Motown Icon Longs for Detroit’s Regeneration

Monday, April 2, 2012 14:07

An Interview with Martha Reeves

by: Casey Pukl 

I’ll always associate the song, “Jimmy Mack” with my mother. I might not have known who Martha Reeves & The Vandellas were at the time, but I certainly knew how to dance to their music thanks to my mom’s aerobic dancing tapes. Fast forward a few decades, and I’m having a full circle moment interviewing a woman who’s music has sound tracked the better part of my childhood about the experiences that have made her career extraordinary. Pretty cool Monday, huh?

Martha Reeves has long been a Motown legend. Scoring hits like, “Dancing in the Streets”, and “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave”, It’s no surprise that 50 years later, she’s still all over the radio, and now working with DJ’s The Crystal Method on a documentary and more!  Read on to find out what Reeves is doing to stay involved in Detroit’s regeneration, what her thoughts are on working with electronic instruments, and what song she penned in a moment of total inspiration in Europe!

CP: You’ve been doing a ton of projects lately! I’d love to dive right into this latest documentary you’ve been a part of, “Re: Generation”.

MR: Well, I had the pleasure of working with Crystal Method. They’re a duo of two technical music DJs. They take music and elaborate on it with synthesizers, and creative an excitement that is beyond your imagination. I had the pleasure of working with then here in Detroit where we went into Sylvia Moy’s studio. Sylvia is the first female producer ever employed at Motown. She has since then formed her own recording establishment called Grapevine. I was asked to do a song with Crystal Method. It was all related to some statements that I had made about some noisy toys that the music business was suffering from. We’re not teaching children to play instruments. We’re getting a lot of loud tones that have deafened a generation.

I can’t really sing or perform without a good drummer, without a good bassist, without good keys, horns, strings that I was raised on as an artist and that I relied on! Some of my favorite musicians have actually helped me be a lead vocalist. I heard harmonies and lines that I never would’ve heard had I not been a trained musician myself. I have had vocal lessons, but any musical instrument I’ve ever played was just by ear, and was used to write songs from.

This experience with how much excitement they were able to create, it has really changed my dialogue. They’re not toys; they’re tools. I was shown how you could use them and incorporate them with live musicians and create a wonderful excitement. It makes my adrenaline go up 100%. Just being on stage with Jimmy Kimmel and the fans, the band of all these wonderful guys that were collected, it was great.

CP: That performance was so cool to watch! It was such a great and interesting collaboration that I never expected.

MR: Well, it gave me a chance to show Detroit too in the documentary. We’re making a transition. There are a lot of homes that were deserted, and having been on the Detroit City Council, it made me more of a citizen of Detroit. I’ve helped and wrote the lyrics to the song, “I’m Not Leaving” which was performed in the film. There was showing Heidelberg project, where all of the debris from the homes here was turned into artwork, and it’s displayed on a street here called Heidelberg. I was able to walk them through that and show them how historical Detroit is, and how the memorabilia we retain reflects on our city and our past. It shows our hope for the future; they’re literally regenerating the debris and making it an attraction that people come from all over the world to see.

I also showed them, and this was also documented, the demolition of the Henry Ford auditorium. That was the first place I ever performed publicly. I performed in my grandfather’s church with my brothers, Thomas and Vinny; however, I had never been in front of a live audience of 4,500 people until high school when Abraham Silver, our music teacher, presented us on several occasions at the Henry Ford Auditorium. 4,500 people applauding after I stood there with my knees shaking after singing Bach’s aria, Hallelujah, and having the lead solo in it, I realized I had something special to offer. That inspired me to be a performer. Well then I stood there with Crystal Method and these cameras watching it being torn down. It tore my heart apart. It was one of the finest and most acoustically perfected auditoriums in the world. It stood for a good for 20 years hoping that someone would refurbish it and bring it back to life, but then the state came and tore it down.

We also went and saw the 20 Grand, which was a club where I used to perform. It’s a church now. It was torn down, and now it’s a church. This documentary is a piece of Detroit history and my life. I had a chance to sing a song that reflects how I feel about it. I’m forever devoted and grateful to Ken for “Re:Generation”.

CP: I can’t wait to see it. It sounds like a great documentary that I’d love to see.

MR: It’s a great project. It’s great to show and remember the great times here in Detroit.

CP: I also heard that you’re working with Kindred the Family Soul to restore another theatre in Philadelphia. Is that true?

