Music is My Life: Episode 045
Martha Reeves on Dancing in the Street, the Vandellas, and the Motown Sound
Martha Reeves began her career at Motown on the day she first walked beneath the Hitsville USA sign at 2648 W Grand Blvd. in Detroit. She had the business card of a talent scout, and was unaware that he had given her the card to schedule an audition. The next thing she knew, she was answering phones at the label, and then recording demos with Marvin Gaye.
In this wide ranging interview, she reflects on her career from Motown and beyond, the timeless appeal of “Dancing in the Street,” and how the Civil Rights movement compares to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Check out the transcript of the interview below.
Martha Reeves: From a very early age, all I remember … the music that we had was my dad’s guitar. When he wasn’t tired, he would take it down off the wall. We were told explicitly not to touch dad’s guitar. We learned the fear of daddy very early.
We were told not to touch his guitar, but when he did take it down from the wall, he was so good at playing and singing. He would take us into a wonderful place in our spirits, in our hearts, playing his guitar and singing the songs that he taught himself from a child at an early age. That was my first introduction to music and mama singing. She always idolized Billie Holiday and some of the songs she sang are really deep in my heart because after working as hard as she did to help raise us, she and dad had a remarkable relationship. They were married 47 years and married when they were 15 and 19. Both of them were singers and so it gave us an idea of how we can get through life happy, with music, with singing. It was just in our house.
Dad would listen to the radio, different shows, baseball games, and he would listen to Gabriel Heatter, and he would listen to a lot of the shows that were on radio, that’s before TV. That’s how my life started with music. With my dad being the minister’s son, most of our music was sacred, but he played the blues. He played the blues just for us. He did have music in the house, and that was the first music that I heard. Later on, we were exposed to radio.
Pat Healy: Do you sing every day now?
Yes, I do. I sing scriptures because I prayed to be a singer from as early as I can remember. I always wanted to sound as good as my dad, or as good as my mom, or the other people that I saw sing and it touched me somewhere in my heart that I wanted to be a singer too. I found out at the age of three that I could. My brothers—Thomas and Benny—had a group between the two of them. We had to sing at our grandfather’s church at an amateur show. They figured they’d encourage the children to come to church if they could make a contest to see who had talent and who would be in the choir, and whatever. But, we won the talent contest. Benny and Tom let me sing with them. We won candy, a box of chocolate-covered cherries. I took over as if it was mine and would hoard it. If they didn’t treat me good or weren’t kind to me, I wouldn’t let them have any candy. I found out I was a little bossy at a very early age and they let me be a little bit bossy because I was favored. I was the first girl of 11 of us.
Yeah. I’ve had a dream to sound as good as mom and dad and be as good as my older brother Benny or my next older brother Thomas, because they both had fabulous voices. That’s probably why I tried so hard because I wanted to be as good as them.
By this point, were you in Detroit? You were born in the South, right?
Born in Eufaula, Alabama. E-u-f-a-u-l-a! They used to kid me about that. They’d make little jokes like “You fall, I catch you” kind of jokes. We moved to Detroit when I was 11 months old. Benny, Thomas, and I were born in Alabama and brought to Detroit.
So you’re in Detroit, and you’re growing up, and you’re singing. You’ve discovered through candy that you have a knack for it. Were you singing in school also?
Oh yeah, at every music class that I was in since I was favored. In elementary school, my teacher was a German lady, not very tall. In fact, she was about the same height as all of the students. She favored me. She found out that I could retain lyrics as I had been taught by my mom. She would speak to me at the end of the class and she would have me stand before the class ended and have me and sing some songs.
I could remember the lyrics of the anthem. The first song that I embraced was “God Bless America.” The next song she taught me was “This is My Country.” She taught us all of the anthems. She taught a few love songs that she liked, like “Only a Rose.” I could name all of the songs. But, her insistence on singling me out was because I had the ability to remember lyrics, and I concentrated on everything she taught us. She would favor me. The kids didn’t like me very much, but I didn’t care that much about them because they weren’t kind.
