Interview: Martha Reeves, Part One



From 1959 to 1968, the Motown label defined American popular music. Other labels, styles and visions competed, but ground zero for the "sound of young America," as the slogan proclaimed, was Hitsville USA. The catalogue is astonishing, beyond condensation, but if you had to choose only one record, one single to capture the Motown spirit, you could do worse than "Dancing in the Street," the 1964 #2 hit for Martha and the Vandellas. All the exhilaration, all the joy, all the pop soul of Motown is conveyed in two minutes and forty seconds. Marvin Gaye had originally conceived the song as a ballad, but Reeves, who had started at Motown as a secretary, and who was establishing herself as one of the label's most reliable singers, rearranged the song, and along with co-writer Ivory Joe Hunter banging on a crowbar to Gaye's drums, the record came alive--and took over the country.

On July 18, Martha Reeves will turn 68. She's never stopped singing, and though her career has taken a political turn in the last four years (she's a city councilwoman in Detroit), she says she'll never stop dancing in the street. Along with the Vandellas (sisters Lois and Delphine), she'll be performing at the Argosy Casino in Alton, Illinois on July 10 and 11. Her story is as big as her music. It will take two posts, one today and another tomorrow, to tell -- as only Martha Reeves can tell it.

Roy Kasten:

How are things in Detroit?

Martha Reeves:

I can't complain. We're making transitions. We're getting rain that we need, especially for my garden. And speaking as a city councilwoman, we're having grass cutting issues, because it's always wet. It grows so fast! This has been the wettest summer in years.

Thinking about your music and your career, I never would have guessed you'd be concerned about how the grass grows.

Oh, you know, I chose to stay in Detroit. Most of my cohorts left. But my family is here, my son and grandchildren are here.

Can you tell me what Detroit was like growing up in the '40s and '50s?

I can remember music, being from a large family. I remember sharing, getting instruction from different teachers. I am just a product of good teachers. I'm from a generation that, in my first years, there was no television. My mother, just like the little old lady in the shoe, and her 11 children, being a singer, she would sing to us and put us to sleep. My dad, who worked for the city of Detroit, when he came home from work he'd take his guitar down from the wall, the guitar we weren't allowed to touch, and he'd sing to us. And I remember going to church, singing in church. I watched our neighborhood grow, where houses were close together, now you have space between. I saw the end of World War II and then the Korean War and Vietnam. I watched race relations change, from segregation to freedom. And I was always singing.

Can you tell me about Abraham Silver?

He was my teacher in high school. He also taught Bobby Rogers of the Miracles, who is maybe a year older than I am, and Mary Wilson, who is maybe a year younger. We all went to Northeastern High School. He was the best. He was one of the first teachers allowed to have a radio broadcast on a local station. We were proud of that. I sang soprano and also lead on Bach's Aria Hallelujah. I didn't know I had the ability to do such a difficult masterpiece. But being the oldest girl, being chief bottle washer in my family, I'd be in the kitchen washing dishes, and I'd put on the radio and emulate the operatic music. I always had a love for the high notes. I always hoped to learn to sing opera. My brothers and sisters would open the door to the kitchen and throw shoes at me and our family pet would be on the floor and put his paws over his ears during the high notes. But there was a method to singing high, and Abraham Silver showed me the way. I'm proud to have been his student.

I know that the name the Vandellas comes partly from Della Reese, but I don't know much about her.

I was attending a church, Metropolitan Methodist Church, which went under after my grandfather Elijah Joshua Sr. died. It was his church, a family church, so it was sort of disbanded. We all went to seeking a new church home. I attended New Liberty Baptist, and was starting to go on a regular basis. One morning, the pastor recognized one of the parishioners, and he said, "Della! You're in town! Come here darling and give us a song." This beautiful lady stood up, very tall, a strong looking woman, tall and shapely. She sang a version of "Amazing Grace" that just shook the rafters. I'd never heard anyone sing "Amazing Grace" with that particular energy. She took it as her own and it meant a lot more to me than it ever had.

The next morning, as the spirit would have it, she was on television, the same Della Reese, though I didn't know her last name. And she was singing, "Don't you know, I've fallen in love with you...." I realized she was from Detroit, she was famous, and her name was very close to Reeves. She became my second idol. My first idol was Lena Horne.

Tell me about your start at Motown.

I had been invited by William Stevenson, the A&R Director. He'd seen me perform at a nightclub as Martha LaVaille. I was making transitions. I had been with a group called the Del-Phis, which was no longer because our first record, "I'll Let You Know," didn't sell. We disbanded and had to get jobs. I graduated high school, worked as a telephone solicitor, housekeeping, worked in my uncle's restaurant. I finally took a job at City Wide Cleaners. I'd visit one cleaners on Mondays, one on Tuesdays, when the regular girl had a day off. That was about as far as I could have gone with that company.

