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Soul Survivor: Martha Reeves
Martha Reeves is still playing sold-out concerts to adoring fans almost 50 years after her first hit - but she hasn't had an easy ride. Speaking frankly about being left behind by Motown in 1972 and her subsequent battle with painkiller addiction, she tells Charles Thomson why she's 'stronger than dirt'.
February 2011 , Sawf News

Martha Reeves is a lady in demand. Trying to pin down the former Motown star for an interview has proved difficult. Having travelled the world several times over this year alone, Reeves is still on the road less than two weeks before Christmas. Currently in London for a series of sold-out shows at the Jazz Café, she has proved elusive. Her schedule is so full that I was at first told she might not be available for interview at all, and then that she’d only be available by telephone.

However, in an eleventh hour communiqué from her publicist I was told yesterday that she had agreed to meet me at her hotel this afternoon, ahead of her final London show. Now, like any self-respecting diva, she is running late.

Things could have played out very differently for Martha Reeves. One of Motown’s earliest hit-makers, delivering some of the biggest tunes the label ever released, Reeves was unceremoniously dropped in 1972 just months after she gave birth to a baby boy, forcing her to sell her house and downgrade her car. Her subsequent depression resulted in a painkiller dependency and solo success proved difficult to maintain.

Like many of her contemporaries, it would have been easy for Reeves to disappear for good during the 1980s/90s. The era was notoriously difficult for soul musicians. But Martha Reeves is made of sterner stuff. While others have drifted into obscurity, Reeves – a firm believer in the notion that hard work, dedication and faith are the keys to success – has fought to maintain her career. At 69 years of age, almost five decades after her first hit single, she tours constantly and is working on a new album – which she says she’ll release on her own record label.

When Reeves emerges from the hotel elevator in a blue leisure suit and white sneakers, she finds us a table by the bar so she can order some lunch. With a hint of shyness, she asks me not to begin recording her until she’s ordered her food – a surprising display of vulnerability, given that she has a reputation for being a no-nonsense kind of gal.

Just weeks before her arrival in the UK, Reeves sparked online debate around the world with some divisive comments made in a Daily Express interview, slamming ‘offensive’ lyrics in contemporary music and bemoaning the ‘lawlessness’ that they inspire. The comments shot around the web; some readers emphatically agreed, some dismissed her as a curmudgeon. When I mention the incident and the subsequent debate over 'negative lyrics', she interjects: “The word ‘negative’ could be replaced with ‘profanity’."

“I feel that the lyrics today are cursing the world,” she laments. “There are more tragedies now than I’ve ever realized in my sixty-nine years of being on this earth. There’s cursing for no particular reason – just to sell records. Foul language and lawlessness. You can be cursed just by listening to a record? I think it’s a little out of hand.

“Music is supposed to soothe the soul… How can someone take that talent and that gift and distort it to a point where they’re saying ‘F-you’ and ‘kill the police’ and ‘all women are bitches’?"

“I’m not running a protest,” she adds. “I’m not carrying signs. I’m not jumping up and down and I’m not asking anybody else to change what they’re doing. I just answer when I’m asked.”

Perhaps today’s artists would do well to listen to Martha Reeves, whose music career is now entering its seventh decade. She attributes her longevity to Motown’s insistence that its artists should never be offensive either onstage or off.

“Motown had us go to school for four years,” she says. “They taught us to be ladies. They taught us how to carry ourselves and the guys how to be gentlemen. Professor Maxine Powell taught us about the women who preceded us like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne. They became royalty by being ladies and representing our race. Motown told us we’d sing before lords and ladies and kings and queens – and for sure we have.

“Motown had a quality control department to make sure that our lyrics were all of good intent. You won’t hear anything that you’ll have to send the kids out of the room to listen to.  I thought it was a good way of staying in this business and having music that becomes legendary; music that people can keep in their families. It’s important what you put out because it comes back. Whatever you put out comes back.”

And stay in the business she did. It is almost 50 years since Reeves got her big break after joining Motown as a secretary in the A&R department. She and her group, then known as The Vels, persuaded bosses to let them sing back-up vocals on records for the label’s established acts, including the company’s resident heartthrob, Marvin Gaye. At the mention of Gaye’s name, Reeves breaks into a schoolgirlish grin.

“Marvin was so fine,” she giggles. “He was such a good looking man. Even after he married Berry [Gordy]’s sister Anna, I would always kid with him and flirt with him because I thought he was so fine. I would love to have had Marvin Gaye as a boyfriend. But I wasn’t his type and he treated me like a little sister.”

