WASHINGTON — She shook us off the sidewalk with “Dancing in the Street,” made us sweat to “Heat Wave” and proved there’s “Nowhere to Run” when fate is determined to make you a Motown star. Now, Martha Reeves of the legendary…
WTOP's Jason Fraley interviews Martha Reeves (FULL)
WASHINGTON — She shook us off the sidewalk with “Dancing in the Street,” made us sweat to “Heat Wave” and proved there’s “Nowhere to Run” when fate is determined to make you a Motown star.
Now, Martha Reeves of the legendary Martha & The Vandellas hits Bethesda Blues & Jazz Club on Friday, not far from where she played her first Motown Review at the Howard Theatre back in 1962.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer tells WTOP she’s excited to be back, partly due to the proximity of her Virginia-based brother Thomas, who was one of the first to harmonize with her as a kid.
“We won candy at church! There was a contest at my grandfather’s church,” Reeves fondly recalls. “I was born in Eufaula, Alabama, but my parents brought me to Detroit at the age of 11 months. And at 3 years old, we won candy, so I’ve been singing since I can remember.”
Her mother taught her and her brothers to sing the winning tune, “Jesus Met the Woman at the Well,” while her father taught her blues guitar. Aside from her parents, she was inspired by watching various artists at Detroit’s Paradise Theatre, from Duke Ellington to Louis Jordan to Lena Horne.
“I remember (Horne) well,” Reeves says. “The rain was coming down, people with umbrellas, and she looked like the little fairytale girl that was in our storybooks. She was so pretty. And I said, ‘I’d love to do what she’s doing.’ So I think it sparked a love in my heart at the age of three to be a performer.”
At age 17, she sang Bach’s “Aria” at her high school graduation in front of 3,400 people at Henry Ford Auditorium — and something clicked.
“As I stood there, my knees shaking … I nearly fainted. But it was a good feeling when I heard the applause … It was the first time I had ever heard that and it sort of hooked me. I wanted to hear it again and again, approving the talent that God had gifted me. … I knew I could have a future.”
So, she joined a rising group called The Del-Phis, recording one record on Checkmate Records.
“I think I still have my copy of that 45, but it didn’t go very far,” Reeves says. “So at the age of 21 … I decided to try what my Aunt Bernice had predicted. She said, ‘You’re going to be famous, so call yourself Martha LaVaille.’ I thought that was sophisticated.”
Then came her big break.
After a performance at the Twenty Grand Club, she was approached by Motown A&R director William “Mickey” Stevenson, who gave her his card.
“He said, ‘You have talent. Come to Hitsville, U.S.A.,'” Reeves says. “I thought I had been discovered! So I went home and my dad told me how to ride the bus from the East Side to the West Side. When I got there, there were about 50 people on the porch waiting to get inside.”
Inside, she found Stevenson writing a song for a little-known D.C. drummer named Marvin Gaye. Stevenson was shocked to see her, and informed her she should have made an appointment. Disappointed, Reeves instead helped answer phones, earning the nickname “The Secretary.”
“That’s how I got in the door,” she says.
After six months cutting demos and singing backup vocals, she was tapped to sing backup on Gaye’s “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” along with her former Del-Phis cohorts Rosalind Ashford, Gloria Williams and Annette Beard. This caught the ear of Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown record label.
“Gordy heard our harmony and said, ‘Put these girls on the back of that ‘Stubborn Kinda Fella’ record you just recorded’ … He decided we should be a group and he gave us 15 minutes to make up a name.”
He suggested calling them The Tillies or The Pansies — a short and sweet name like The Supremes, The Temptations, The Contours, The Spinners or The Marvelettes. Thinking quickly, Reeves combined her address — Van Dyke Street — with the name of actress Della Reese (“Touched By An Angel”), whom she had recently heard sing “Amazing Grace” at New Liberty Baptist Church.
Together, “Van Dyke Street” and “Della Reese” combined to become “The Vandellas.”
“The rest is history,” Reeves says.
Gladys Knight & The Pips suggested a dance choreographer to train The Vandellas, while the songwriting trio Holland–Dozier–Holland penned hits like “Heat Wave” and “Jimmy Mack.”
Yet, the group’s biggest hit, “Dancing in the Street,” was penned by none other than Gaye.
“Marvin Gaye was in the studio recording and I had finished my six hours,” Reeves says. “I was standing there in awe and he would say, ‘Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat, baby?’ This track he had created. And I was standing there going, ‘Wow.’ … He looked over and saw me and said, ‘Hey, Ivy’ — who was co-writer — ‘and Mickey, try this song on Martha.'”
Martha belted it out, looking up at the studio window to see Gaye smiling and the writers congratulating each other. There was just one problem: the engineer pointed out the recording machine wasn’t on. So, Reeves had to do it again, only this time with a little anger in her voice.
“That’s the reason it sounds like a live recording. I nailed in the second time with a bit of a temper.”
Reeves says she was amazed at the reaction to the song.
“People stopped school classes and went to the campus and went to the football fields and gave big celebrations with that song,” she says. “People were riding in their cars and they pulled their cars over. Some states actually changed the law that you could block the streets off and dance in the street because of Marvin Gaye’s song that he gave to me.”
As for “Nowhere to Run,” she remembers sitting in the movie theater to watch “Good Morning, Vietnam” (1987) with her son, who sat her in the front row.
“He didn’t tell me why we were in the theater,” Reeves laughs. “So when Robin Williams said, ‘Now we’re gonna play ‘Nowhere to Run’ by Martha Reeves & The Vandellas,’ I jumped up! I did! (My son) grabbed me by my clothes and pulled me back in my seat and said, ‘Come on, momma!'”
“To hear Robin Williams call my name, it was just as exciting as when we did our PBS special for our President, Barack Obama, and he called my name during that taping,” Reeves says.
Yes, it’s been a wild ride for Reeves, who stays busy at age 74, from the “Jimmy Kimmel” show to an upcoming gospel Christmas album, to Friday’s show at Bethesda Blues & Jazz Club.
“Isaac Daniels is my music director in Bethesda, and he’s a teacher in the Duke Ellington Academy here. So I’ve got one of your teachers as my band leader,” Reeves says, always deferring credit. “He’s getting the band together for me, he plays a beautiful guitar, we’re going to have a good time.”
In other words, get ready to “dance in the street,” Bethesda.