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Martha Reeves: "I still feel like I haven’t reached the top of my talent"

Motown legend Martha Reeves on her strict childhood, singing with Marvin Gaye - and how Stevie Wonder got his name

The first thing I would say to myself at 16 years old is to ask if my daddy might let me stay out a little bit later. Living in my father’s house we had rules. Momma would remind me, being the oldest girl of 12 children, that I would have to study hard, and that I would have to do my housework before I could go out for recreation or leisure.

My biggest thrill was singing, and going to a neighbourhood house, where Mrs Rogers would let us sing and teach us how to walk on stage and how to carry a microphone and sing with a big band because her sons were musicians. So it would be about getting my schoolwork done and getting my housework done, and then being allowed to go to this house and sing the standards and songs that I was very interested in learning. But the rule was you would have to be in the house when the street lights came on.

I didn’t just stroll into Motown, I was invited. The only thing was I didn’t go through the protocol. I was supposed to call for an appointment but I had a difficult time sleeping after meeting William Stevenson [Motown’s head of A&R] at a nightclub where I was singing at the age of 21. I got a card, and after performing I took it backstage, and it was from Hitsville USA. I realised I had been discovered – he said I had talent: “Come to Hitsville USA.” The words rang in my ears.

So I showed up Monday morning and William Stevenson looked at me and asked me what I was doing there, he didn’t even remember he’d given me a card. I was told I could answer a telephone that was ringing off the hook. It was like a divine order. I knew how to answer a phone, I knew how to type, how to take dictation with my shorthand skills, and I fitted in very well from the minute he asked me to answer the phone. They asked me not just to come back to Hitsville USA but to become part of that company.

Marvin Gaye was a drummer when I became aware of him. One day The Andantes weren’t available to sing behind Marvin on one of his creations. So I called in the girls I had previously sung with, The Del-Phis, and we sang behind Marvin Gaye on Stubborn Kind of Fellow, and he took that pipe out of his mouth, and the glasses off of his eyes and the hat off of his head, and we saw how attractive he was. He was a gentleman, he was so fine. We went “do-do-do-bow!” and history began with Martha and the Vandellas and Marvin Gaye, as our record, Come and Get These Memories, began to be played on the radio and started to be distributed all over the world. So we were sort of discovered and created together.

Martha Reeves singing live in 2006

I happened to be in the A&R department when Stevie Wonder was brought in aged eight years old. I immediately was so in love with him – a beautiful spirited child. He started emptying waste baskets and playing bongos on them. He started making sounds and rhythms on the typewriter. He went to the telephone and “beep-beep-beep-beep” became a song. I had to take the phone from him: “Child, you’re going to call Russia.” We went over to studio A and he played every instrument in the room, then finished with a tiny little harmonica out of his pocket. Berry Gordy [Motown founder] said “this kid is a wonder” and that’s how he got his name.

When I hear hits like Dancing in the Street or Heat Wave on the radio now, I can be as young as I was when I first sang them. And when I sing them, that’s a different experience. Some people would think after some of the years you would tire and they wouldn’t be fresh but for me it’s total recall. It’s a great moment of happiness and achievement. We were happy to know that other people liked what we did and cherished the memories and that same spirit that Berry Gordy wanted to put in the grooves of his songs. It was ‘The Sound of Young America’. I can feel as young as when they were first written when I sing songs like Jimmy Mack or Nowhere to Run.

I didn’t work with David Bowie but I remember Ready Steady Go! back in the 1960s when we performed with The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Lulu, Cilla Black, Petula Clark. We’ve got history in England. When they [Mick Jagger and David Bowie] did a cover of Dancing in the Street they celebrated a good song. When I saw the video I wanted to be with them, I wanted to be right there in the middle with a coloured dress, and dance and sing with them.

When he passed on, I celebrated David Bowie’s life, I love his music. He is one of our loved ones. I felt the same when we lost Dusty Springfield or when we lost John Lennon and George Harrison. There’s a lot of people who have passed on. I take life and death as an act of God and pray for strength. People ask me when I will retire and I say: “When I’ve passed away.” I’ll sing as long as I can and I’ll enjoy singing as long as I can.

I don’t think I would tell my 16-year-old self to do anything differently. Because I was overwhelmed by becoming a singer. It was a mind-blowing thing, when you’re in front of your relatives and your mother and father’s friends and being put on display – “sing that song momma taught you”. And they actually appreciate it, and family and friends call on you and ask to share in the gift that God gave me. I strove to be a performer, I worked hard about it, I had dreams that have come true. And I encourage anyone else that has dreams and desires: don’t give up on them.

I think the 16-year-old Martha Reeves would believe me if I told her I would still be performing over 50 years later. Because I haven’t changed. I’m still the person who’s hopeful. I’m still the person who has a lot of confidence and a lot of trust and a lot of faith. I pray everyone can experience the success in life when they can feel that they have achieved their greatness. I still feel like I haven’t reached the top of my talent.

Martha Reeves tours the UK December 8-19

Top photo: Alan Messer / REX / Shutterstock

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