When Mary Wells failed to show up for a scheduled recording session in the summer of 1962, The Vels stepped in and recorded a demo in her place. Motown boss Berry Gordy was so impressed with the vocals that he offered the group a recording contract. Renamed ‘Martha and the Vandellas’, the group’s first hit, Come and Get These Memories, was released in February 1963 and reached number six on the R&B chart.

Five months later (Love Is Like A) Heat Wave hit number one on the R&B chart and stayed there for five weeks. Nominated for a Grammy, the song remains one of Motown’s most famous – no small achievement – and has been covered by everybody from Bruce Springsteen to The Who.

Not content with recording just one of Motown’s biggest ever numbers, the group repeated the feat in 1964 when they recorded arguably the most famous Motown song of all time; Dancing in the Street. But, says Reeves, she didn’t fall in love with the song on her first listen.

“Marvin already had recorded it but they said, ‘Hey, try this on Martha’. At first I protested. Marvin had sung it and it was romantic, so I said ‘No.’

"I remembered having our streets blocked off when we were young. Nobody had any money. For entertainment on the weekends everybody would put their record players on their porches.We would just get in the middle of the street and do the little dances that we knew to do. That’s the street dancing that I had in mind when I recorded it. So I asked them if I could sing it the way I felt it.

“I did it and they were excited. They had a good time. They were rewarding each other and clapping each other’s hands and stuff and saying, ‘Hey, we got a hit!’ - and then the engineer said they didn’t have the machine on, and ‘Martha, can you do it again?’

"Well, do you hear a little fire when I sang it? You hear that little urgency? I’m saying, ‘Why didn’t y’all have the machine on? I did it good the first time!’

“But it turned out really good. No stops… Went straight through and in two minutes and fifty-five seconds we had a hit.”

Despite never hitting number one, the track has become one of the biggest in Motown’s history and has been covered by several big name acts – most notably David Bowie and Mick Jagger, who recorded it in support of Bob Geldof’s Live Aid initiative in 1985.

“I was so jealous because I wanted to be in a trio with them,” she laughs. “They did a video. I didn’t get a video. They had on their little Florida shirts and they were dancing! I was so jealous because I had a dress I could have worn and got right in there in the mix of them and done that video. I thought they did a wonderful thing for the benefit of the African nations and they did a wonderful job. In fact, they gave us a lot of their fans.”

The hits continued for several more years. 1965 produced Nowhere To Run, which hit number five on the R&B chart and, in 2004, was listed in Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 500 greatest songs of all time. 1967’s Jimmy Mack was the group’s last track to hit number one on the R&B chart. Shortly after the song’s release, Motown’s legendary songwriting team Holland-Dozier-Holland flew the coup and at the same time label boss Berry Gordy began focusing much of his attention on Diana Ross.

By the early 1970s rumors were circulating that Berry Gordy was planning to shut down the Detroit operation and move everything to Los Angeles, where he was hoping to break into the movie industry. The company issued a denial in March 1972 but, just three months later, Hitsville closed its doors. A lot of Motown acts simply weren’t told about the move. The Funk Brothers – the house band who defined the famous Motown sound – only found out about the closure when they arrived for work and saw removal trucks pulling away from the label’s Detroit offices. Nobody called them or even wrote them a letter.

Reeves, one of Motown’s earliest and biggest success stories, was also out of the loop after taking some time off to give birth to her first child. Her contract was up for renewal in 1972 and she’d had no indication that Gordy didn’t plan to exercise that option. Today she hints that her new found motherhood may have been a contributing factor in his decision.

“I’d had a baby,” she says. “Babies aren’t in contracts. Unwed mother. Out of wedlock.

“One day I called Hitsville like I normally would and said, ‘Are there any assignments for me? Are there any sessions or anything?’ The receptionist on the phone was not one of the best kind. She said, ‘Girl, don’t you know that Motown has moved?’

“It was like a bomb had gone off in my heart. I said, ‘Ohh, what are you talking about?’ She said, ‘All we have to get outta here now is these computers! We’re gone!’

“I was devastated. I had a brand new baby. I felt like I wanted to quit the business. I sat around in the apartment – because I had lost my house. I got a lesser car. I went from a Buick to an Opel Kadett. My mother and father helped me raise my child while I was trying to adjust my life so I could get a job and live normal.”

Reeves credits Temptations star Eddie Kendricks with snapping her out of her depression and helping her to re-launch her career.

“Eddie came to my apartment one day and cussed me out,” she recalls. “He said who the f--- did I think I was, blankety blank. ‘We made all these records. You better get to work. You got people who are expecting you to come and perform. How did you think you could walk away from it? Why did you sing the songs in the first place? If I gotta do it, you gotta do it. Get your blankety blank on the road!’