But she was so wonderful. Her eyes would light up when I did whatever she taught me correctly. When I retained lyrics, she would have me sing them nearly every day after class. She would say, “Okay, Martha, come on and sing the song for me.” The keyboard player, he was there and he would find out my right key. They made a star out of me in elementary school.
In high school, my 12th grade year, Abraham Silver—who had taught me in glee club as well in my four years of high school—singled me out of the 11 girls in the soprano section and had me sing Bach’s aria on four occasions. One was at our spring concert then at my graduation, then at the Henry Ford Auditorium, which was one of the finest acoustically built concert halls. It’s been torn down. As I stood there and watched them demolish it, my heart just broke.
I appeared before maybe 4,500 people. A very difficult piece of music, but it was praising God. “Alleluia, alleluia.” It was fabulous, and I was fitted with maybe a 50-member choir. [There was a] male soprano, the male tenor lead part. I, with my knees shaking, pulled it off. I could make all of those beautiful notes and riffs that Abraham Silver taught us at Northeastern High School. I’ve been asked to sing most of my life and given the task of learning songs and being able to do them. The talent that was developed in elementary school and high school gave me the ability to go to Hitsville USA by request and take a position in the A&R department. I would learn songs from different writers, make a hundred demos, and then finally got my chance in the studio to record myself. It’s been wonderful to have my prayers answered, the prayers I made to God at a very early age to be able to sing.
I love that story about William “Mickey” Stevenson discovering you at the 20 Grand Club. Is that really true that he gave you his card and you just showed up at Hitsville USA the next day?
Yeah, he gave me a card. I was probably dreaming because I do have a great imagination. When this good-looking man who was not much older than me, I was 21, and my dad gave me permission to sing in a nightclub.
I had won a prize at the happy hour, it was between 8:00 and 12:00. Dad let me sing there, but I had to be home and in the house by 12 o’clock. I won an amateur contest as Martha Lavelle, singing solo. The groups that I had been in had dissolved because we all needed to get jobs.
Right. That was the Del-phis, is that right?The Fascinations were the first group. Then I was invited to sing with a group called the Del-phis. One of their members moved out of the city. It was a four-person group, four girls, a female group and they asked me to sing in her stead. It was a great experience. However, when we all graduated high school, we all had to get jobs and the group after one recording on the Checkmate Label, dissolved.
So as I was singing in this amateur contest and I won the prize as a three-day engagement at a place called the 20 Grand. It was the biggest club here in the city of Detroit. It is now defunct, but I had the chance to go during the happy hour and sing with the Levi Mann Trio while I was doing my last evening at three nights for $5 a night, imagine? I was making big-time money.
Mickey approached me in the crowd and said, “You have talent. Come to Hitsville USA.” We had heard about Hitsville USA. This is a company that a black man had started on the West Side, I lived on the East Side. I did go there the next day without making an appointment. I had no protocol! I had no idea I was supposed to take that card and call this A&R director from Hitsville, USA.
When I went home that evening and got in my house by the time my dad expected me, I showed him the card and told them that I had been asked to come to Hitsville, USA. He gave me permission to quit my job. I was living in my dad’s house at 21, and I worked at a cleaners. CItywide Cleaners had branches all over the city and I was able to go from one store to the next as a counter girl to check books. In other words, I’d gone as far as I could possibly go in the cleaning business. [Laughter] He said, “You can quit that job,” because I wasn’t making very much, “and go to that company and see what’s in store.”
So when I got there, William Stevenson then asked me what I was doing there. I said,
“Don’t you remember giving me this card?” He said, “Yes, but you’re supposed to call for an appointment. We have auditions every third Thursday.” This was a Monday, mind you. So I probably looked like I was about to have a fit, just falling on the floor and just looking like a brat. He looked at me and he said, “Answer this phone; I’ll be right back.” I knew how to answer a phone. Having had a commercial course in high school, I knew how to pick up that phone and say, “A&R department, may I help you?” Then be asked by everybody, “who is this?!” because there was no secretary prior to me. No one was answering the phone or taking messages but I could do it adequately. He was gone for a while, writing a song for this drummer that was on the list by the name of Marvin Gaye. What a marvelous time to be at that company!
