Martha Reeves dishes on turning 75, Motown memories and Detroit’s future

The Motown legend is having a birthday bash at Bert's Warehouse Theatre on Monday, and everyone is invited.

More than 50 years after rising from Motown secretary to the lead singer of one of the assembly-line label’s brightest stars, Martha Reeves stays busy. And at 75, that’s no small feat.

Reeves is celebrating her 75th birthday on Monday at Bert’s Warehouse Theatre, open to everyone. The celebration includes a 1960s-themed costume party, a dance contest and, of course, music, sweet music. There’s no shortage of hits that Reeves racked up (and still performs today) with the Vandellas – “Dancing in the Street,” “Heat Wave,” "Come and Get these Memories,” “Nowhere to Run” and “Jimmy Mack” chief among them.

Many of those ‘60s-era lyrics, however, have renewed relevance in 2016. “Dancing in the Street,” for example, called for unity in the streets, Reeves shouting out cities – many of which were and still are heavily black-populated, where Motown’s music echoed the loudest – one by one, commanding everyone to get out and dance. Looking at the landscape of this year, some unity is absolutely needed.

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“I’ve loved those words,” Reeves tells BLAC before her big party. “I remember living on Riopelle and Illinois, and one of the neighborhood children was run over by a truck on Mt. Elliott.” So to calm things down, “the city employees blocked off our street so we could dance, eat each other’s chicken and dance until the street lights came on. And that’s what I was thinking of when I sang ‘Dancing in the Street.’”

If you’ve ever heard Reeves speak, you know she has a deep reverence for Motown’s lyrics, musicianship and business acumen. Before arriving at the label, she was “still living at home, 21 years old” and working at Citywide Cleaners, a long-defunct dry-cleaning chain. A chance meeting with Motown songwriter and producer William Stevenson brought her to the growing studio on West Grand Boulevard.

Stevenson gave her a business card and encouraged her to visit Motown studios. There was one problem: Motown held auditions every third Thursday. She arrived on the first of the month, unbeknownst of the strict rule. And she got lost on the way there, not knowing that a record studio could be headquartered in a residential neighborhood.

“But Motown never shut their doors,” she says. “So I arrive, and the phone starts ringing. (Stevenson) says, ‘answer that phone!’”

Reeves became Motown’s artist and repertoire secretary that day, coordinating relations between songwriters pitching lyrics, artists wanting a chance and busy producers looking for the next big sound. “Some of the producers had more than one woman – I was also a secret-tary,” Reeves laughs.

How she got her big break was due to, the way she tells it, a mistake on the part of The Andantes, Motown’s session girl group called upon for background vocals. “They were out of town, and they weren’t supposed to be out of town. They should’ve been there,” she says.

Stevenson was looking for some girl voices for a new tune he’d written for Marvin Gaye, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” Unable to locate The Andantes – they’d sing background on dozens of Motown records in the future, however – Reeves called two of her friends and auditioned on the spot.

“And we created that sound right there – that doo-doo-doo-wow!” Reeves says, referring to the introduction of the song.

“Stubborn Kind of Fellow” was a career milestone for Gaye, shifting him from cool jazz man to hitmaker. “Nobody knew he could sing like that at Motown,” Reeves says. “(In the studio), we saw him take that off, take those glasses off and take that pipe off, and we just knew.”

But the background vocalists were just as captivating. The impassioned “yeah-yeah-yeahs!” and other ad-libs, well…”you know we were looking at Marvin when we sang those,” Reeves laughs.

Reeves and her two friends were going by The Del-Phis at the time. When Motown founder Berry Gordy first heard “Fellow,” he arranged for a demo record originally meant for Mary Wells to be shifted to Reeves’ group. Reeves re-christened the group the Vandellas – named after Van Dyke Road and Della Reese, her favorite singer – and, still employed as secretary, typed up her own group’s contract.