“So I picked myself up. Nobody’s ever talked to me like that. I didn’t deserve it and I didn’t know why Eddie did that to me, but now I do – he was giving me tough love. He was giving me some good advice and God sent him. Because Berry didn’t care. Nobody cared. Just Eddie Kendricks.

“It took a year before I could actually start performing. I started all over without back-up singers. My price was way low. I could hardly manage on it. I eventually worked my way back into the business, back to the reputation that I had earned with Motown.”

Reeves’s self-titled first solo album hit shelves in 1974 and was a huge critical success. The lead single Power of Love, with its funky bass hook and prominent tambourine, was evocative of her Motown heyday and hit number 27 on the R&B chart. However, the album wasn’t a huge seller and neither was her 1975 follow-up Rainbow, released on Phonorama. Throughout the 1970s, as she struggled to maintain her career, Reeves developed a drug dependency.

“My first drugs were valiums,” she says matter-of-factly. “That was in the 70s. In 1976 I was in the valley of the dolls. I had pills to wake up with, pills to go to sleep with, pills to turn around, pills to sit down, pills to eat, pills to not eat.

“My dad saw them on my windowsill when I had him come to New York. He sat and cried and told me, ‘Baby, nobody has to take that many pills. Stop taking those pills.’ So I weaned myself off of them. My dad saved my life that time.”

The following year Reeves says she was ‘reborn’ after a chance meeting with record producer Frank Wilson, who invited her to attend a retreat at California’s Lake Arrowhead. The retreat’s attendees stayed in what Reeves describes as ‘barracks’ and they spent the trip discussing their problems and reconnecting with God. 

“Where we stayed there were just little cots; three bunks, a toilet, a shower and a sink to use collectively. No radio, no television. Telephones didn’t work on the mountain. You had a prayer partner assigned to you and you would walk along and talk to them about what’s on your mind.

“We were just singing and praising God and listening to positive thinking… If you’ve got any habits, get rid of them. Think about God. Praise him and thank him for the ability to be a performer. Put your mind right. That’s rebirth. That’s changing your old ways and going back to the right way. Putting law back into your life.

“You’ve gotta relieve stress. I tried it with transcendental meditation, tai chi and everything. There was nothing like being reborn.”

But Reeves is quick to point out that overcoming her demons wasn’t as simple as just attending a retreat at Lake Arrowhead.

“I rededicated my life,” she explains. “I had gone astray to the point where I wasn’t living the life that I should. I had done some things I didn’t think God would ever forgive me for but I found out in re-reading the scriptures and renewing my mind that he’ll forgive you and you can start your life again.

“That makes me worthy of being a performer. You have to earn the right to be a performer. You don’t just wake up in the morning singing. There’s a mind-set, there’s a practice and there’s a meditation that goes along with it. I’m back on track now. As you can see, I’m as sober as a judge,” she laughs.

“It’s a gradual thing. You don’t just say ‘huh’ and come out of it. You pray, you pray, you ask God’s forgiveness, you pray, you pray… My habits now; I read the bible about an hour a day. Today I’ve done my hour. It might be the reason why I’m a little late today coming down. I sing my psalms. I say every day, ‘Bless me indeed, increase my bounty, keep your hand on me and keep me from evil'.”

Although she kept performing, Reeves retired from recording for almost a quarter of a century, beginning in 1980 and, to some extent, shunned the spotlight. There was a brief spot on the famous Motown 25 special in 1983 and a few years later she appeared on Broadway. In 1995 she released her autobiography and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Three years later she performed in front of an estimated 90million viewers in a Super Bowl half time spectacular to celebrate Motown’s 40th anniversary.

But it wasn’t until 2004 that she returned to the recording studio and released her album Home To You on her own record label, Itch. The self-penned title track was written back in 1972, after the birth of her son.

“I did a tour of the UK when he was a month old,” she says. “I wrote Home To You because I had to leave my son and I was missing him. It was after I came back and recovered from that tour that I called Motown and discovered they’d moved.”

In 2005 Reeves decided to give a little back to the city which had given so much to her, so ran for election to Detroit City Council. With her focus on improving education for the city’s children and care for the city’s elderly, Reeves was a popular candidate and won her seat. But, she says, she wasn’t impressed with what she witnessed in the corridors of power.

“The mayor I served under is in jail,” she grimaces. “I’m not cut out to be a politician because I’m too fair minded. You have to be a schemer. You have to be a liar. You have to be someone who can play tricks, because you don’t represent the people – you represent the politicians.

