Martha Reeves on Motown, her drugs hell and coming to Glasgow

MARTHA Reeves invokes The Lord quite a lot in conversation, citing the role he or she has played in her life. And it’s perhaps no wonder. The soul singer’s personal back catalogue reveals a set of challenges that almost the necessitate the assistance of a deity.

Along the way, Reeves – set to appear in Glasgow this month – has had to cope with fame, the loss of fame, a drug habit that saw her, at one point, locked in a mental institution, battling the music company that broke her and then threatened to break her, and a clutch of heartbreak relationships. Oh, and taking up a political career.

But before we rewind on Reeves’ life story, how has she coped with the pandemic? “At first, it was a shock,” she says in an upbeat, fun voice that suggests a woman far from 80 years old. “But then I began to think God had gotten mad at us for the way we were living our lives and was saying to us ‘You really gotta slow down. You gotta connect with other people. Talk to your children. Take some time for reflection.’ And I think he was right. So, I’ve done that. And I began to clean out the house, unpacking boxes and stuff.”

The singer laughs. “So, really, I’ve been doing housekeeping for a year and a half, which has been great. And you know, honey, I got myself a trampoline and I’ve been bouncing on that with the grandchildren.”

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It’s not hard at all to imagine Martha Reeves bouncing with the kids. Her story is one of a go-getter. Reeves grew up one of 11 children (her parents having migrated north from Alabama to Detroit to find work) and the experience was defining. “Well, my mom and dad must have been listening to the Lord when he said, ‘Go forth and multiply,” she laughs. “But it wasn’t a struggle to co-exist in a family unit that size because my mom was so organised. She made sure we all ate at the same time, and she made sure we all had portions. And no one was greedy. No one was fat.

“My role was also to be the second mother, and I learned so much. When my mom did the washing in the bath, I’d be at the end with a washboard. She taught me to do most things that needed done.”

Ruby Reeves also taught her daughter to sing. “As a three-old, when my mom combed my hair, she’d teach me songs; ‘Yes, Jesus loves me . . . ’ and Billie Holiday songs and I’d sing along. Meantime, my dad played blues guitar and we’d have a family singing contests on a Saturday night to win a box of candy.”

Did she win? “Of course I did, honey,” she laughs. “I could dominate every time. They had to yield to my enthusiasm.”

That enthusiasm for performance was evident right through the black community. But in early 1960s Detroit race restrictions were horrific. No groups of more than three black people could congregate. There were no recreation halls or dance halls. “The people in our block of about 20 houses wanted to have street parties. We wanted to put our record players with tiny speakers out on the porches and sing and dance. But it was illegal. But because my dad worked for the local council [in the water department] he was able to go make an appeal and it was granted, on Saturdays only, and just ‘till midnight.

“Years later, when I recorded Dancing in The Street it was easier to find a way to get the excitement into the song it needed because I had been that girl who was so happy to be dancing in the street.”

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Reeves would go on to sell millions of records and be inaugurated into the Music Hall of Fame. Was there ever a chance she could have considered a career outside of music? “No!,” she laughs. “As a little girl I was asked to sing in church with my brother. At the age of 11, my aunt told me I’d be famous and came up with a stage name for me, Martha LaVaille.”

After graduating from high school in 1959, Reeves joined a girl group, the Fascinations, went on to co-found the Del-Phis and in 1961 won a major talent contest. “I was invited [she continually stresses the word] to sing at the Twenty Grand club during happy hour, three nights after winning an amateur contest.” She sighs with happiness. “The Lord says ‘Knock on the door and it will be open unto you’ and I was always read to knock. At 21, I had a job at the dry cleaners during the day but while I was singing at nights I was invited to come along for an audition with Motown. And later on, I was invited by Marvin Gaye himself to sing Dancing in The Street.”

She adds, with supreme confidence: “Remember, I knew I could sing from three years old because momma had told me I could.”

Yet, the needle that is stardom, despite Ms Reeves unabashed self-confidence, didn’t drop onto the record straight away. When Reeves showed up at Motown Records, she was put to work in the A&R department as an admin assistant.

Gradually she made her way onto records as a backing singer for the likes of Marvin Gaye, being paid “just five bucks a session.” But one day, opportunity struck when Mary Wells didn’t show up for a recording session. Reeves grabbed the microphone (literally), and the result was I’ll Have to Let Him Go, released under the newly renamed Martha & The Vandellas.

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Yet, that didn’t mean instant fame and success. Or real money. Motown, only recently unionised, would demand that artists be trained in Artist Development. “We were trained in how to represent black people,” says Reeves of the astonishing policy. “And we had to pay for these lessons ourselves.”

Motown also insisted the artistes pay for singing lessons, and part of the production costs of a record. However, Reeves happily put up with all of this; her immediate goal was to join the Motown hitmaker’s tour bus as it took its acts, including Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross, across the nation.

The Motown ethos was about selling records via integration. About avoiding confrontation. “The boss, Berry Gordy, insisted, for example, that the lyrics were always about love and unity. But at times there was confrontation. “I can remember Smokey one night in Alabama had to deal with security guys with baseball bats who were ready to hit anyone in the audience [segregated, whites on one side of the hall, blacks on the other] who would get up and dance and had to make a plea for sanity to prevail. Robinson won them over, they stepped back, and the audience danced.”

