Martha Reeves is, to put it succinctly, one of a kind. The revered lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas, she’s etched a permanent place in the annals of music, ever since the group—at the center of the Motown Sound—burst onto the scene in the 1960s with hits like “Heat Wave,” ”Dancing in the Street,” “Nowhere to Run,” “Jimmy Mack,” and so many more. Is there anyone who hasn’t sung (or danced to) “Jimmy Mack, when are you coming back?” or “Summer’s here, and the time is right for dancing in the street”? Now, after nearly 60 years as a star, you might think Martha Reeves, who turns 80 in July—would be ready to retire and relax. You’d be wrong.
I spoke with Miss Martha Reeves recently and I can’t remember when someone I’m interviewing has been more open, gracious, and lovely. There’s no hint of “star attitude” here, just a great fondness for talking about the things that mean the most in the world to her: music, travel, and her family (immediate and global), all anchored by two principles that have guided her: faith and love. Given that combination (and of course, a singing voice that remains as amazing as ever), it’s no great surprise that the world has had a love affair with Martha Reeves for over fifty years now. However, life wasn’t always easy.
Growing up as one of twelve children in Detroit (where the family moved from Alabama when she was small), it could be tough making ends meet. “All we had was music. We didn’t have any money,” she says wistfully. The music, though, carried them through. “Dad played the blues guitar. He was self-taught and learned a lot of the songs he’d heard on the radio or in person. Mama would sing us to sleep sometimes, I mean we were twelve children, she had to do something to get us to sleep! She would sing Billie Holiday, Lena Horne. Oh, what a pretty voice Mama had! I still remember her singing `I don’t want to set the world on fire…’– so when I sing a ballad, I try to emulate Mama’s voice. She taught me to sing while dressing me and combing my hair. When I was washing the dishes, I would close the door to the kitchen and sing, operatic tones and everything else I felt like singing. I knew I was blessed there. I would dream about singing and traveling,”
With the dream came a sense of affirmation. One memory stands out: “My elementary school teacher would stop class a few minutes early and have me perform. She gave me songs to sing like `God Bless America.’ She was the first person that let me know I WAS an American. My birth certificate reads Negro, so I told everyone, I’m an American Negro, live with it!”
The story of her introduction to Motown is by now a legendary one. Having been given a business card by Motown’s Mickey Stevenson and told to come in for an audition, she showed up at Stevenson’s Hitsville USA studio. Being young and naïve (“I didn’t know the protocol”), she simply marched past the people waiting outside (“well, I had his business card!”) and approached the front desk. “I asked, may I see Mr. Stevenson? And she said, `you mean Mickey?’ and I thought, oh my goodness, you call him that?” The rest of the story is legend: how Stevenson said, “you were supposed to make an appointment!” and left her answering phones, which turned in to a several months-long gig as a secretary (a good thing, in retrospect, since she’d quit her job at a dry cleaner to “audition”).
“I was a good secretary, I’ll tell you that, but I was never just a secretary, I was singing, I could sing in any key they wrote the songs in, they didn’t have to adjust the keys.” Then came the day when they needed a last-minute replacement in the studio. “I brought the Del-Phis, who became the Vandellas. It’s a miracle I was in the right place at the right time.”
A few years later, completing the circle, Stevenson was a co-writer, along with Marvin Gaye and Ivy Jo Hunter, of the group’s monster hit “Dancing in the Street.” So began a long and amazing career, which, she is quick to point out, “isn’t over yet!”
Reflecting on her early days of touring, she laughs over a juvenile performer whose pranks used to keep them amused on their “brokendown Trailways bus with no toilet.” His name? “Little Stevie Wonder.” But wherever they went, one of the best things was knowing their visits were being eagerly anticipated by audiences: “As you spread your love through the music, when you arrived at some places, they already knew you and were waiting for you. That kind of made me know that traveling was a good thing. I wouldn’t know what I’d be doing or where I’d go if not for our music and our ability to travel on that magic carpet ride. Our music has given us friends all over the world. We’ve recorded songs in German, and in Spanish. We had a wonderful time in Australia, during the hottest time of the year, Mary Wilson was on that tour.”