MR: Yes! It’s a joy to know that the Uptown Theatre will be revived. There’s been an effort for about ten years to get it back into working condition, and I’m so pleased to know that Kindred, being from Philadelphia, have taken a personal interest. I’ll be going there to help them bring it back to life and renovate it. They’re a wonderful duet. They’ve got a beautiful family and history. It was a joy to see them perform recently at Carnegie Hall. They sang a Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell composition written by Ashford and Simpson. It was so good to see a man and a woman in love singing a song written by Ashford and Simpson, a man and a woman in love. It was such a good feeling and such a revelation of how music can really soothe your soul and enhance your deepest emotions. They really are a wonderful group.

CP: Who have you been listening to lately? I’m so curious now with all of your new projects!

MR: Well, it’s difficult to turn from my station here in Detroit. We’ve got one here that’s a 24 hour gospel station, 102.7 FM. It’s very difficult to turn from that station because the gospel songs that are being sung today enlighten not only my heart and my spirit, but they’re telling the world that it actually began with gospel. There’s a wonderful array of artists there, and I just turn that station on. There are great artists and great music there. That’s what I listen to around the house. I’m also working with my sister’s choir, an a cappella church of Christ group of 11 people. I’ve been getting them ready for the studio. My life is full of music. I’ll always be listening and hoping to listen to big bands. I follow them around the city. I follow the big bands that are performing and developing around the city of Detroit. I love horns and strings. I got to work with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, who is also managed by my management, and wow. What a thrill it was to hear a 23-piece band portraying our music. I remember that. It’s a lot of music and a lot of ear candy as I call it. (Laughs) I like to indulge in it as much as possible!

CP: I can relate to that (laughs)! You’ve had such an incredible career— what are we at, fifty years now since you started on Motown? Did you ever imagine that you’d still be doing it after all these years?

MR: Well, I have four record companies to my credit. I recorded from ‘62-‘72 on Motown Records. In ’73, I was exposed to Richard Perry, and Universal Records put out a wonderfully produced CD. And then I went from there to Fantasy and with a former Motown Funk Brother, Hank Cosby, and I recorded two albums there. Then in ’76 I went to Arista, and the wonderful Clive Davis allowed me to do an album there, which I think is some of my best work.

CP: Did you ever imagine that you’d be here now after all that?

MR: Well, a lot of my cohorts have passed on and I have fond memories of my life, and it isn’t over! I produced my first solo album on my own label in 2001. It’s currently the highlight of my life because I had the chance to express some of my lifelong emotions and messages. The song, “Home to You” is very personal to me, and it’s about my son. I love my baby, and I am so proud of him. I only have one child. God blessed me to have an engagement in Europe when he was only a month old, and I had to leave guardianship to my parents. When I returned, they told me if I wanted a child I better have one because they took legal guardianship from me, of course in a very loving kind of way (laughs). They allowed me to keep working as a single parent.

“Home to You” is a song dedicated to him because I woke up in the middle of the night in England sore, lonely, and just got up and wrote the song straight from my pen. A lot of writers, I’m sure you have occasions where you’re just inspired to get up and write things from your heart. This was one of those occasions where your spirit just speaks for you. I wrote the words to it, and it took ten years to put the music to it, and then another ten to get it produced (laughs). There’s another song on the album called “Watch Your Back” that’s about my mom and dad who were married for 47 years. My father hurt his back working construction for the city of Detroit on the water port. A car hit him as he was working a jackhammer, and he was in pain for the rest of his life. Whenever he would leave home, my mama used to shout out the door, “Be careful, and watch your back!” I had to write that down. Most of what I wrote about was things I saw. Being married 47 years, they had 11 children. I’m the oldest girl, and I had a chance not only to help nurture my siblings, but to watch them for 47 years. I got to watch them love unconditionally.

CP: What are you most looking forward to about coming out to San Diego?

MR: My brother was in the military out there for a number of years, and some of his children were born out there, so I’m looking forward to seeing some of my nephews and nieces! I also have played the Catamaran in San Diego, so I’m looking forward to reuniting with them, bringing our music back, and letting people know I’m grateful for all the love we’ve been shown. I expect people to do it like they’ve always done— get up and groove to the songs!

Special thanks to Martha for her time! Be sure to come on down and see this legendary performance Friday night! Tickets below as always!
Martha Reeves & The Vandellas on Spotify

WHAT: Martha Reeves & The Vandellas
WHEN: Friday, April 6, 7:30 & 9:30 pm
TICKETS: $10-$39 Buy Tickets
MORE INFO: Artist Profile