Interview: Martha Reeves, Part Two

Jul 10, 2009 at 1:30 pm

This is part two of Roy Kasten's interview with the legendary Motown star Martha Reeves (who performs with the Vandellas at the Argosy Casino in Alton, Illinois on July 10 and 11. Read part one here.

The Vandellas had something really special. It was gospel and group sounding, somehow more raw than other Motown acts.

I like the word "real" as opposed to "raw." My gospel influence still shows. I was raised in a Methodist church, my grandfather's church at that. That's where I learned to sing. At the age of three, my brother was four, we sang in the church, and we sang, "I Want Candy." One of my first prizes was chocolate-covered cherries in my grandfather's church. That set the pattern for my life. I always wanted to sing with a group. I like harmonies. I like blending my voice with others. I love choir singing. So the music is real. The feelings are real. There are a lot of tears on our tracks. There were songs written about our pain, our loves, our realizations growing up. And I think the musicians appreciated me. They knew that when they finished recording, they'd get their pay. That became a rule. I was helpful getting that established. It was my idea. Our music sounds nothing like the Supremes or Stevie Wonder.

Your first million seller was "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave." Did you know that would be such a huge song?

Our first song was a big hit too, "Come and Get These Memories," but we had to be introduced to the world. We did some real good singing on there. That was some difficult harmony! But Holland Dozier Holland were singers. They would demonstrate the singing for us before we'd record. Imagine having a producer who could sing! And really sing! So, when they gave us the harmony, it was played on the piano by Lamont Dozier, and the harmonies were sung by Eddie [Holland] and Brian [Holland]. They showed us exactly how they wanted us to sound. The track was good, it was already recorded, and all we had to do was follow the instruction. I can attribute a lot to James Jamerson, the bassist. He took us to his home after a recording session, and he showed us the art of arrangement, how you could sing a three-part harmony and sound like a quartet.

Everybody was helpful. Everybody loved and lent their talent. Most of the musicians were educated. They had degrees in music, arranging abilities. I got a lot of the tones and feelings from singing with those wonderful Funk Brothers. Some of my melodies are wrapped around the bass line. And if I didn't sing, as Holland Dozier Holland put it, "in the pocket," if I didn't do my homework, learn how to sing wrapped around the rhythms, the track wouldn't happen. Some people say it's raw, but I say it's real. It's soulful, with very little change. I hardly ever did a session that wasn't successful after one or two tries. I'm not an artist who does take after take after take.

So it was midwinter, and there was at party in one of the buildings, one of the houses Berry Gordy owned on the block. We were at the second building next door. They came in and said, "Come on, Martha. We want you to cut this song." I didn't want to go to work. I was at a party! But I followed them back over to the studio. It was midwinter and they wanted me to sing, "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave." Eddie Holland showed me the opening lines and let me hear the track. I knew it was a hit. I was hoping that Berry Gordy would like it. That's what everybody did. They tried to please Berry Gordy. As cold as it was, we needed a heat wave. It was released in the summer, the hottest season reported in years. I heard a gentleman in Los Angeles use the intro, 18 bars, to announce the weather on a TV show. Here we are on a network and I hear our music! And when he finished the news I hear my voice, "Whenever I'm with him..." It was our first major hit, thanks to that wonderful person. That was our first time on television and it became our biggest hit.

There's a subtle message behind songs like "Dancing in the Street" and "Nowhere to Run." It's a message of liberation. Did you recognize that at the time or have we added that in later?

I have a tendency to not sing a song unless I could sing it in church. There's a church song: "I went to a rock to hide my face. The rock cried out no hiding place. There's no hiding place down here." And I think Holland Dozier Holland had the same thing in mind when they wrote the song. It was used in Good Morning Vietnam years later. "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave" reminded me of the holy spirit, the feeling you get in church when you're praising and singing the gospel. "Dancing in the Street," Marvin Gaye wrote, but when I heard it, it was a slow song. When they gave it to me, there were no riots or outrage. There were problems, but no uprisings that made the news. But when the record hit, things got out of hand. But Marvin Gaye and I both had the experience of seeing people stop fighting and carrying on and just listen to what he'd written about dancing. The English people, who get music later than we do, thought it related to the actual movements of racial equality here. But just like all of Motown's music, it was the sound of young America. People played it and it helped change the world.

