Soul legend Martha Reeves is heading back to the UK and Duncan Seaman spoke to her ahead of her appearance in Leeds next month.
Martha Reeves is about to pay her sixth visit to Britain this year and the former Motown singer, famed for the ageless Dancing in the Street, sounds over the moon.
“It’s always a thrill to play in the UK, I feel like I’m at home when I play there,” says the 73-year-old star who’s still based in Detroit, Michigan, the ‘Motor City’ which gave her one-time record label its name.
She remembers the days of the Wigan Casino with fondness (“2am to daylight, partying to Northern Soul”) and, further back, to the Mods and Rockers (“I was a member of both sides – I’ve got a scooter club following, I recently signed a Fender and I own a flag and a plaque”).
“When I venture to the UK I feel good about performing. My music is well known, it’s often played in the UK, people know it, they come out and support me – I owe them for it. They make me smile, I’m grinning with joy.”
Born in Alabama, the third of 11 children, Martha Reeves moved to Detroit when she was less than a year old. Her grandfather, Elijah, was a minister in the city’s Metropolitan Church and the Reeves family were active churchgoers.
She recalls that she “started singing as soon as I could walk” and being rewarded with candy which she would refuse to share with her older brother Thomas and Benny “if they were not nice to me”.
Reeves’ mother, Ruby, taught her “how to retain lyrics” and she “fell in love with poetry and prose” as a child. “It was a nice family to be in,” she says. “There were 11 children. We did not have a television, we entertained each other with our songs.”
Reeves went to church three times a week. “There was choir rehearsal and I was on the usher board and I would teach in Sunday school.” She also sang at high school.
Education remains important. “I recently received a doctorate in humanities and a masters in religious studies,” she says. “I’m continually learning now.”
The singers Reeves most admired growing up were her parents. “Dad played blues guitar, a lot of times when I’m singing I sound like my mum – she had one of the sweetest voices – a lot of nights we would just go to sleep with the sound of her voice”.
In his teens her brother Benny joined the Columbia Records Club which introduced her to female vocalists such as Nancy Wilson, Ella Fitzgerald and Dinah Washington; later came Sam Cooke’s Soul Stirrers, The Caravans, the Five Blind Boys, the Dixie Hummingbirds and Yma Sumac. “I have quite an extensive variety of music that I listen to,” she says. “I’m influenced by the best performers, people who share their talent to those have the ear to hear.”
Reeves was working by day in a dry cleaners and performing at night in clubs as a jazz and blues singer when she was spotted by Motown A&R man Mickey Stevenson and invited to audition.
She turned up the next day at Hitsville USA, the label’s studio and offices. “It was a house with a hand-painted sign on it that belonged to a middle class family by the name of Berry Gordy Jr. Berry Gordy Snr was putting boards together to make the basement soundproof.”
Though as it turned out she’d turned up on the wrong day (“they only did auditions on Thursdays”), Stevenson offered Reeves a job. “I was the first woman allowed in the artist and repertoire department,” she says.
She got “right in the mix”, befriending Stevie Wonder’s mentor Clarence Paul (“he took me home in his Cadillac”) and her parents quickly realised their 21-year-old daughter had found her niche.
Over the next three months she sang and did handclaps on demo records, paying close attention to the working methods of the Hitsville USA team of producers and writers.
The label also had its own artist development department, that taught performers deportment (“class, self-esteem and dignity”) as well as music theory and choreography.
With her backing group the Vandellas, Reeves began making records and in 1963 hit the charts with Come and Get These Memories, (Love is Like a) Heatwave and Quicksand. Her worldwide breakthrough came the following year with Dancing in the Streets. Fifty years on, it remains her signature tune.
Reeves is quick to correct the story that she first heard a demo recording of the song by one of its co-writers, Marvin Gaye, then a session drummer.
“I did not hear a demo, I heard him sing it at night. I’d finished classes at artist development and went to Studio A. I’d always admired him. I watched him singing this in a melancholy way. It was so smooth, he made it sound romantic.
“He told his co-writers Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Hunter, who was a great producer, ‘Hey man, let’s try this song on Martha’. I was overwhelmed, when I sang it I practically knew it, I sang it the way I felt it – that difference was what you heard on the record.”
In 2006 her recording was chosen by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Recording Registry. “That was a proud moment,” Reeves says. “They included it with What’s Going On and Signed Sealed Delivered. What a thrill.”
She has also sung the song to two US Presidents – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – the latter as part of a Motown revue. “I sang Dancing in the Street for the President,” she smiles. “It was wonderful.”
• Martha and the Vandellas play at the Brudenell Social Club, Leeds on Sunday December 21. For details visit http://www.brudenellsocialclub.co.uk/whats-on/martha-reeves/