“Also, I had to think of my back-up singers – my sisters. I had to think of my musicians, who I was trying to keep on hold, but couldn’t really afford them if I wasn’t working. So I thought, showbusiness is my first career, my first priority – let me go back to doing what I know I do well.”

Since leaving the council Reeves has been busy. In 2010 she performed more than 50 gigs and was nominated for two UK festival awards. She’s also returned to the studio to begin work on an upcoming album, recording two tracks with composer Soren Jensen and several more with Ivan Shook.

“We’re going for that old Motown sound,” she says. “On my last album, the guys I used were all from the Jazz Hall of Fame. I had Marcus Belgraves on trumpet, who was Ray Charles’s first trumpeter. I had a team of select musicians and we got as close to the Motown sound as anyone could possibly get. I couldn’t do it again now. I have to find players who could emulate the Motown musicians because all the ones I had that were true Motown musicians are gone.”

As Reeves ages, she’s finding that more and more of her Motown contemporaries are gone. I wonder aloud whether she feels an increasing sense of responsibility and guardianship over the legacy.

“No,” she says, then pauses. “The glory gets better and better. People are receiving the music and they appreciate us, the ones that are still carrying on, and I’m reaping the benefits of this overwhelming love. We made good friends in the beginning and we still have them – and new ones.

“I was sitting in my house waiting for the next gig and a friend called me from New York and said he had just visited Paris,” she says. “He was walking down the street and someone had music playing on a loud speaker and they played Dancing In The Street. Everybody around him started dancing and got happy and it lifted everybody’s spirits and everybody started grooving and he said it was a wonderful feeling and he just had to call me and tell me when he got back to New York.

“You know how good that made me feel? I wasn’t there but our music was there and it enlightened people that I probably will - maybe, you never know if I’ll see them in my lifetime – but they loved us. Just for that moment, it changed everything. I mean, all thoughts and pains and worries and barriers and anything was just lifted, and it happens with nearly every Motown song.”

Reeves’s comment about wondering whether she’ll see those fans in her lifetime strikes a chord. Many of her Motown colleagues have passed away and lots of them when they were far younger than Reeves is now. I ask her how much longer she plans to keep performing. She seems almost wounded by the question.

“Baby, people ask me that question and I didn’t know I’d be in it this long,” she replies. “As long as I’m able. I won’t put a date or time on it because life doesn’t have a date or a time on it. As long as I’m able. And I don’t even think about it unless somebody asks me a question like that.

“There’s an element of a fountain of youth in the music ‘cuz I can feel as young and silly when I perform them as I did when I first recorded them. I have fun and fond memories of the sessions and breaking the records in.

"We used to have what you’d call record hops, when our fans would come and take off their shoes and slide across the floor and listen to our music enjoy our shows. We can’t put those expensive shoes around the edge of the floor now because somebody will take your Reeboks and your Air Jordans and walk out with ‘em.  But we used to have that kind of fun and we can re-live it every time we have a show.”

Later on, Reeves brings me into her final sold out Jazz Café show to watch her perform. In an energetic 90-minute set she combines all of her biggest hits with a series of crowd-pleasing tributes to other artists, including Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, James Brown’s I Got The Feelin’ and Billie Holliday’s God Bless The Child.

Reeves comes alive onstage. She laughs, she smiles, she dances and she radiates a joy that an Academy Award winner couldn’t feign. Witnessing this, her comments about the fountain of youth in Motown’s music make perfect sense. There might not be any sneakers lined up around the walls of the Jazz Café, but it’s clear the music transports her back to her twenties. The audience, many of whom look too young to have even been born when her records topped the charts, are loving it.

Earlier, at the hotel, Reeves mentioned that she’s working on a second volume of autobiography.

“My first title was ‘Stronger Than Dirt’ but somebody’s used that already,” she laughed. “So I have to think of another one with the same intention, to let people know that you can survive any kind of controversy. You can survive it, no matter what. You have to take what God gives you and do the best that you can with it. I haven’t had an easy way. This has been a little difficult. But I won. I got the victory. The gift is the prize, and my prize is the ability to perform.”

I am reminded as I watch her of her comment about how long she intends to stay in the business; “As long as I’m able.” As Reeves winds up her show with a pounding medley, fusing Dancing In The Street with anthems from other Motown acts like Stevie Wonder and the Four Tops, the crowd goes wild. Reeves feeds off of her audience.

“The better you are,” she told me at the hotel, “the more they applaud, which makes you want to work twice as hard.” If the audience keeps reacting this way, she’ll be doing it until she’s a hundred.

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Charles Thomson - Sky News