In celebration of the legendary Martha Reeves’ 80th birthday, Sharon Davis asks us to ‘come and get these memories’ as she shares from her many years of knowing the ‘The Queen Of Detroit’!
Happy 80th Birthday Martha Reeves! A lady of so many talents, an artist with a big heart who has touched millions of people with her music and words, and who has represented Motown and Detroit across the world. A woman for all seasons…
So, sort out a colourful party outfit and grab a glitzy cardboard hat to celebrate this very special day with one inimitable musical legend. With over one hundred and fifty family members and friends, Martha Reeves enjoyed the party of the year at her pal Bobbie Gingiloski’s large estate in a village some forty miles north of Detroit. The day was hot and sunny, the outdoor table decorations, including flower displays, were in the colour purple, Martha’s signature colour, as depicted by her US releases on the Gordy label. There was soul food to eat and dancing to be done, with Martha sneaking in a few interviews with her guests along the way. Dressed in a pink blouse, a long skirt featuring soft colours of blue and green to compliment the blouse, split in the middle by a black belt matching her face mask which hung around her neck, ‘The Queen of Detroit’ wore a crystal tiara with the figure eighty at the front. Her guests included Spyder Turner, Paul Riser, officials from the Michigan government, Detroit mayor Mike Duggan, and other dignitaries, some of whom presented her with tributes and proclamations. Part-way through the festivities, there were video tributes from many, including Scherrie and Freda Payne, Claudette Robinson, Whoopi Goldberg and Berry Gordy who included, “Thank you for helping make Motown what it is today.” Martha said, “…had it not been for him, I never would have been famous.”
While Martha readily admits the route leading up to her eightieth birthday has been rough at times but is, of course, happy she’s around to see it, the past eighteen months or so have hit her hard. “I’m sort of messed up now because CoVid…has put me in the twilight zone,” she told www.hourdetroit.com. “I feel like I’m living in a science fiction movie…everything is so strange…I’ve still been getting over ten fan letters a week, so people haven’t forgotten.”
On the business side, employing eight people including her sister Vandellas, Delphine and Lois, the current situation is very discouraging. For instance, plans to tour China and Europe were cancelled in a day – six months of planning scuppered. “It was mind blowing for the world to stop like that…Somehow we have been blessed to hold on and plan to work this year.”
Let’s move on. I think it’s generally known by now, at least for those who were interested, that I first met Martha in London late sixties/early seventies. I can’t remember the exact date as the relevant diary has gone walkabouts. However, in the grand scheme of things, it’s not important. Suffice to say, we’ve known each other a long, long time, and when we met she was a visiting mum-to-be; her son Eric Jermel Graham was born in 1970. With her in London were her sister Lois and Sandra Tilley. I remember Martha was heartbroken when Sandy died in September 1981, as she told me during one of her UK visits. “Sandy had her own boutique and was doing OK. She died from a busted blood vessel on the operating table. She had had a serious operation and had pulled through; she told me she was going to really live again. And she died. Although she had a lot of good friends, when she died we were the only people to attend the services. Duke (Fakir) sent his wife along. She didn’t have a mother or father, and had no children either, only a husband. All she had was me and my sister Lois.”
So, how does one tackle or give justice to a lady who has given so much and done even more in her lifetime? It’s impossible. The best way, I reckon, is to dip my hand into the memory jar and see what comes out. It might just make for interesting reading.
When “Dancing In The Street” was first issued on the Stateside label in 1964 it crawled into the British Top 30. Upon re-release early 1969, with “Quicksand” on the flip, it shot to number four in the January. An album – more a compilation I guess – carrying the hit’s name followed three months later, featuring some of the hottest tracks from the trio, with “Jimmy Mack”, “Wild One” and “Nowhere To Run” among them. Then with Kiki Dee (then recently signed to Motown) Martha was guest of honour at the 10th anniversary party of Tamla Motown. The invite-only shindig, with tickets disguised as boarding passes, was held on Thursday, 13 August 1970, aboard the SS Cruisebuster moored at Westminster Pier, and at the time there were copious pictures of Kiki and Martha cutting the mouth-watering birthday cake together.
