Interview with Martha Reeves about Life, Music and Her UK Tour – November 30th to 14th December 2018
Esther: Ladies and gentlemen, I am talking to the legendary and iconic Martha Reeves from The Vandellas.
Martha I usually ask my guests, in a nutshell, a peanut shell or a coconut shell, who is Martha Reeves?
Martha Reeves: She's Elijah and Ruby’s daughter, the third of twelve children, who was being born in Eufaula Alabama, Detroit, Michigan right in the middle of a lot of talented people ie my mom and dad and my grandfather along-with a lot of other talented people and it rubbed off on me. All my life I’ve been singing with the talent that God has given me.
Esther: Fantastic. That sounds very much like a crab shell, Martha.
Martha: It's a wonderful place to be, I'd say that.
Esther: I can feel that from your energy and vibration. You're still very strong and grounded, and solid in yourself in spite of and despite of what's gone on around you and there's this passion not just of who you are but also the message that you want to deliver through your music.
Martha, you've come a long way and you are still rocking and rolling. What do you think has been the reason for your longevity in the music business?
Martha: I found out at the age of 3 that I pleased my mom by doing what she taught me to do. She'd have me between her knees when she was dressing my hair and talking to me about God and talking to me about the good things we could do and how being good might be the best way and giving me a sound in my ear that I could emulate.
Whenever I sing a ballad or song about love, I think about Ruby and of course having ten other siblings, I kind of think I was special, (Laughter) but my oldest brother Benny he's very talented. We actually went out on Monday night (26th November) and sang some jazz with some local musicians because we have that in common; we like going and listening to other people perform and to hear good music.
Esther: I get a sense when you talk, it's not only about family but also about extended family; that it’s about bringing others into the fold and also about having each other's backs, and supporting each other's dreams and then farming that out to your audience, which sounds fabulous.
So Martha, what have been some of your most memorable moments in the music business?
Martha: At the age of three, my two brothers Benny and Thomas and myself won candy. There was an amateur contest at church, I think it was encouraging us to come to church and to know the Word, however we won. It was a prize of a box of chocolate covered cherries. I thought I could act like a boss around my brothers because I took possession of the candy and if they weren't nice to me, I wouldn't let them have any however, they were allowed to take a piece a day. That was the fun of having older brothers. I wouldn’t let them have any candy until they proved that they loved me and that I was still the little queen in their life, which made me feel special. [LAUGHTER]
Also because this was before we had TV, we would visit friends of my parents and my mother would always say ‘come here baby, sing that song mama taught you.’ So I'd say she lived vicariously through me as far as her singing was concerned and having 11 children, I know she didn’t ever aspire to work in a band. She idolized Billie Holiday and she mostly featured a lot of the songs we sang. I recorded ‘God Bless The Child’ on my first self-produced album.
Ruby always encouraged me by saying 'if you’ve got talent, people will say you have something, say it, let me hear that now.’ Show them what I've taught you,' and I made her very proud and very happy. So I've had that joy all my life.
She and dad are in heaven now but I still feel them and hear them singing, with dad playing the blues guitar. He introduced us to an entertainer, John Lee Hooker right here in Detroit. When we came from Eufaula, Alabama, I feel we moved to the right area. Some people might call it a rural ghetto but I thought it was paradise. We had street parties and on weekends we got the privilege from the Police Department to block the streets off and dance.
A lot of people want to hear me sing, 'Dancing in the Street.' That was from those good old neighborhood parties where we actually blocked the streets and put our record players on the porches with little small speakers with the needle and the scratch and we'd be partying and dancing and eating each other's food and we just loved living in a musical neighborhood.
Esther: It’s all about community and unity and being there for each other and having that support, not just with the family but with the extended family.
Martha: Yes. We might have been considered poor but we didn't know it. We had food, we had friends, we had laughter, we had gospel, we had our faith and it brought us through.
Esther: It's interesting because the next question talks about qualities. What qualities do you feel you brought to the music industry and also, what are the set of values you adopted which have made you who you are today?
Martha: Well, because we did most of our singing in church, everything I recorded, I made it a rule in my heart, in my spirit, in my mind that it would be something that I could perform in church.
When I think of ‘Heat Wave’ that is definitely the Holy Spirit and the sensation you get when you realize that His presence is in your mind, in your soul, in your heart and He gives you the talent and lets you express it through vocals.
It seems like everything is tied into my life from the first chapter of the Bible; In the beginning was the word and the word was God. You speak it and then when you get the chance to rejoice and sing it, those are feelings that's hard to explain, but you're glad you got it; so happy to have it.
Of course my vocals have changed now. I've had my range enhanced from the middle range to lows and to highs and it grows. It actually grows and every day when I wake, I wake-up singing.
Esther: I feel as if you’re a speaker box yourself, fabulous.
Martha: But it's the truth. It's love for music; it's love for the talent; it's love for the gift.
.Esther: You've had such an eclectic experience as you've gone on your journey. However, I'm curious about The Vandellas because in one interview, you said that there have been over a 100 Vandelas?
Esther: What is it that you look for in a Vandella, Martha?
Martha: Well, I don't look for them. Some of them are backups and they echo verbal repetitions of what you're singing that can be similar to a musician’s ‘oohs, aahs and doo-waps’ behind vocals, they're necessary; so when you find someone willing or capable of singing the background, you embrace them as well as the music.
