Blues and Soul Music Magazine

Issue 1101

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Martha Reeves: Motown Royalty (Part 1)

Martha Reeves
Martha Reeves Martha Reeves The back of Martha Reeves jacket 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 city’s 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 – check out the back of it – Martha settled herself into a comfortable chair in the hotel’s 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 – the age of her son Eric – 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 night’s performance, and why during her ‘meet and greet’ session after the show, where she loves to meet her fans first hand, she was looking at the individual pictures taken of her. It’s to do with Face Book, she says. “It used to be …would you send me a copy and they would, but now you’ll see it again but it’ll be on Face Book “ Ah, another personal touch lost thanks to technology.

Anyway, let’s 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. “I can’t sing with a fan because it’ll blow my throat and I’ll be hoarse when it’s over. So I can’t 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 that’s the wildest thing anyone’s said to me.” I reminded her that the audience covered all ages, and even the youngest knew the lyrics as they sang along. “That’s the thrill. There’s a little girl… … who came. She’s gonna be a singer and she’s 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 don’t break it because it’s in a glass frame. An absolute Martha and the Vandellas’ fan. She’s about eleven but the management let her come in and sit on the side away from the drinking.”

What’s the secret in crossing the generation line, I wondered, when some artists can’t achieve it? A few Motown artists have failed. She didn’t realise this, she said, but took it as a compliment that she had achieved it. “Berry Gordy said in the beginning that he wanted music that would be the sound of young America. It’s also the fountain of youth. I can imagine being the same age as I was when I first sang ‘Heatwave’. I better put my head somewhere there otherwise I won’t be able to sing it. It’s a high energy song and I remember Linda Ronstadt and her comment to me when she recorded ‘Heatwave’. Her band insisted on doing a cover version of my song because they loved the guitar licks. It starts with that and it’s a nice beat, and they were singing background feverishly behind her. She doesn’t put it in her show now because it has too much energy, she said, and by the time she finishes with ‘Heatwave’ she hasn’t the energy to do her other big hits. She did a number one when I only did number four. So it’s a wonderful thing to have music that people can remember good times with.”

As Martha has mentioned Berry Gordy, let’s backtrack to her early career when she was instrumental in laying down the musical foundation of Motown’s 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 “I’ll Let You Know” 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, Motown’s A&R guy. He invited her to audition for the company, but she didn’t 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, Motown’s first lady of song, Mary Wells failed to attend a recording session, and as the time couldn’t be wasted – empty studios cost money – Mickey asked Martha (with Rosalind and Annette) to record a demo of his song “I’ll Have To Let Him Go”. It was issued as their debut single in 1962 on the Gordy label, but it was their second outing “Come And Get These Memories” in ’63 that brought them to the attention of an international audience. Then, of course, came “Heatwave”. Martha shared her memories of recording the song. “It 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 – ‘I’m at a party and I’m trying to have a good time. This is a Christmas celebration’. But they insisted – ‘Oh come to the studio and record the song.’ So, we get there and they have ‘Heatwave’ 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.”

From recording to releasing a song was a slow process, as Martha elaborated – “Remember at that time there was an eight track recording machine. It took maybe a month to get the song to Berry Gordy’s attention. There were seventeen other writers, don’t 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 didn’t 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 didn’t really want to be a performer. He didn’t like flying – at that time when planes started up fire would go past your face. He didn’t like promoters. He didn’t like interviews, and he didn’t 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 didn’t 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. ‘Come And Get These Memories’ was the first composition, so I felt they were worthy of pulling me from a Christmas party! ‘Come And Get These Memories’ was beautiful to me, and they were great writers.”

It was at this juncture that Martha reminded me she recorded for one of Berry Gordy’s sisters who opened a label before her brother. She explained – “I 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 acts….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 Mickey…but I was singing all along, singing back up here and there, and doing night club spots, all kinds of things.”

Then we jumped several years to talk about Motown’s 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. “We celebrated in the UK, because we had no celebration like that at all at home.”
Why? “You love us!” She continued – “You’re the first person I met who made me know there’s a certain love across the ocean. There’s a parable in the bible about a prophet who’s not known in his own home, in his own land…….I don’t ever work Detroit. I have to go away and get my mortgage payments and come back. I think they’re still angry because Berry Gordy moved to California. Diana Ross plays Detroit but she doesn’t come back to do any charitable work. There’s an anger there that Motown actually left. Still, after all this time. There’s 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 don’t.”

There’s so much more to tell – 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 she’s not in the public eye. Meantime, her current cd titled “Home To You” released by Itch Records will be available only at her live concerts.

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