So after an amateur contest, my prize was to sing at a night club during happy hour, from eight to twelve, and I knew I had to be back at my dad's house before twelve. I was finishing up my third night and I was making as much as five dollars a night! My aunt gave me that name. Martha LaVaille! When she pierced my ears she predicted I'd be famous. She even spelled it for me. I thought about her when I began singing solo.

So William Stevenson, A&R Director of Hitsville USA, came up to me after I finished my last song. He gave me his card and said, "You've got talent. Come see me." I wish I still had that card. It would be a real prize on eBay. I'm looking at this card, and I'd heard the music on the radio. I'd read in the newspaper about how this girl Mary Wells had approached this producer and record company owner, Berry Gordy Jr., a black entrepreneur, who had a studio on the West End Boulevard. And Barrett Strong had that hit with "Money," and we were all in an economic crisis like we are today. Maybe worse. Marv Johnson had a record, "You've Got What It Takes," the Miracles were singing "Shop Around," and everyone was going wild over the group. Smokey had a wife in the group, Claudette, but he was so handsome and so were all the Miracles.

So I went the next morning. I didn't know the protocol. I didn't know you had to call for an audition like everyone else. I showed up at the time I was supposed to be at the cleaners. My dad even gave me instructions on how to ride the bus. When I got to the 2600 block, I got off the coach and was crossing the street, and I realized it was a house with a hand-painted sign. I was disappointed. Here I thought this building might be tall, a two or three story building. I thought about getting back on that bus and going home. But something in my mind said, "You've come this far. Give it a chance."

When I got to the desk I asked for William Stevenson. This beautiful girl with a high-pitched voice, said, "You mean Mr. Stevenson? Mickey?" "Well, yes," I said. "Mickey." And there on the other side of the door was Mickey, the same guy who had asked me to come to Hitsville USA. His sleeves were rolled up, his tie loosened, his hair messed up. He was working on a session for this drummer, Marvin Gaye. It was a beehive of a building. People were running all around. I think I saw Berry Gordy's father on the end of a two by four board, coming in the door, changing the basement into a studio. There were secretaries and writers, I think there were 17 in the A&R Department.

He looked at me and said, "What are you doing here?" I was ready to just sink into the floor. "You don't remember? You gave me your card and told me to come here." "Yeah, but you're supposed to take the card and call for an audition. We only do auditions every third Thursday of the month. This is the first of the month." The phone was ringing off the hook. It was a little tiny office, with a phone, one file cabinet, a calendar, a piano and no windows. He said, "Answer the phone! I'll be right back."

Well, I knew how to answer the phone. I had a commercial course in high school. So I proceeded: "A&R Department. May I help you?" People were saying, "Who is this?" "This is Martha Reeves. May I help you?" "Where is Mickey?" "Mr. Stevenson stepped out of the office. May I help you?" I had a notebook, in case I had to take notes or to show him songs I had written, and I tore out a few pages and started taking notes. There were at least 17 people calling while he was gone. People kept coming to the door, and saying, "Where is Mickey? Who are you?" Someone said, "Are you the secretary?" And I said, "Yes." It stuck.

That day there was a confrontation with some musicians. They wanted to get their pay. So I called the sales department. I talked to Ms. Betty O'Shea. She said, "Who is this?" I said, "These two gentlemen here, Benny Benjamin and James Jamerson, two of the top Funk Brothers, though they weren't called that at the time, but they were the top musicians. They were at the door, just a couple of feet in front of Studio A, and they said, "We're not going to record till we get our money from the last session." It was all of five dollars.

So I explained to Ms. O'Shea that they were angry and weren't going to record. She said she couldn't help them. I put them on the phone, and some of the things they said prompted her to say they'd get their pay. So I started the process. That day, whenever the session was cut, we'd take the session notes and write down however many songs were cut. Sometimes we'd record four or five songs in a session. It was a beehive! There was always music, always some creative genius walking through writing songs. Among those 17 writers, there was Robert Batemen, Smokey Robinson, Andre Williams, Freddie Gorman, who was a postman, who had just written a song for the Marvelettes called "Please Mr. Postman." Holland Dozier Holland, they were there. Things just went one miracle after the next, one amazing incident after the next, for those four hours that Mickey Stevenson was gone.

I'm proud to have been there. I'm glad I stayed. So when a demonstration record had to be made, Mary Wells, who was leaving the company, she had "You Beat me to the Punch" and "My Guy," but she wanted to leave. My duties were varied. I answered the phone, sang demonstration records, snapped my fingers and stomped my feet. Anyway, Berry Gordy heard the demonstration record, and after three weeks of being at that company, I was recognized, given a salary, and Berry said, "Who sang that song? Let's put that record out on her."

Check back tomorrow for the second part of Roy Kasten's interview with Martha Reeves.

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