But what of this music world of male supremacy? Was sexism rampant? “Well, I don’t have a MeToo moment to recall. The performers in the Motown revue show all loved each other. And it was known that Diana had a baby with Berry, but all of us didn’t sleep with him. He was with her.”

Gradually, Reeves piled on the hits, and she became one of Motown’s top performers, with songs such as Heat Wave, Nowhere to Run and Jimmy Mack. “We were able to bring our love to the UK with the Motown revue, invited onto the Dusty Springfield Show.”

Yet didn’t Berry Gordy insist on Diana Ross fronting the Dusty show rather than Martha Reeves? “Yes, but as I said, Berry had a personal thing with Diana. So, I understood that.”

Reeves is insistent that her time at Motown was special and she’s eternally thankful to Berry Gordy. “I got to sing some of the best tracks ever. The love he gave me was the songs.”

But in 1972, the singer left Motown, then had to sue the company for her share of royalties, which took decades. “What happened was that Motown left Detroit for Los Angeles,” she says in soft, conciliatory voice. “I had remind them I was due the money. But it wasn’t Berry’s fault.”

She smiles: “He was off somewhere spending his money. But I was right to fight for what I was due. And I’ve been getting the royalties ever since. So, thank you!”

What was never reported at the time of Reeves’ massive success was her drug habit, which wrecked her head to the point of a nervous breakdown so severe she had to be institutionalised. Later on, she told the tale as a warning. “I wanted young people who have entered the industry to know that the Devil can appear and introduce you to all sorts of dangers,” she explains.

“You see, my first drugs were given to me by doctors. It began with Valium and then I’d be on the road and people would be saying ‘Why don’t you try cocaine? You’ve got the large nostrils that will really help you do this drug’ when all I really needed at the time was rest from the pressures of working constantly. But there was also the pressure to be part of the in-crowd.”

She reflects: “What I’d want to say now to young people is you only need the power of God to help you. Let him do his work to realise your talent.”

In the 1970s, Reeves’ career slowed almost to a halt and the Vandellas, which had featured a host of different singers, went their separate ways. Reeves, however, continued to work, appearing on the revival circuit.

In the 1980s, Reeves entered politics, standing for Detroit City Council. “The population was three million but 1,000 people were leaving every day because of the taxes. I felt I had to speak for the people. I’d always been a politician, since Motown days when I fought for better rights for the musicians.”

By now, Reeves had reached out to God to help her through the demanding years, of bringing up a son alone. And she seems to have lurched from one broken relationship to another, the suggested lyrics perhaps for a Country & Western song, not an upbeat Motown number.

“During my teenage years I had two boyfriends, one who was in the army and the other in the navy. And I wrote to them every day. When the Marvelettes came out with the song Mr Postman that was really about me. I would be standing at the gate waiting for him to bring that letter. But the first boyfriend, from the navy, came home from leave and married one of the girls from our church. And the second boy, he married a girl from North Carolina when stationed there.”

She adds with a wry smile: “I was getting used to heartbreak by this time. Then the first marriage came about, to a gentleman who was a kind DJ in Toronto, but he turned out to be a criminal. And the second husband was someone who wanted to be with all of us, Martha AND the Vandellas.

“As you can imagine, all of this left me disillusioned because as a female vocalist I’m singing about meeting my Prince Charming, but it never happened. And the result was a broken heart.”

Has she given up on love? “Well, I suppose I’m still looking for him but in truth I’ve replaced all of those guys with Jesus. Since I became Born Again, I’ve realised he’s the one who’s helped me tour again, to look after my family.

But isn’t that a little sad, Martha. What about when you need a cuddle? “You know who gives me a cuddle? The audience. When my fans show up that’s when I get the love. And when I come to Glasgow I’ll see old friends I’ve known for over 50 years. I love the meet and greet times after the show.”

Looking back, what is she most proud of? Is it her incredible back catalogue, raising a family, her friendships with the likes of Smokey Robinson? “It’s being able to talk to you and knowing you can spread the word that I’m coming to Scotland,” she says without a trace of sarcasm in her voice.

“Because that means I’ll feel the love from so many people. You know, I know people who can’t have a party unless they play Motown songs. We need to hear the Jacksons sing. So, I’m blessed by the Lord to be able to present this kind of music that allows so many to celebrate with their friends and families.”

She laughs: “And I’m serious about how much I want to see you. I want you to be pushy with your press card and come see me backstage. I need to speak with you in person. Lord, I do.”

What’s evident is that Martha Reeves’ energy is as powerful as her God-given voice. She talks of turning her life story into a movie and the confidence roars out. “It’s about reflecting the story of the superstar I know I am.”

She adds, grinning: “As I turn 80, I have realised I’m just an old bird. but I gotta keep singing and working as long as I can.”

Martha Reeves and the Vandellas appear at the Playground Festival, Rouken Glen Park, on Sunday September 26. See www.playgroundfestival.co.uk

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992