That led to a string of hits, but the road there wasn’t easy. Reeves recalls cramped buses during the Motor-Town Revue tours, sharing hotel rooms and traveling through segregated states during the tumultuous 1960s. Some onlookers mistook the Motown tour buses for the Freedom Riders civil rights activists, which led to uneasy tensions in some situations.

There was also the beginnings of the internal strife at Motown. While the Vandellas enjoyed a run that eventually put the group in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was hard to ignore the rise of The Supremes and the relationship between its lead singer and the boss. 

Motown’s move from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972 was “reality hitting me in the face,” Reeves says. “I realized Gordy was a businessman. And he befriended one person, and they had a child together.

“The rest of us were just artists he made money from,” she adds.

Because Reeves is one of a handful of Motown alumni that still lives in Detroit, she rarely keeps in touch with others from the era still living. “They all got rich and moved away,” she says. Occasionally, she’ll chat with Mary Wilson of The Supremes, but don’t expect a girls’ night out with Diana Ross and Gladys Knight anytime soon.

But as one of the Motown alumni still standing, she regularly takes her show on the road – often to the United Kingdom, where Motown and Northern soul music is in high demand. Reeves regularly plays gigs in London (during our interview, she sports a pair of sunglasses from Ted Baker, a London-based designer), and stands firm in her accomplishments. When asked about the TV One series "Unsung," which has profiled Motown singers Kendricks, David Ruffin, Tammi Terrell, and The Marvelettes, Reeves says, "that show is for people that have never gotten their due. And I've got a bunch of awards at my house." 

But, “my life is here in Detroit," she says. “The people in Detroit made Motown famous,” she says. “The people here tolerated us in our amateur state, and the people who made us, I see them every day.”

That love for Detroit translated into a brief but memorable stint on Detroit’s City Council, another piece of Reeves’ life that has renewed relevance considering the changing dynamics of the city – and who’s making news in the city.

“The only thing I could do is get the street name,” Reeves says, referring to a stretch of West Grand Boulevard doubly named in honor of Gordy. “There’s a statue in Birmingham, Alabama of (Temptations singer) Eddie Kendricks. But our citizens couldn’t do that here.”

One can’t help but ask Reeves how she feels about former Detroit City Council President Charles Pugh, though the two served during different terms. “It’s a heartbreak to see someone who has so much favor in this city to be called down for such an accusation,” she says. “I’ll pray for Charles Pugh.”

Prayer and forgiveness is close to Reeves, as evidenced by mentions of 102.7, Detroit’s gospel station and the only one she listens to (“All the best singers are singing gospel,” she says, staunchly eschewing today’s pop music) and often times referring to her performing as ministry. “It’s a job given to me by the Lord,” she says at one point. "Motown is a blessing God," she says at another time.

There are also mentions of things long gone from the city. The Grand Belt bus line she took from the far east side to Motown studios – gone. The “state fair” mentioned in the lyrics of “Come and Get these Memories” – gone. Northeastern High School, where Reeves briefly attended, as did Wilson, Florence Ballard and Bert’s owner Bert Dearing – gone. Hastings Street, the 20 Grand Ballroom, Motown’s downtown headquarters – all gone.

It makes you wonder why Reeves hasn’t considered sunnier cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas, where her contemporaries live. “I used to walk to Belle Isle. I was in a family of 11 children, and Belle Isle was my escape,” Reeves says. “I could leave, but Detroit is my heart, my soul and my love.”

Ask her where her son, grandchildren and great-grandchildren live. “Sterling Heights,” she says with a scoff. Said like a true Detroiter.

Reeves lives in Lafayette Park, takes classes with Mr. Smooth, the famous ballroom instructor at Club Yesterday’s, and, like a true Detroiter, name-checks people and places only a deeply ingrained city resident would know. She's optimistic about development in Detroit — "Developers are taking it back to the state it was." And she’s bringing 75 years of Detroit experiences to Bert’s on Monday night.

Tickets for Reeves’ 75th Birthday Bash start at $15. For more information, visit http://bit.ly/MarthaReevesBirthday or call 313-444-9890.

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