They were growing and they just had this beautiful man [Marvin Gaye] come from Washington DC brought there by Harvey Fuqua who was part of the family but also a member of the Moonglows: That was a group that was famous when we were growing up. It just seemed that God had gathered all of the talented people in the world right there at 2648 West Grand Boulevard here in Detroit. I had to be there in the very first group of people.
Yeah, I was going to say, was the sign even up, the iconic sign?
Did you walk under that sign on that day?It was a hand-painted sign. Probably with some house paint. It was Hitsville, USA when I first arrived. It’s been modified, of course. They are working on it now to make it a Motown museum. But where I went was Hitsville, USA. When I got there, it was filled to the brim with enterprising writers, musicians, singers, all working under the mentorship of Berry Gordy.
Berry Gordy Jr. had a vision, the same as Martin Luther King because he went to record the “I Have a Dream” speech the very first time that Martin Luther King delivered that speech.
Berry Gordy recorded it? Really? I didn’t know that.
Yeah, Berry was spiritual. He was directly connected to the system. He had gone to New York and found out how record companies operate. On his own, he had found out. He had gone from a record store owner to a music producer. His first wife and his sister at both had recording companies prior to him having his own at Hitsville USA. The story is told that his family were entrepreneurs and they had a corporation. His family loaned him money from the corporation’s bank account to start his own record company in his own house. It was a small mansion but it was on the boulevard, at West Grand Boulevard.
So he took the money that they loaned him and promised with the promissory note to pay them back. And look what he did: he made millions, with just the help of his family and the idea and the dream of making the sound of young America, and collecting people and writers and musicians and everything in his house to make a company called Motown.
So you get there and you start answering phones and you prove yourself …
And don’t forget I’m singing every day too: I’m making demos! Writers work out of the artist and repertoire department—the A&R department. They would come to work as if they were reporting to a factory every day. There were 17 of them, and all of them were good writers. They had previously been singers. To give you an example, Eddie Holland, who wrote most of the songs with his brother, Brian [Holland] and Lamont Dozier had a record called “Jamie,” and it went to No. 1. Instead of him following the path of show business, he decided he did not like the stage, he did not like to travel, he did not like being under the pressure that singers are put under to perform what they’ve recorded.
So, he asked Berry if he could just stay as a writer and team with his brother. Their first composition was, “Come and Get These Memories”: our first recording that made the charts! It wasn’t our first recording but I had sung a demo for Mary Wells and she was leaving the company. You see, I was there at the right time! And everything just seemed to have been in divine order. Everything just clicked for me and I was unaware of a lot of things, but learned them in a hurry. I had a crash course in how to get a session planned, and how to call the right musicians and have them all there on time and how to deal with the 17 writers under one office, under the direction of William Stevenson, the A&R director, and Clarence Paul, his assistant.
So you’re doing all this and you mentioned Mary … and she was kind of a mentor to you, right?
No, she was my first idol! I didn’t know her. She was leaving as I was coming to the company. She had a record out called “Bye Bye Baby” that she sang to Berry Gordy at the Gold Room [in the 20 Grand Club]. That was where you went and you had a chance to feature your artist. Marv Johnson had a record out called, “You’ve Got What it Takes” and he was at the Gold Room. Ernie Durham was the DJ, Cecil Rabbit his assistant, gave Motown a chance to bring their artists there, let them sing their songs, and the audience would take off their shoes. Shoes didn’t cost that much, and they would slide around on the floor. This was something I saw in the Northern part of England, where you could take your shoes off and dance all night in your socks and have a good time sliding on the floor and doing different dances.
A sock hop, right?
Yeah. You called it a sock hop and Ernie Durham would let us come to the Gold Room in the 20 Grand and go onstage and sing to the youngsters that would gather there, 18 and older and have a good time exposing our record. Well, Mary approached Berry Gordy and told him that she wanted him to have his artist Jackie Wilson sing the first production he did prior to his successes at Hitsville USA. She wanted him to give this song to Jackie Wilson but once he heard her sing, acapella right there on the spot, he said [to Jackie], “I’m going to make your female vocalist, No. 1 in the country.” He did. He discovered her at the age of 14, it was wonderful. It was wonderful how she had her talent so intact. She had written a song and sang it for him, and he brought her to the company. Her first record was “Bye Bye Baby.” Her second one was “Two Lovers.” “You Beat Me to the Punch” I think was the third one, and then “My Guy” written by William Robinson, better known as Smokey. Somehow she wanted to leave the company. A guy named Herman Griffin came and convinced her to leave the company and go to another level. I did a demonstration record for her as the union man came in. It seems like I’ve always been at the right place at the right time.
