Martha Reeves is SINGING to me down the telephone! Martha Reeves! I mean, granted, the term “music legend” gets bandied about far too easily these days, but if ever somebody DOES fit the bill for such an accolade, it’s Martha Reeves! One of the great voices from the history of music, she was – and is – of course, leader of Martha and The Vandellas (later incorporating her surname into the band’s name), her talents most famously having elevated terrific soul tracks like ‘Heatwave‘, ‘Jimmy Mack‘, ‘Nowhere To Run‘ and ‘Dancing In The Street‘ to ‘golden classic’ status.
These days Martha is a wonderfully affable great-grandmother with a lot of fabulous stories to tell. She took me back to the beginnings of her career and those remarkable early Motown years…
Martha Reeves: I’d found local fame with a group called The Del-Phis. I had just turned 21 and this guy called William Stevenson approached me. He gave me this card that told me to “Come to Hitsville.” Now, I didn’t have a clue what the Hell that was, but I kept it. I remembered that when my Aunt Bertha pierced my ears when I was 11 years old, she told me that I was going to be famous! And she told me I would find fame under the name Martha LaVelle, so I called myself that, and I won an amateur contest where the prize was that I would play three nights at the 20 Grand, which was one of the most popular clubs in Detroit. Anyway, on the card that William gave me, it had other artists’ names, like Smokey Robinson, who’d had a big success with a song called ‘Get A Job‘ – everyone knew Smokey because of it – and Mary Wells too, who was absolutely my idol at the time.
God Is In The TV: It must have been very exciting.
Martha: Well yeah, but I was a little disappointed when I got there, however, because I’d caught the bus to West Grand Boulevard – I lived on the East side – and all the way there, I had that song by Marv Johnson, ‘You Got What It Takes‘ echoing in my mind [this is where Martha sings down the phone to me, and even with this impromptu performance, it’s obvious what an amazing voice she still has!] When I got there, it was just this house! This ordinary looking house, with a hand-painted sign on it! Well, I wasn’t gonna let anything deter me, so I walked right on past everybody in the queue in there because I had a CARD! When I got to the front desk, I told them that William Stevenson had sent for me. They said “Let me see,” and I showed them, and they said “Oh, you mean Mickey,” which was the name he went by, and she pushed a button. Well, I went around the corner, and there was this man wearing a beautiful shiny suit, with his coat off, and he’d been up all night writing a song for an artist called Marvin Gaye. Well, I must have looked as though I was gonna cry because I’d gone there thinking I was gonna be famous, but he just said: “I just gave you the card so you could call for an appointment.”
GIITTV: Oh no! So you felt like you’d wasted your time?
MR: Well, I was in shock, but then he told me to answer the phone, as he was busy writing. Now, I don’t know how he knew I had the capability, but at that time there was no secretary at Hitsville, nobody answering the phone or anything, and I knew this was how musicians get their start, so I did it. I said “May I help you?” and most calls were from people who were asking if they could use the piano or if they could speak to Berry Gordy, who was head of A&R. It was all people who were waiting for their turn. Everybody was always busy and the place was always full of people like the Funk Brothers who were so important to the Motown sound or Paul Riser, who arranged most of the songs. They were all working towards the “sound of young America” and the idea that “it’s what’s in the groove that counts,” which were two of Motown’s big taglines at the time. Anyway, after I’d taken over his office for three hours, I had this stack of neatly printed messages and I never missed a call. I remember Mickey turning to someone and saying “Maybe we should ask her to come back again tomorrow,” and that was how it all started.
GIITTV: The Vandellas seems to have endured the best out of all the female vocal groups of the sixties…
MR: I do hope you’re not about to call us a “girl group”…and it was Martha and the Vandellas, not just The Vandellas. I can get quite precious about that you know…
GIITTV: I do, it was just me shortening the name for simplicity. The rest of my question was that you’d endured the best out of all the female vocals groups, but perhaps even the best out of any sixties group, period… I was going to ask you why you thought that was?
MR: Well, that’s ok then! [laughs] I guess it comes from what my mama taught me. I’m not a native Detroiter, I’m originally from Alabama – I have a very Southern accent! – and I grew up singing gospel in my grandfather’s church. My mama used to read literature – her favourite was Edgar Allan Poe – to us at bedtime. Anyway, she used to say to me “never sing a song unless it’s something you can put your spirit and soul into,” and she was right. I think the audiences can sort of see and hear that, and I try to show them the same love they show me. I remember when Dave Godin first came over – he was the guy from the UK who set up the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society – and when he got here, me and Marvin Gaye were the only ones there to greet him! But soul relates to soul, you know? And although I never really had many huge hit records, everybody knows our songs and that is mainly because of the love we’ve always had from the UK. There’s always been a connection there. People relate to it – they’re still relating to it now, through several generations. I always see people with their children, and their children’s children and that’s wonderful to see. One of my own grandchildren came to a show and afterwards said “Wow Granny! I never knew you could do THAT!”
