UNLIKE many people who turned up on Berry Gordy’s doorstep when he established the Motown label, Martha Reeves was invited.
Working as a cleaner through the week and performing in clubs at the weekend, Reeves was spotted by Motown A&R man Mickey Stevenson one night in the Twenty Grand in Detroit.
“He gave me a card and said, you have talent, come to Hitsville,” says the formidable Miss Reeves over the phone from her home in Detroit. “He went all over the city, gathering up singers and musicians.”
One of 12 children, Reeves was raised in a god-fearing Alabama family and first sang publicly in her grandfather’s Methodist church after the family moved to Detroit.
It was in Detroit where Reeves fell under the benign influence of her godmother Beatrice.
“She was a woman who took me under her wing and took me to a lot of plays and concerts at the theatre – with my mom’s permission, of course – and I saw Lena Horne when I was about three years old,” remembers Reeves.
“She was so pretty and she was singing the blues. As a child, I couldn’t imagine anyone like her being unhappy, as pretty as she was. And later I was influenced by Della Reese. I saw her in church and she was singing Amazing Grace. The next day I saw her singing one of her songs on TV. I identified with her and she became my role model.”
Attending Northeastern High School alongside Supremes Flo Ballard and Mary Wilson – practicing singing while she washed up in the family kitchen (“the acoustics were good,” she explains) – Reeves was part of the generation whose parents escaped poverty in the South to reap the benefits of contributing to the war effort in the North.
But not everyone was content to work for minimum wage on the Ford Motor Co production line.
When Reeves arrived at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, she found that auditions took place on Thursdays – and Stevenson was on his way out of the office anyway. He asked her to answer the phone.
“And I did that diligently because I had a commercial background,” she says, despite the fact that she was talking to musicians who were looking to get paid and “who confronted me with a lot of profanity”.
By the time Stevenson returned (he’d supposedly been recruiting musicians for Marvin Gaye’s debut session), Reeves was indispensible – if only because she was the first person to answer the phone in the A&R department who wrote anything down.
She supplemented her $35 weekly wage by helping out in the studio, making $5 a session.
“We didn’t have synthesisers and sound effects, we were our own human sound effects,” she explains. “A lot of the early recordings, you’ll hear people clapping their hands, and stomping their feet, making rhythms and snapping their fingers, beating on cans and chains and hammers and stomping on boards to make that Motown sound. We had some wonderful creative moments.”
One day, Reeves and her group the Vels sang on a demo of a track intended for Mary Wells, and Gordy heard it and liked it. Her time had come.
Three girls replaced Reeves in the A&R department when she went on tour with the first Motown review. Alongside Little Stevie Wonder, the Supremes, the Contours, the Miracles, Marv Johnson and a 12-piece backing band, travelling “in a broken-down wagon that didn’t have a toilet”, she was on the road for three months, playing 92 one-nighters across the US, and staying in Holiday Inns or establishments that catered for a ‘coloured’ clientele.
Somewhere along the line, the name of the group changed to a combination of Van Dyke Street, a busy thoroughfare near Reeves’ family home, and her childhood idol, singer Della Reese. Performing songs written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr, and backed by Motown’s in-house band the Funk Brothers, Reeves and a series of backing singers released some incredible singles.
Beginning with Come and Get These Memories, followed by Heatwave, Nowhere to Run, Jimmy Mack, Dancing in the Street and many more perfect pop moments, each one more joyously infectious than the last , they epitomised the soulful, rhythmic sound of Motown.
“It was music 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It wasn’t a nine to five business, “she says. “Berry had worked for the Ford Motor Company and he ran his house as if it was an assembly line. There was always some music being made.
“The hits just kept coming. You had producers that were there all day long, there were 17 of them, and you had the Funk Brothers, who just stayed in the studio cutting hit after hit – there could be as many as seven songs recorded in one day in the early days. It was like a song every other hour. Those guys were really, really talented.”