There's something I found out early; girls have altered spirits and they change their minds. I've never really changed my mind about singing but the first disappointment with the Dell Fi’s was I think when Annette she was going to get married to her childhood sweetheart. Annette was one of the Dell Fi’s who I called in to sing behind Marvin Gaye.
I had sang with a couple of girls before I was discovered as a solo artist. One was with The Fascinations and the second group was The Dell Fi’s and we sang around locally in black clubs, birthday parties and anywhere.
I told one of my backup singers, recently, that I sang for a long time before I managed to get paid but that's what you do when you're developing your style and The Vandellas were backup singers.
Esther: Fantastic. Martha, I'm going to start to wind down now as I could talk to you all day.
Martha: I like talking to you too; you ask very good questions. I ramble on don’t I?
Esther: Martha. I've got my own magazine as you may well know and for the next issue, I'm going to be talking about 'Become Your Own Hero'. Who are you waiting for?’ And you very much strike me as someone who became a hero when she bribed her brothers when she was three with chocolate.
Martha: Yes, they were chocolate covered cherries, when you squish them in your mouth, the juice runs out your mouth and I teased them with that. If they weren’t nice, they wouldn’t get any. Anyway, as a singer, I sang all the songs. Every song I've ever recorded, I'm singing the lead on.
Esther: Because it was from your formative experiences with your brothers. You learned to stick your guns of who you were.
Martha: I took over. Mom loved me. I used to sing for Mom’s friends. She didn't have to make me, she would just say ‘come on baby, sing what mama taught you’ and she'd be so sweet to me I'd be happy to please her.
So I always had that willingness to please, the desire to just please because I could do that, so if I could sing to you then ‘Oh yeah, let me sing to you.’
Esther: Martha, you’re touring the UK soon. You're going to be in Manchester on the 30th of November and 1st of December, then you’re in Leeds on the 5th, Glasgow on the 8th, Newcastle Upon Tyne 9th and 10th and Birmingham on 13th and 14th. What can the UK expect from Martha and the Vandellas? What are you bringing to us Martha?
Martha: I'm bringing what I've brought for the last 50 years. I'm bringing love and the desire to have people join in with us to celebrate our sound. I love DJs because they have played our music long enough for their listeners to say ‘I'm going to go and buy that record and I'm going to see what that artist is like.’
There was a gentleman by the name of Dave Godin from the Tamla Motown Appreciation Society who has now passed on. He paid a visit to Detroit to talk to Berry Gordy at Hitsville USA who asked him if he could start taking talent to England.
There was a young lady by the name of Dusty Springfield who I met as an artist at the Brooklyn Fox and I was introduced to her (by Maurice Kaufman and Mary DeKay. Name TBC) He was a DJ and he had a stage show that he presented and he had English and American artists join together and perform together.
After being introduced to Dusty Springfield, she became a fourth Vandella because she would come down sometimes when we were singing backup for Marvin Gaye off stage. We learned to love one another and then she went back to her Show that she had on a Sunday, and we had no idea that she was the most celebrated female vocalist in London.
I just wished and hoped that it was a good thing that brought her to America. When she went home, to the UK, she let them know about the Motown sound so between Dave Gordin and Dusty Springfield and a woman called Vicky Wickham who I always loved; we were brought to London and introduced to the United Kingdom and we've been in love and been here nearly every year since and I've had the pleasure of visiting Manchester, Bristol, Leeds, Glasgow, I could keep going. Liverpool was very much like Detroit to me when I first visited. I got to meet the Beatles.
I was recently added onto the wall at the legendary Cavern in Liverpool, the club where the Beatles started. It's as legendary as the Wigan Casino, the Apollo in NYC or Ronnie Scott's in London and I love being there. I must say that for me personally, I'm embraced more in the UK than I am in America because here in America, there's so much talent and so many different music styles, until hip hop and rap have basically taken over the entertainment spots on the actual music scene; if you want to call some of the stuff that you hear music. [LAUGHTER]
Our music stands on its own and it stands strong in the UK and it's a joy and a privilege to visit here; we’ve been to the UK twice this year. We also did Barcelona and Italy.
Esther: It's interesting; I was at the States in September and I interviewed Gerald Alston who said the same thing about the States.
Martha: What a beautiful voice that man has. Oh! I love to hear him sing.
Esther: One last question I'd love to ask; you were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, how does it feel to be an inductee?
Martha: It's a privilege because we get to vote other people in. That's such a big position and they are competing with all the other cities and citizens of Ohio, especially Cleveland who asked their governor if they could pay a tax in order to have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame there.
I was there when they cut the ribbon, when they opened it up and standing next to Little Richard and Yoko Ono, Mary Wilson and Bruce Springsteen, I can keep going. I still have my little piece of ribbon. It's a real honor.
Martha: And I wear my jacket proudly.
Martha: I love the honor of being part of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and boast about being inducted. The Rhythm and Blues Society is also wonderful to be a part of. We were recognized with a Rhythm and Blues Foundation Pioneer Award, I also received my DUM award for gospel music as well.
Esther: Wow! Fantastic. You deserve it but also as part of deserving, you have spread light and love into so many people's lives and I know that when you come to the UK, that is what you will be sharing with us just before Christmas and that love and light will take us into the New Year.
Martha: Wonderful. I'll be singing Happy New Year, Happy New Year and especially Merry Christmas.
Esther: Fantastic. Martha, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for sharing, thank you for the inspiration