And there he was, the same guy - I have told this so many times - he had taken his jacket off. He must have been up all night writing this song for a drummer named Marvin Gaye. He was a little disheveled - sort of inpatient with me, "Like what are you doing here?" And I go “Wow, don’t you remember giving me a card, you asked me to come to this company!” And he said “Yeah, but you were supposed to take that card and call for an appointment. We always have our auditions every third Thursday” and then he said “Answer this phone, I’ll be right back”. It was almost in the same sentence - so I did, so I answered the phone. And I was his secretary for the time he was gone, which was almost four hours! When he came back I was indispensable. He couldn’t just send me away, I was doing such a good job! I was meeting all the producers and meeting the singers. I met Gladys Knight and the Marvelettes, their hit was the 'Postman' and was topping the charts. They had a new release called 'Beachwood 45789,' and it was a thrill to be in this beehive of a house with all these musicians coming and going. All this fabulous music being made and all these musicians walking by. These people were being seen on the local television and at different concerts. My whole thing was to get into the record business and I had found me a place, and that’s where I wanted to be. That’s where I was every day until finally they gave me a salary... Finally I got a chance to get behind the mic and sing and record on the stage. The next thing Berry Gordy hears this demo instead of Mary Wells being at the Mic. They had me stand in for her and that became my first solo. After we sang behind Marvin Gaye on 'Stubborn Kind of Fella' Berry said “Get those girls - this is suposed to be a demonstration record from Mary Wells?!” but became my first record 'I have to let him go.'

Of all the many hits you have had with Vandellas, which ones are you most proud of?

I think WE would have to say - that the best would be the one's that we had hits with. The Vandella’s were not always the back up singers on records. Fifty per-cent of my records were recorded with the Andantes. There are also records that you hear me perform with back up singers like the Four Tops and The Andantes. So there is a mixture - so all of my music recording was not necessarily with Vandellas. It’s like children - they have an incubated period, pregnancy period, and finally they are delivered. When they are born you take each one to your heart. Each one has my soul spirit in it. I feel that people know me by my emotions in the songs that I have sang.

Do you get a particular satisfaction out of writing songs?

There’s a thrill when you can express yourself and if I can get it put to music. My last album 'Home To You' is one that I produced solely on my own. I did sing one cover song 'I Blessed A Child,' the rest were written from my adult point of view. I think it is a very good chance, it will be nostalgic for everyone as some of the musicians have died before I could get it produced. It was heartbreaking thing to lose Rudy Robinson - who did most of my arrangements and Thomas 'Beans' Bowles, he was my contractor for the Horns that I recorded the Motown way. It was costly, time consuming but it was worth it all, to have some of the product I have. We have a special arrangement by Teddy Harris who was one of the leading conductors, who has gone to heaven. My brother Victor who has also gone to heaven, he plays drums on some of it - so it’s something that I will always cherish. I had that chance, and now we’re working on a new album.

What’s that called?

It’s gonna be a gospel album. It’s gonna feature songs and have the story of my relationship with Jesus being reborn a Christian.

Is your son Eric also musically talented?

No, he is talented. He didn’t want any show business, he told me once, he said “Mum you know I don’t really think that they gave you your justs, and I don’t really want to be a part of show business”. And that sort of hurt me in a way, as I think we have been very blessed and I am overwhelmed by our successes. Maybe being a man he sees it part of a point of view that I don’t quite see. He’s done very well, he and his wife have been married I think for eighteen years now. I have a granddaughter in college and a grandson just about to graduate, the baby Elijah is named after my dad. He told me he could sing better than me, so he might be the star next in the family. I am very proud of my daughter-in-law Lynette. She is a wonderful mum and a good daughter-in-law, so we’re very happy and he’s a good supporter of her. A good judge of talent - I can run something by him and he will be able to tell me frankly yes or no, so I know if it is a good thing or not.

And you have two of your sisters backing you today. I heard them earlier, they sound really good. You sound really good too and I am really looking forward to your performance.

Thank you very, very much... And I just wanted to say that Lois is my longest standing Vandella - she joined me in 1968. Whenever one of the original girls would come back she would go and find something else to do. In fact she sang with a group called Pipe Elegance on her label - and she would come back and she would accommodate me. She’s permanently my BACK-UP singer... Delphine joined us in 1980 - she’s our youngest and had to be really convinced of some of the songs, cause she didn’t know them. She was growing up when we were recording, so I think we have a good combination.

You can read more from the Martha Reeves herself in the book 'Dancing in the Street - Confessions of a Motown Diva.' Or go to
Miss Martha Reeves to find out the latest Martha news.
Words Kath Newman

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