Much of the label’s talent came from humble origins and many artists, including Reeves, were mentored by Maxine Powell at the Motown charm school.
“We all needed it,” laughs Reeves. “We needed to have our edges smoothed, at least. Maxine Powell taught us to be ladies but she also taught the guys to be gentlemen as well. Motown had a style and a way. You would never catch a Motown act in jeans and a torn up T-shirt. And Cholly Atkins, from vaudeville, taught us all to dance properly, to dance with our feet as opposed to dancing with our bodies, which is what you see a lot in videos – a lot of body and very little feet.
“They taught us to stand up straight and extend our bodies and present ourselves as if we were performing for kings and queens.”
Detroit is a city steeped in a rich musical history. John Lee Hooker lived in Detroit for much of his life, while, in addition to much of the Motown roster, the city has nurtured talents as diverse as the MC5, the Stooges, Alice Cooper, Suzie Quatro, Madonna, Aaliyah, Eminem, J Dilla, Amp Fiddler and the White Stripes. How does one city produce all that great music?
“All of us needed an income, all of us needed occupations,” she says simply. “The musicians, the producers, the singers, under the direction of Berry Gordy, made music that represents yesterday, today and forever. We all were blessed to be a part of that.”
What do you make of the techno music of people like Derrick May, Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson?
“I listen to what you’re saying and you’re calling it music, but it’s just noisy toys – it’s mechanical,” replies Reeves. “My music was made by people, good, solid musicians who had practiced their instruments. I haven’t won a lot of friends by making that statement, but it’s manufactured thrills. It’s nothing like the music good, soulful musicians can produce.
“I was taught to sing by musicians,” she continues. “I can’t get any tones or any clear rhythms from the machines. It’s not solid artistry. People who know those seven notes hear music in terms of tones that they have to rehearse and practice to acquire. They make music that soothes the spirit and calms the soul.”
Since the days of Motown, Detroit has become a byword for urban decay. After the decline of the car industry in the 70s, the population has shrunk from two million to around 700,000. The long-running crisis in the city’s finances – it’s more than $18billion in debt – resulted in it filing for bankruptcy last month. A federal bailout like the one which revitalised the local car industry seems unlikely. Speaking to Reeves before the catastrophic events of July, and bearing in mind her four years as one of nine Detroit City councilors, I asked how she would fix the city.
“The city is fixed,” she replies, wearily, “we just need to elect the proper people into office. Detroit’s alright. I’m still here, I’m not gonna leave. We’ve got casinos, five-star hotels, we have wonderful resources, all the motor car companies have gotten themselves out of financial ruts and we’re back on our feet. Detroit is prospering.
“We’ve cleared a lot of areas that were deserted, where people did not pay taxes, torn down houses and renovated others, and there is now a lot of middle income level housing being built again all over the city.
“It’s gonna be alright,” she assures me.
Reeves has been touring the UK for the best part of five decades. She was on the first Motown UK tour with Diana, Stevie and Smokey in 1964, organised by the late, great Dave Godin of the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society. She returned to open for Georgie Fame a year later, “and it’s been non-stop ever since.”
Reeves, who celebrated her seventy-second birthday in July, knows the north of England well. She talks about having “a wonderful time” at Wigan Casino (“We would start as late as two in the morning and we would go on until 6am, just dancing in our socks on the floor”) and pronounces herself “very excited” about her forthcoming appearances in Hull and Manchester.
How do you choose a set with a back catalogue like yours?
“We do what the audience requests,” she replies, “and sometimes I have to do songs acappella because I’m the only one who knows them. We always try to do the songs that made us famous. Of late we’ve been asked to do No One’s There, which was just an album cut written by Johnny Bristol, but it’s such a big crowd-pleaser we do that too. It took two years before I could get an arrangement for it, but we’re able to do that, Forget Me Nots, One Way Out – songs that we’ve been asked to do. We like to give people what they want to hear.”
[This a slightly longer version of a feature that appeared in the Big Issue North in August 2013]