So they insisted that someone be on the mic while the songs were being recorded. I sang “I’ll Have to Let Him Go,” which wound up being a song that Berry Gordy heard and said, “Mary is leaving. Who is this singing this?” And it happened to be moi! So I was asked to get some backup singers and record it before the name was developed: Van Dykes, Vandellas—Della Reese … before that name was developed, I called it. I couldn’t get the Andantes, they were on the list.
They were somewhere else recording and weren’t available. I had to not let William Stevenson down because that’s not the way Motown was run. If you couldn’t get these people, then you called the next people. I thought about who I sang with: Gloria Williamson, the lead singer, decided she didn’t want to go into show business. She had a job in the city and she had children, and she also was a director at her choir. She played fluent keyboard and oh, what a great singer! She decided she didn’t want to take the trip and we had to make a name. I came up with the Vandellas. I actually was in the A&R department and typed my own contract up.
I didn’t know exactly how to do a formal contract, but I knew how to type one up and to sign it. We became Vandellas and with me being the only lead singer, my name was put out there because I did all the work. I did all the singing, I did the forming, I called them in to do the sessions. I managed to just come up with my own destiny, with my own future in show business. Having the ability to retain lyrics and knowing how to help rhyme things and use thesauruses and dictionaries to help the different producers rhyme and produce their songs and watch them write or record them. I know the way that they were recorded and how the Motown Sound was produced. It encouraged me to have a couple of albums myself. I have a label and don’t know exactly how to get into the business like Berry Gordy took us. We didn’t have any cares, all we had to do was just sing, and Berry would make all the arrangements. But I’ll always admire him because he opened his house to over 40 acts. Most of us went to superstardom.
Now, you’re doing the demos and then you get the call-up and you form the group. Does Berry Gordy have you doing the legendary finishing school stuff?
As we developed, he found out that a group like the Marvelettes, a girl group who had the first hit record, “Mr. Postman.” It was during the war. People don’t remember, but the Korean War was as severe as the Vietnam War, but they were sort of connected. Before one was over, the next one started. There were songs we had made about the war and “Mr. Postman” was the song for everybody because everybody would stand by their mailboxes and wait for letters from their loved ones and “Mr. Postman” was an instant hit for the Marvelettes. It was about, we got to go and travel now, we go to go to the different people who bought the record and sing in different venues that were being established. Another mode of lifestyle, we could work in arenas and big assembly halls as the music grew, so we had to be groomed. Berry was smart enough to hire people like Professor Maxine Powell. She was an actress who had a finishing school. There was another local entrepreneur who actually made beauty products: Carmen Murphy was her name. Between the two of them, they would groom the women and teach them how to handle themselves professionally; how to walk, how to stand, how to dress, how to be proper, how to be socially accepted, because we were the first group of people who were allowed to sit at counters in the segregated South and different places where Blacks weren’t allowed. So we were sort of like a civil rights movement. We were the ones who were trained how. Just like today we’re having to train our youngsters how to deal with authorities. We were taught how to deal with the segregation and how to deal with the incidents that happened, trying to travel the lot of us on the bus, getting mistaken for freedom writers, but getting through the danger. There were very few incidents, but on that first Motown revue was a 12-piece band, seven acts, and riding on 94 one-nighters. That’s three months of our lives, and two hotel visits because most of the places we played didn’t allow us to stay in their hotels. The tour was such a strenuous one. We didn’t have time to rest in our hotel because we had to travel, changing bus drivers and traveling with a broken down Trailway. Not even a Greyhound bus, a broken down Trailway. I think Trailway is out of business now.
