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Issue 1084

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Martha Reeves: Motown Royalty (Part 1)

Martha Reeves @bluesandsoul.com copyright@bluesandsoul.com
Martha Reeves @bluesandsoul.com copyright@bluesandsoul.com Martha Reeves @bluesandsoul.com copyright@bluesandsoul.com The back of Martha Reeves jacket copyright@bluesandsoul.com Martha Reeves & B&S' Sharon Davis

With parking spaces being so limited in Brighton, East Sussex, during the day, I was, of course, only just in time to meet Martha Reeves at a hotel along the cityâs busy seafront on the Saturday morning following her sell-out performance at the steamy Concorde 2 club.

Looking great and dressed in black, wearing the funkiest jacket â check out the back of it â Martha settled herself into a comfortable chair in the hotelâs lobby. She was waiting for transport to take her, and her Vandellas, sisters Lois and Delphine, to their next engagement in Bath. But, hey, we had a couple of hours still and we know how to talk! After all, Martha and I have known each other for forty years â the age of her son Eric â and once the private stuff was done with, we adopted the star and journalist roles. A pot of tea arrived and in between sips, I asked her about her last nightâs performance, and why during her âmeet and greetâ session after the show, where she loves to meet her fans first hand, she was looking at the individual pictures taken of her. Itâs to do with Face Book, she says. âIt used to be â¦would you send me a copy and they would, but now youâll see it again but itâll be on Face Book â Ah, another personal touch lost thanks to technology.

Anyway, letâs move on. Last night when Martha walked on stage, the club erupted. It was hotter than hell and packed to bursting, with no air conditioning in sight. No ceiling or stage fans either. âI canât sing with a fan because itâll blow my throat and Iâll be hoarse when itâs over. So I canât really have any comfort either. I just have to sweat. It (Concorde 2) reminded me of Dingwalls, our first time over, in Camden. Only a little wider, a little broader perhaps. (Yeh, agreed I, tis true, it does) But it was a beautiful crowd. I mirror my audience. I kinda look to see what the people are doing, and they were having a ball. People were kissing, crying and dancing - and this one guy said he wanted to have my baby. I said thatâs the wildest thing anyoneâs said to me.â I reminded her that the audience covered all ages, and even the youngest knew the lyrics as they sang along. âThatâs the thrill. Thereâs a little girl⦠⦠who came. Sheâs gonna be a singer and sheâs dedicating her whole little artistry to us. She drew a picture and she presented it to me. I have to carry it home and pray I donât break it because itâs in a glass frame. An absolute Martha and the Vandellasâ fan. Sheâs about eleven but the management let her come in and sit on the side away from the drinking.â

Whatâs the secret in crossing the generation line, I wondered, when some artists canât achieve it? A few Motown artists have failed. She didnât realise this, she said, but took it as a compliment that she had achieved it. âBerry Gordy said in the beginning that he wanted music that would be the sound of young America. Itâs also the fountain of youth. I can imagine being the same age as I was when I first sang âHeatwaveâ. I better put my head somewhere there otherwise I wonât be able to sing it. Itâs a high energy song and I remember Linda Ronstadt and her comment to me when she recorded âHeatwaveâ. Her band insisted on doing a cover version of my song because they loved the guitar licks. It starts with that and itâs a nice beat, and they were singing background feverishly behind her. She doesnât put it in her show now because it has too much energy, she said, and by the time she finishes with âHeatwaveâ she hasnât the energy to do her other big hits. She did a number one when I only did number four. So itâs a wonderful thing to have music that people can remember good times with.â

