By Charles Hallman
Motown legend Martha Reeves is featured in a new documentary released in February that features collaborations between veteran and younger, newer performers. She recorded a track about Detroit with Crystal Method for “Re-Generation.”
“The Detroit that I knew will never exist again,” admits Reeves during an exclusive interview with the MSR in January. Her memories of suddenly being called off stage in July 1967 because of a riot that began in the city “always will be etched in my mind,” notes Reeves. “It was scary.”
Martha and the Vandellas was the second all-female group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, nearly a decade after the Supremes in 1988. Reeves, Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard produced nearly 30 hits including “Heat Wave” and “Dancing in the Street” for Motown.
Reeves also is a myth-buster, as the legendary singer proceeded to set the record straight. “I have a vivid memory of everything,” she points out. “I feel like a spy because I remember all of this.”
Myth No. 1 — she was discovered as a Motown secretary: “I was singing at a place called the 20 Grand [a now-defunct bowling alley and small lounge]. I had won a contest at [a local theater] at an amateur night, which was a big thing in Detroit. Mickey Stevenson [Motown’s artist and repertoire director] saw me perform and gave me a card,” continues Reeves. He told her, “You got what it takes.”
Stevenson did invite Reeves to audition at Hitsville, U.S.A., but it never took place. Instead she took a secretarial job at Motown, which eventually promoted her to head its A&R department.
Myth No. 2 — Motown founder Berry Gordy first discovered Stevie Wonder: “He was discovered by Ronnie White of the Miracles, [as] an eight-year-old conducting an adult Pentecostal choir in a Holy Ghost church,” discloses Reeves.
Reeves of Wonder says, “I was sitting in the office and here was this tall, good-looking baby and I asked his name. He said, ‘Stevie’ and he said he wanted to see what I looked like, and started rubbing his hands all over my face, all in my ears and in my eyes. Then he started fumbling around the office and playing melodies using the phone. I told him, ‘Give me that phone, kid,’ and then he found a typewriter and started making sounds with it.
“I said, ‘Oh, no baby, you can’t do that,’” she continues. “Then he found the piano and started playing it. We wound up singing [the theme song to Mighty Mouse]… We’re having a good time.
“He [later] sat at the grand piano and started playing. Berry Gordy is standing there, watching this kid,” remembers Reeves, who adds that the young man also played the drums, xylophone and congas. “At the end of the interview, he stood up and went into his little shirt pocket and pulled out this tiny harmonica and started playing. Berry Gordy said, ‘This kid is a wonder.’ And that’s how he got the name Stevie Wonder.”
Reeves says she was Wonder’s chaperone whenever they went on the road: “He was so full of energy that he would knock you down if you didn’t know how to handle him,” she says of the legendary singer and longtime friend. “I love him so much,” says Reeves.
She briefly talked about how Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell became a legendary duo. “She was Tammi Montgomery when she came to Motown, and the first thing they do was tie her up with Marvin Gaye,” reports Reeves on the two who eventually became romantically linked while on tour in Buffalo, New York.
“I would have loved to have been snowed in for a week with Marvin,” she says smiling. “When they came out of there, there was no stopping them. When she passed away, he didn’t sing for a couple of years. It broke his heart when she passed away.”
In her opinion, the greatest singer Motown had was Mary Wells, says Reeves. “She was one of the sweetest people and a true performer. She approached Berry Gordy when he was doing a record sock-hop with a song, “Bye, Bye Baby,” and start singing. He told her, ‘I’m going to make you the number-one female vocalist in the world.’ She had a true love [for music] — she wanted to be a writer more than a singer.”
“Musicians who have studied the Motown Sound, listen to it and wants to play it” but can’t accurately duplicate it, Reeves says proudly. She adds The Funk Brothers, Motown’s house band, have never gotten their full due for their contributions. They could start with a single chord and built a concerto, marveled Reeves. “They gave each song a special flavor. The real Funk Brothers never saw [their induction] in the [Rock and Roll] Hall of Fame,” she bemoaned.
She previously published an autobiography, Dancing in the Street: Confessions of a Motown Diva, but Reeves notes, “I’m going to make a movie, and I’m going to tell my story from the position of my nine months as a secretary at Motown.”
Finally, she says of her five-decade Hall of Fame career, “Being the oldest girl of 11 children…I dreamed and prayed of being a performer, that I could bring home money for my parents. I never thought I’d be a performer. I’m still overwhelmed.
“I saw Lena Horne perform at the age of three,” recalls the 70-year-old Reeves. “I remember this beautiful woman standing and singing the blues — oh, I hope one day I could do [that]. I’m still not at the peak I’d like to reach.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to [email protected]