GIITTV: You’re celebrating 50 years since the release of ‘Jimmy Mack‘. Did you ever hear the rather interesting “reply” song called ‘Hey! It’s Jimmy Mack‘ from a British band called Everybody Was In The French Resistance…Now!, in which Jimmy has not taken the news very well about the potential other suitor?
MR: No, but I guess I’m gonna have to check that out now! That song is actually a lot older and wasn’t released for four years after it was recorded, because of the tragic Vietnam war at the time. It was just a horrible time, and like in the Marvellettes song, everybody was looking for the postman, just waiting for news of their loved ones. So ‘Jimmy Mack‘ always took on a more significant meaning for me after that. I liked Mary Wells’ version of that song too, but it was nothing like ours. That was a unique recording, and I remember we brought in a load of people with rubber soles to stomp on the floor, so it ended up sounding like men marching!
GIITTV: You talked about Marvin earlier on. He is one of my all-time musical heroes. I know you two were close, so what are your fondest memories of him?
MR: Marvin and I had a lot in common, because we both had parents who were church ministers. One of my fondest memories was that first song we did with him, ‘Stubborn Kind Of Fellow‘, as I was just flirting with him all day! I didn’t care that he was married at the time – because he was with Berry Gordy’s sister, Anna, back then – I just thought he was so handsome, and I didn’t care if he was famous either! He had so many beautiful songs too. I remember that one song, ‘Wherever I Lay My Hat‘. I think some guy in England had a big hit with it?
GIITTV: I remember it well. Paul Young, that was. He did a decent version of it but it wasn’t as good as the original.
MR: Sure, but at least that guy had good taste!
GIITTV: Marvin’s death was more shocking to me than ANY other famous person… (NB – he was tragically gunned down by his own father, aged 44 in 1984)
MR: But you have to remember that God is still in control of everything. I think his father always said to him “I brought you into the world, and I will take you out,” and talked about how the spirit needs to be controlled. Marvin had been trying to move his mother away because of the abuse and it just came to a head. I was doing a Telethon when I heard about it. Of course, I cried…
(Even after all these years, Martha is clearly very emotional about her beloved friend, so there was a moment’s silence, and I decided to change the subject)
GIITTV: You served as a councilwoman in Detroit in the second half of the noughties. Did your experience in the political world make you more sympathetic to the problems faced by the likes of Obama, and what’s your opinion on Trump?
MR: Well, since the passing of the Civil Rights Movement by LBJ, I have had no changes of heart, and I haven’t personally seen anything but goodness. Now it’s ok for everyone to be equal, and we all have a right to freedom, but you know, I don’t have a political mind. I’m not really a political person, but I hope most people can see the good that Obama did – he is Hawaiian and American, he is black, he is white and he is foreign – he is equal to everybody. I don’t know how much of the tragedy that has recently happened – how much of the evil that is going on – is directly related to Trump, but I do know one thing – that man is not fair to any race. I held an audience for the Clintons and also for the Obamas… I’m really not sure I would do so for Trump.
GIITTV: Neither would I, to be fair. (This comment made Martha laugh a lot, which pleased me) So, if you had the chance to relive any moment of your life again, what would it be?
MR: Having my baby son. Eric is now Vice President of Chryslers Union. He was a wonderful gift from God. I have three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and the youngest is a real riot! On his first birthday, he danced for two whole hours to that Bruno Mars song that goes “with money in my pocket,” (‘24K Magic‘). But there are so many great memories and we are still creating them now. I met up with Paul McCartney when he recently played at Caesar’s Park at a big arena show that he did in Detroit, and we talked about the days of old, and Ready Steady Go and things like that. That was amazing, to have that chance to catch up, and we laughed because we were both wearing the exact same colour blue.
And the audiences, who sang and danced along, they were the ones who made the memories and it’s beautiful to know that we’ll be forever in their hearts, and they will be forever in mine.
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas will be playing a special one-off show on Sunday 11th March at Village Underground, Shoreditch to celebrate 50 years since the release of ‘Jimmy Mack’.
Make sure you don’t miss the chance to catch such an iconic performer in action. Oh and Martha, if you’re reading this, and hadn’t heard that ‘reply song’ I talked about, I’ve made it easy for you to hear it just by clicking the song title in that section of this interview. I’ve told Eddie Argos, who wrote it, that you were going to check it out. He was delighted and, I think, a little bit terrified as to what you might make of it, and he hopes you will take it in the humorous spirit it was intended. I am sure you will, as I know from this conversation what a warm hearted, witty person you are. Thank you for being a true legend!