But, we did that. When we came back to Detroit after three months of traveling and touring—November, December, and January—everybody’s records had charted. It was the best promotion that Berry Gordy could have ever done to get our music established, and to get together our faces in the places, and get us known to the people who are buying our records because we had a sound and we had a Motown way. We had [Motown house band] the Funk Brothers and we had Choker Campbell’s 12-piece band. I mean, we had all the help that our artists could get because of Berry Gordy’s direction. They knew we needed music theory so Maurice King and Danny Allen taught us on our off days. If we weren’t on the road, we were in the studio.
They had a department called artist development. I don’t think any other record company had such an office or a department like that. We excelled because of our being trained by professionals. Charlie Atkins from Vaudeville taught us professional steps. We didn’t dance with our bodies, we danced with our feet, and that was the way that the people in Vaudeville trained or danced. The people whose shoulders we stood on had tap lessons and ballet lessons. They were professional and we were taught to be professional.
You mentioned the difficulty with racism during that time. You said, thankfully, there were only a few incidents, but what was the most painful?
Well, the memories never leave you. Especially when you are young and you hear stories like Emmett Till, the young man who was accused of winking at a white woman—which was a lie—because she confessed that after he had been murdered, and drowned, and hung, and everything else they could do to a Black man—she confessed that she hadn’t been endangered or even winked at. It was just something that she made up. That’s similar to what’s happened of late, where hatred comes to show its ugly face. We have a lot of things happening now that happened then.
We were shot at. We were chased from place to place but never harmed, or maybe on a couple of occasions there was harm to a couple of the members, but we survived. When we got past the hatred, we found a whole lot of love from the people who would come and see us. Seeing segregated audiences get up, break the rules, and take the barriers down, and mingle with one another, give each other high fives and handshakes and back slapping, that only happened after the music was sang and after the finale with Smokey Robinson leading us in a song like “Mickey’s Monkey.” Everybody was acting like children and acting like monkeys. There were some of the finales and some of the places where we saw segregation rear its ugly head and everybody came and got united with the Motown sound.
You must be proud that the music that you made helped with the progress of race relations in this country … although it feels like they’re at an all-time low, but they were worse before the music you made.Well, it was Berry Gordy’s dream to bring the sound of young America. People that don’t understand that this is the United States are to be pitied. Because we’re everything from everywhere, as a race and as a nation. I might have come from Eufaula to Detroit, but there’s some people who came from the far end of the world and gathered in the United States, so you can’t really call it a white nation, or a Black nation, or a colored nation, or a white supremacy nation. It’s a world of united people.
From that period—the civil rights period—and the progress we made as a country, which it’s hard to talk about as progress when we have what’s going on now because it feels like a step backwards. But, we’re actually making progress, and I think you even said in one of the documentaries I’ve seen that the 1967 Detroit riots actually helped us move forward.
Yeah, we had an occasion to have a Canadian by the name of Robin Seymour—God rest his soul, he just recently passed—but he came from Windsor, which is just across the river from Detroit, and he had a show at our Fox Theater. The day of the riot, the day it broke out, we were onstage getting ready to sing our latest recording, which happened to be a song called, “Jimmy Mack.” It was about the war. It was about “When is Jimmy Mack coming back?” It’s about “My arms are missing you. There’s this guy that keeps coming around trying to talk to me, but I’m waiting on you Jimmy. When are you coming back?”
To my dismay, I didn’ t get a chance to even voice it because I was called to the edge of the stage and told by Robin Seymour that a riot had broken out and that the sirens were roaring, and that we had a curfew, we had to be home at a certain time. All this was told to me in a brief little pause after I was called off the stage prior to singing my latest recording. I was able to go back to the mic in a calm way and let everybody know they had to go home. I had to do it quietly and peacefully because there was a curfew and a riot. But there had to have been something in the air. It was evident that it was going to happen—the revolution.
It was because of brutality. We couldn’t stand on the streets and sing because different units of policing would come by and chase us off the street corner, hit us in the head with billy clubs, throw us in jail if we resisted, because we would just want to gather on the corner and sing. There were no recreation halls for us to sing in. We couldn’t sing sacred music outside of the church, and the church had rehearsal maybe once a week. We want to sing every day.