As Martha has mentioned Berry Gordy, letâs backtrack to her early career when she was instrumental in laying down the musical foundation of Motownâs incredible success story.. Born in July 1941 in Eufaula, Alabama (she worked hard over the years to modify her Southern twang which was a pity I said, because it has a lovely soft twang), Martha was the third of eleven children born to Ruby and Elijah Reeves. The family moved to Detroit when Martha was born, where she attended the North Eastern High School, and spent happy times with her minister grandfather at the Metropolitan church. In the late fifties she hooked up with Annette Beard, Gloria Williams and Rosalind Ashford to become The Del-Phis, before founding The Fascinations. Returning to The Del-Phis during 1960 under the leadership of Gloria Williams, Martha can be heard on the âIâll Let You Knowâ single released on the Chess imprint, Checkmate. By the way, Motown later purchased the label. When not performing with the girls, Martha went solo using the name Martha LaVaille, and it was during one of these performances that she was spotted by Mickey Stevenson, Motownâs A&R guy. He invited her to audition for the company, but she didnât realise the only day they were held were Thursdays. So when she turned up on another day, Mickey hired her to help out in his department, and within a short time, she had slipped into the role of his secretary. Some weeks later, Motownâs first lady of song, Mary Wells failed to attend a recording session, and as the time couldnât be wasted â empty studios cost money â Mickey asked Martha (with Rosalind and Annette) to record a demo of his song âIâll Have To Let Him Goâ. It was issued as their debut single in 1962 on the Gordy label, but it was their second outing âCome And Get These Memoriesâ in â63 that brought them to the attention of an international audience. Then, of course, came âHeatwaveâ. Martha shared her memories of recording the song. âIt was in the winter when Holland, Dozier and Holland came and got me from the Christmas party at Motown, and asked me to come to the studio. I went â âIâm at a party and Iâm trying to have a good time. This is a Christmas celebrationâ. But they insisted â âOh come to the studio and record the song.â So, we get there and they have âHeatwaveâ in mid-winter in Detroit, with snow everywhere at Christmastime! Eddie Holland gave me the lyrics and I did the vocals, Brian Holland worked with the background singers and Lamont Dozier was on the keyboards. Nobody would ever believe how much energy these guys had and it only took me a couple of takes to do the song, so that I could get back to the party. And what a big hit it was for me too.â

From recording to releasing a song was a slow process, as Martha elaborated â âRemember at that time there was an eight track recording machine. It took maybe a month to get the song to Berry Gordyâs attention. There were seventeen other writers, donât forget, and they were all trying to get Berry to hear their songs. He brought those writers up from their boot straps. They came to Motown and they didnât have anything but poems and skills on a keyboard, and an idea of a song. Eddie Holland being a singer and going on the road for awhile, he didnât really want to be a performer. He didnât like flying â at that time when planes started up fire would go past your face. He didnât like promoters. He didnât like interviews, and he didnât like the girls pulling at him. Some people have a tendency to touch you, to pinch you or pull your clothes. Whatever. Like last night. But, thankfully, the big bodyguard helped me out. Anyway, Eddie didnât like anything about music and travelling, so he asked Berry if he could just not be an artist, but be a writer with his younger brother Brian, and Lamont Dozier. âCome And Get These Memoriesâ was the first composition, so I felt they were worthy of pulling me from a Christmas party! âCome And Get These Memoriesâ was beautiful to me, and they were great writers.â

It was at this juncture that Martha reminded me she recorded for one of Berry Gordyâs sisters who opened a label before her brother. She explained â âI recorded for Anna doing back up with some of her artists. There was also another producer and he had a recording studio where I met Donald Davis, who now is a bank owner in Detroit. And we recorded behind a lot of their actsâ¦.like J J Barnes. It was the thing. I was involved with back up singing before I struck out as Martha LaVaille and was discovered by Mickeyâ¦but I was singing all along, singing back up here and there, and doing night club spots, all kinds of things.â

Then we jumped several years to talk about Motownâs 50th anniversary, and the seemingly lack of celebrations across the Atlantic, in her home country. The Legends Of Motown tour last year sprang to mind, of which Martha was a part. âWe celebrated in the UK, because we had no celebration like that at all at home.â
Why? âYou love us!â She continued â âYouâre the first person I met who made me know thereâs a certain love across the ocean. Thereâs a parable in the bible about a prophet whoâs not known in his own home, in his own landâ¦â¦.I donât ever work Detroit. I have to go away and get my mortgage payments and come back. I think theyâre still angry because Berry Gordy moved to California. Diana Ross plays Detroit but she doesnât come back to do any charitable work. Thereâs an anger there that Motown actually left. Still, after all this time. Thereâs a reason why it left, and I understand it, but the people, the public, fans, who made us and went to the 20 Grand and The Fox and stood in line, paid three dollars to stay all day to watch five or six acts for years before we were famous enough to travel to New York on a broken down bus, they donât.â

Thereâs so much more to tell â but not now! In the second part of this interview to be published in the first quarterly Blues & Soul magazine out in August, Martha Reeves talks more about early life and Motown, being a Detroit councillor, branching out as composer and producer, and what she does when sheâs not in the public eye. Meantime, her current cd titled âHome To Youâ released by Itch Records will be available only at her live concerts.

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Words SHARON DAVIS

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