I listen to "Jimmy Mack" today and it still sounds so relevant.

That song was kept on the shelf for four years! It was recorded during the Vietnam War. Jimmy was a boy who had gone off to war. He had not come back, and I'm sitting, and there's a guy calling me, but I'm going to wait for my Jimmy. It's a wonderful song, also written by Holland Dozier Holland.

So your sisters Lois and Delphine are still singing with you?

We're locked for life. Lois was with me in 1968. She'd go away and come back. We've always sung together as a family. Delphine's been with me since 1980. Lois remembers what we were taught in terms of quality control by Cholly Atkins at Motown. We had three teachers and courses that we took for four years. Artist Development they called it. I think Berry was ingenious in knowing that we needed training to sustain us in the business. Every Motown act had routines to go with the lyrics, and it was visible when we performed. Our greatest group, of course, was the Temptations. But we all had choreography. Even Stevie Wonder, who could move so well people forgot about his disability.

Cholly Atkins and Honi Coles were from vaudeville, very famous, and they taught us. Maurice King had this group called the Sweethearts of Rhythm, a 14-piece, all-girl band. He was one of the greatest arrangers. And he was our teacher too, and he led the band at the Fox Theatre in Detroit. He was hired to teach us music theory. We had music theory, choreography and personal development. That was taught by Maxine Powell. She taught us how to present ourselves, how to enter a room, how to be socially accepted. She said, "You will perform before Kings and Queens and Lords and Ladies. If you pay attention to what I'm teaching you, you'll be socially accepted." We thought, that woman is crazy! We just wanted a hit record. But she was proved to be right. We did perform before queens and before presidents, and all kinds of royalty. We had a sense that any audience we performed before were royalty. We would bow before them and present our wares. It gives you a special respect and loyalty to show business, when you know who you are and what you represent. And we represented Detroit.

In St. Louis, the news we hear out of Detroit hasn't been very good, to say the least.

Well you know anytime a celebrity joins anything it becomes noteworthy. This is the most publicized city council in history. I can't say it's all my fault. But if you were to voice all of the city councils the way we have been exposed, you'd see they all have reasons to make headlines. We're no different from any other city or city council. I've seen videos from different city councils where they are throwing chairs at each other, yelling and screaming. There have been some other things that have been exposed. We're one of the first cities to have a mayor ousted. Four years ago some text messages were made that were exposed, but you could do anybody like that, and find some unwanted things.

I'd like to think that anything I'd say I wouldn't be embarrassed to say again. But what an awful thought that someone could go back in your life four years and listen to your messages, especially if you had a girl friend on the side or some illegal dealings. Now every council member is being investigated, and in the investigation some things are coming out. I thank God that I'm a Christian. I didn't learn to lie and I don't think I ever will. Being on the Detroit city council, words that you say are changed, the press takes things to the extreme and tries to make it newsworthy.

A lot of people thought I wouldn't be a sincere council member because of my travels, because I'm still going to dance in the street. You have to do what your heart's desire is. Mine is apparent! This is my 48th year of recording. I've been doing this a long time. It shouldn't be news to anybody! I have a legacy, something I'm proud of. I still get lessons every year. I'm in tune, fit and happy. Music makes my life. The city council is a second career for me. I didn't even know I'd get into politics.

You know, I practiced a spiritual scripture on a daily basis and I asked God to keep his hand on me and keep me from evil. Doing that, I stopped smoking cigarettes, I stopped a lot of things I was doing so I could have a clear mind and a better life. Just practicing that prayer my life has changed. There's an art to prayer. I'm a happier person. And I can help. I speak for the senior citizens because that's what I am. I speak for the students in school. I express to them that they need to stay in school. I know that as long as I'm reading, learning and keeping my mind alive, I'll be here and be useful -- even into my sixties. Maybe into my seventies!