One of the stories about the riots came from a hotel where we didn’t know what was going on in that hotel. The movie doesn’t depict the truth. They used sensationalism to sell that Detroit movie about our riots that was released. I’m glad it didn’t live very long but it was all over the world.
It was time for everybody to realize that the brutality should stop. It hasn’t stopped and it’s evident that we still need more training. But, even in spite of all of the things we went through, we all came back with our records in the chart. We all came back happy and fulfilled that we had done a good tour, that we have survived a lot of the controversy, and we had proven a lot of people wrong. We can live together, we canlove one another, and Berry Gordy would critique the lyrics from his writers. He had a staff of writers and he would critique every lyric to make sure that we didn’t offend anybody, that we didn’t cause any hate or debase ourselves, or do anything sinful, or shameful, or wrong. He’s not a very tall person, he wasn’t even that much older than us. But, he was sincere and he knew what he wanted. He was a very concerned leader. He didn’t just make records off of you and make money, he wanted to develop your character. He wanted to let you know that you were standing on the shoulders of a lot of talented people. He had us do our research, he trained us in every way to be professional, to make him proud, and make the world embrace The Motown Sound.
You were talking a little bit about what was going on then, but do you feel optimistic about this wave of revolution that’s happening?
I feel very optimistic. I’m talking to you, you’re making my day!
You’re making mine!
I really long to be with the people who love us and embrace us, so this [coronavirus pandemic] is a shutdown. I feel that is our fault for letting a lot of things go by that should have been halted, a lot of things that should have been critiqued, a lot of things that should have been the standard of professionalism and the standard of righteousness. I’ve been reading Isaiah and it’s a lot of things that you can put your finger on and say, “Yeah, this is happening right now.”
But it was proved and solved with music. If you go to church, and I hope everybody that is listening to me do, the song has to start the service. Before the message can be given, you’ve got to ease the heart and free the spirit with song, with good tones in the ear, with good remembrances of kindness and love and gentleness and peace. It’s a way of life.
You were talking about the celebrations of life and togetherness and what we all need to do as the human race and I feel like “Dancing in the Street” is the song for that. Do you still get those feelings when you perform that song?
Yes, I do! I know what I was feeling when I sang the song and people don’t understand. It’s not a pillow song, it’s a singular song. “Dancing in the Street” was what we did in our neighborhood. We didn’t have a rec hall. We didn’t know anything about getting together and singing and dancing in the street. My dad worked for the city. He worked for the city water department. He and Bill Jr’s daddy, they’ve decided they would go to the police department and Mr. Elliott, worked for the bus company, he was also a city employee. They went to the police department and said, “Block the street off so we can dance on Saturday night, right in front of our houses until the sun goes down.” And then we would quiet down, and not disturb anybody, just the people on our block.
That’s where my dancing in the street came from. “Doesn’t matter what you wear, just as long as you’re there, every guy grab a girl, everywhere around the world.” They were lyrics written by Marvin Gaye, Ivy Hunter, and William Stevenson, and whatever they intended to write, did not come into my spirit. What was in my spirit was our neighborhood, our next door neighbor who would put their record players on. Not woofers and tweeters! It wasn’t so loud that it would stop your heart if you had a pacemaker. Just record players so that you could walk from house to house to hear what they were playing.
We were dancing on our little cobblestone block, just one block of the neighborhood. It was like an answered prayer to me because our block was solid. We didn’t have a block club, we had a block union, and we understood everybody. The lady next door could tell on us and we could get a whipping. Mrs. Holden, who lived across the street, was nosy! She would tell on us if we were not obedient to our parents and got in the house before the streetlights came on. Or, if she caught us doing something in the back of the house or in the tea alley that we shouldn’t have been doing, she could get us killed by our parents. “I’m going to tell your daddy” or “I’m going to tell you mother.” That’s how tight the neighborhood was. We weren’t bad kids, but it was a lot of us. We enjoyed knowing that somebody was watching us.
Tell me though, if we could go back to “Dancing in the Street,” so many people have recorded it. Little Richard, the Grateful Dead, Van Halen, David Bowie and Mick Jagger … Obviously yours is the best, but whose is second best?