In all the years I’ve known her, we’ve rarely conducted interviews in the true sense of the word but when we did, we tried to keep them business-like. An interview in 1985 conducted while eating a breakfast of scrambled eggs at 4am (after being up all day and night) at the Sunshine Restaurant in London’s West End was probably the wildest. This unearthly hour was the only time we could grab time to ourselves before she returned to Detroit. In that conversation, she told me how her friend Smokey Robinson had phoned her about “Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever”. “He called me up and said, ‘It’s Smokey’. I said ‘Smokey who?’ I wasn’t thinking. Anyway, he told me about the concert and that he’d very much like me to appear. I was delighted to accept his invitation. In fact, I was pleased just to be a part of the show, to get on stage. After the show was over and we were all backstage, waiting to go on for the encore, I was asked to take Stevie (Wonder) on with me. I laughed [that] I’d got my old job back. I used to look after him at Motown.” The fact that in the end her act was cut to a mere thirty or so seconds on the televised version must have really made her see red. Mary Wells and Junior Walker also suffered the same indignity.
Then there’s Martha’s take on Motown leaving Detroit for Los Angeles during 1971 which was, she sighed, initially one of disbelief because she believed she was the last to know. It was during a phone conversation with a Motown receptionist that she was told. “They didn’t even have the courtesy to tell me. It was a big disappointment when Motown moved to the West Coast, but I knew why. It had grown so large that it was too big for Detroit. (It) couldn’t service all of us because we’d all grown to such proportions. Berry zeroed in on the one act that was likely to be able to personify his dreams, and that was Diana’s solo career.”
At another time we spoke, returning to Motown wasn’t a move she would have shrugged off. “Motown is my heritage,” she smiled. “Berry Gordy taught me everything I know, and I remember when we were performing I used to look for him in the audience. I literally searched for him. When I found him, I worked even harder on that stage and when he wasn’t there, I felt let down. He was concentrating on The Supremes and I wanted some of his attention as well. I began feeling like an outsider there and although Berry and I would talk, it wasn’t the same somehow.”
Unlike other acts, Martha and the Vandellas were spared the long wait for success as their second single “Come And Get These Memories” in 1963 was a hit. “I was a musical junkie after that. I just couldn’t get enough music out of me. I was hooked on the business and knew I wasn’t getting out. I’m sure if I had wanted to be a secretary, I’d have been the best one in my particular office. Being the best, doing the best, is important to me.” She also confessed at the time that she was naïve about the business itself. “I had to learn fast but the business made me a stronger woman than I would be had I chosen some other profession.”
“The biggest misconception about the Vandellas was that we were a group like, say, The Supremes. My decision to have back-ups was a result of my need for companionship on the road, as opposed to a need for serious background singers. I’ve had more background vocalists do sessions for me and have them named as Vandellas than the world would ever know.” Throughout the existence of the group Martha’s role has been one of mentor, advisor and employer and against heavy odds, she guided her girls through one hit after the other. A strong-willed and determined woman on the one hand, and a caring, friendly lady on the other, she always stood up for what she believed was right. Sometimes it wasn’t easy, particularly in the early days. “We were always told that we had to wait until The Supremes opened the door and then when that door was opened, they’d let us through too. That was fine because Diana Ross opened up a lot of doors for our group and other groups. But the question we always asked was ‘why can’t we open some doors?’ We felt we were a pretty strong act and had a lot of untapped potential.”