I have no idea because everybody who sang it had to give accolades to Marvin Gaye, William Stevenson, and Ivy Hunter, who wrote it, and I’m sure they’ve benefited from everybody copying it. I feel that mine, and my spirit, enhanced it.
That’s one other thing I wanted to ask you about, is the Stones, when they do “Street Fighting Man,” with “Summer’s here, the time is right for fighting in the streets,” and then Bruce Springsteen did the same thing with “Racing in the Street.” Did you hear those when they came out, and have a reaction to them?
I don’t want to sound naive, but no, I’ve never heard them.
But they felt the excitement of that song and the musicianship on that song. When you hear the first drumbeat and before the horns come in, you almost jump. It’s so exciting. It’s almost the same effect that bullfighting has. When you hear that [makes horn noises] you know the bull’s about to come out of there, and with the fury of his rage, it has that same excitement to me. The first trumpet part of the track.
The Funk Brothers were magical. They are basically the heartbeat of the Motown Sound. Those musicians got together and did a remarkable job. But, Ivy Hunter, William Stevenson, and Marvin Gaye did a great production on there. My spirit was happy to sing about us dancing in the street in my neighborhood as a teenager. I think it all made a wonderful masterpiece. Now, if you ask me if I sold a million records, I can’t tell you, because it went to No. 2 on the charts. Mick Jagger and David Bowie made more money for Live Aid than I made off the record and I’m the one who sang it.
Right, that’s so weird. I don’t like their version. I do want to know though, what do you think of the Grateful Dead’s version, or Van Halen’s, or Little Richard’s versions?
I laugh at it because they wanted to feel what we felt, but we captured it, and they imitated it. If they wanted to make it sound like a different atmosphere, then I think they did that. But what we sang was straight from the heart, straight from the thrill of being able to dance in the street! Do you know how many corners we were chased off of, just trying to sing without music? So now we’re allowed to come out of our house and right in front of our house, on those cobblestone rocks, on those cobblestone bricks, and just dance until the 12 o’clock hour. Every Saturday, we had something to look forward to, and it was in our neighborhood, it was peaceful. It was nobody coming from somewhere else and saying, “Oh,we’re going to get in on that.” It was just having a good time with our neighbors, and it was never intended to be a theme song for a riot. That wasn’t in my spirit but somehow it was used for that.
I never knew that!
I actually sat in an interview in England and cried because they thought that I was some group leader, riot protester and activist to sing a song and have people go and kill store owners and break into stores, and burn houses and things in their own neighborhood? That was very stupid to burn up your own neighborhood.
That’s just a gross misinterpretation! It’s such an obviously happy song, I feel like.
The words don’t say go and kill somebody and break in their store, or hate anybody. It was about us all dancing in the street. “Calling out around the world.” Being from Eufaula, Alabama, I never knew I would be singing for the world, but my dreams came true.
I tell people—because somehow they don’t remember it—that Marvin Gaye was singing that song because he had written it and played the keyboard on it. He was singing it, and I was standing in the doorway after having completed my classes at artist development. I basically had to run the place, because I had been the A&R secretary before my record hit. So I had the free will to go from place to place, and was standing in the door in awe, because he was such a good-looking man, and he had such a pretty voice. He was singing, “Dancing in the Street” as if he was singing to a girl. Like, [imitates Marvin Gaye’s smooth singing voice] “Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat, baby?” Marvin Gaye’s style of singing.