Here’s another from the memory jar. In 1971, Martha and the Vandellas toured the UK with Stevie Wonder during which time I spent hours backstage in the girls’ dressing room. One time Stevie burst in as they were changing into their stage gowns and headed for the nearest Vandella to feel her breasts. Apparently, he did that quite often – the unannounced dressing room visits that is. I immediately adopted a statue-like position, holding my breath with mouth wide open. A decade and a bit later we met up one Saturday afternoon at her temporary home in a Bayswater apartment and, once again, I’m not sure why she was in London. I’m sure someone reading this will remind me. Anyway, the meeting was instigated by my colleague and friend Henry Sellers who had, by the way, previously put the idea of “The Sounds Of Motown” tour to her. The idea appealed and Martha went to great lengths to secure the original Vandellas for the trip: “I told Rosalind and Annette that our music was still played regularly in Europe and that we should perform together for our fans. But they declined the offer. I feel at home in England. Always have, because my music has afforded me a place in people’s hearts and I wanted to share that with them.” She was later successful because the two Vandellas did tour the UK with her.
And here’s more recollections. Martha and her ladies were regular visitors to my part of the world with sold out performances in the city of Brighton and at Butlins Holiday Camp, Bognor Regis. In fact it was at the latter that sticks out in my mind most because it was an emotional occasion. I had the most awful task imaginable, telling her that her very special friend Dusty Springfield was dying of cancer. Martha and I cried and held hands. I’ve never forgotten that moment in time and doubt I ever will. Although I later worked on the trio’s music at Motown, Martha and I actually first got to be a professional team when she signed with Fantasy Records. It was my job as publicist to secure as many column inches as I could for her “We Meet Again” album released in 1978, and, in hindsight, I like to think we pulled it off. Sadly, the album was a poor seller though.
Let’s not brush over the fact that Martha Reeves is a survivor and it is this that has seen her through the traumas of her career which she now controls. Riding the musical fads and fancies by sticking to what she does best has stood her in good stead, while she credits her continued saleability to her upbringing and her faith in God. She’s fiercely loyal to her fans who have remained with her through the years and goes to great lengths to show she returns that feeling. For instance, she either invites them into her dressing room after shows or arranges for a ‘meet and greet’ session where she spends hours chatting, signing and posing for photos. As mobiles gradually became personal cameras, Martha used to check the pictures taken to ensure she liked them.
Oh lord, I’ve not scratched the surface, have I? Anyway, just for the fun of it, let’s dip into the memory jar one last time. The year was 2014. The place, London’s Camden; the reason, the “Classic Motown: The Invasion Begins” Exhibition at the Proud Gallery, paying photographic homage to the rise of Tamla Motown in Britain. It was a bit of a swizz really; the photos were advertised as rare and unseen yet the majority could be found in any dedicated fan’s collection while the memorabilia on sale was rather over-priced. Did I want, or even need, a heavy mug with the Tamla Motown logo on the side? However, the upside was Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were performing that night…so what’s not to like? Standing outside Camden Market waiting for a friend to arrive, Martha was walking down the street and spotted me. She’d been buying shoes because her feet were hurting but judging by the size of the bags she was carrying, shoes were not her only purchase! A sound check was waiting to begin inside the Gallery then they planned to eat. So we went our separate ways. Following her performance in the packed standing-room-only venue, Martha decided on a Q & A session, at which point she called out for me to join her. Damn. I’m not comfortable with this sort of thing but I squeezed through the crowd to the small stage anyway where I was told to sit and handed a microphone. For the next half-an-hour she fielded questions with a smile, while I mumbled along where I could. It was a huge privilege and I realised that afterwards. The lid is now tightly clamped on the jar of memories.
Finally, to add to her numerous awards, certificates, honours, inductions, and an appearance on BBC1’s Celebrity Masterchef (where she appeared to be having a ball despite not winning), Martha will at last be receiving her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame next year. Meantime though, a couple of her songs – “This Love I’ve Got” and “It’s Hard To Walk Away” – are featured on Ace Records’ “Good Good Feeling: More Motown Girls” now on release.
Charge your glasses one last time in celebration: Cheers and A Very
Happy Birthday, Miss Martha Reeves!
(My grateful thanks to www.hourdetroit.com (Hour Detroit magazine) and the Detroit Free Press)