I was standing there in awe. He looked up and said, “Hey man, let’s try this song on Martha!” I’m looking behind me, wondering how did he even know I was there? Because I was standing outside of the room in the doorway. That’s how it was at Motown. When you recorded, there was somebody always there, ready to take the song if you couldn’t do it. We had such a variety of writers and such good songs coming out of all of them that we would put in our bid for the next hit from Holland-Dozier-Holland, or Barrett Strong, Smokey Robinson, or Stevie Wonder. I mean, all these producers were there and all these songs were available. So I’m standing there looking at Marvin. He looks and says, “Let’s try the song on Martha.” I had practically learned it the way he was singing it, but I didn’t feelit the way he sang it. So after going into the studio, putting on the earphones, I said, “Can I sing this song the way that I feel it?” His note was a man’s note and I had to go to the 3rd of the chord, if you know what I’m about, to sing this song from my heart and realizing that this “Dancing in the Street” is something I’ve been doing all along. I did this when I was in my teens. So here, I am in a studio, singing about something that I loved, and was very special to me. Singing on those Saturday nights and dancing in the street to the different songs that were popular was a thrill to us. We could let go, we could be free and not worry about cars hitting us, or a plane landing on us, or a truck bearing down on us. We could block that street off with police permission, and play our music and dance! So that’s a freedom that a lot of people didn’t really enjoy during those times. So when I got a chance to sing about it, oh I was so happy! And they were happy with me.
You mentioned people always being around, always ready to take a try if somebody else couldn’t do it. Was it competitive, or was it friendly?
That’s the only competition that Motown artists had! With one another! Because Motown excelled. If there was a show and a Motown act was on, the Motown act was the star. We always had that pride because we were trained. We had professionals show us how to really do what we do. We were trained. We were formed to be the Motown Sound. The Temptations were the best dancing male group in their time. The Contours had a different style, but they were the best with, “Do You Love Me” in their time, a song written by Berry Gordy, mind you.
He wrote, “Do You Love Me.” He was a hands-on producer and he was always there critiquing, and making sure that his writers were doing their best. That was the competition, between the writer, between the singers, and each other, the different acts.
Do you still talk to Berry Gordy?
On occasion. We were together for the 60th anniversary here at our Detroit Opera House. We celebrated 60 years, and I can say for 58 of those, I’ve been singing the Motown Sound for 58 years.
That’s amazing. Then, Motown left for Los Angeles. Did you leave with the company?
No, my son was only a few months old when Motown moved. My contract was up and I didn’t realize it. I’d been with Motown for 10 years, from ’61 to ’71, and it was time for Berry to do something else. I think he went there to make movies. I think he outgrew Detroit. Whatever the reason, I was left here wondering where to go and what to do. I was invited by a gentleman named Ron Strasner, to venture to California. Not with Motown, but to sign with Universal Records and continue my career. After meeting Richard Perry and doing my first solo album, I continued my career, made a very good album, sang some wonderful songs and got to know Universal Music. It’s ironic, Berry Gordy eventually sold most of his masters and publishing to Universal, but I was on MCA and continued my career.
I think I read somewhere that that first album of yours on MCA was one of the most expensive albums of all time up to that time. Is that right?
I’m sure that they’ll watch the producers a little closer than Richard Perry was watching. He had a budget and he spent money. Some of it was for recording.
So when they say it was like $250,000 . .
He was recording Nilsson, he was doing Carly Simon, and he was doing the drummer for the Beatles.
Ringo Starr, he was doing his album, his solo album. He was very, very busy at that time recording everybody, trying to keep the Beatles together and make the group get back together. God was watching and we all survived that and I made some great recordings. I was thinking about [occasional Beatles keyboardist] Billy Preston the other day; he wrote a song for me on that album called, “You’ve Got Me for Company.”
I got a DJ friend who lives in Flint and when I call her, I’ll start off and she would sing along with me. We got a little duet then and the lyrics were, “As long as you got me for company. . .” and we have each other musically for company. I’m never alone because I have the knowledge of the unity and fellowship we have with the people who bought our music and made us famous. It was all chance. Who knew that “Shop Around” would be a million-seller? Who knew that “Come and Get These Memories” would be embraced and it’s now a book. I think Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote a book called, Come and Get These Memories
Yeah, and “Heat Wave” was a million-seller too?
I don’t know about a million sales, but it was the first song that Berry Gordy labeled the Motown Sound he’d been looking for.
“Heat Wave” has been played and re-recorded by a lot of people too. Linda Ronstadt did a wonderful version of “Heat Wave.”
I like yours better.
I never knew about that side of the business. Million-sellers? Well, I don’t have that many gold records on my wall. I have one big gold record, I think it’s the Heat Wave album, where we did cover versions of a lot of the hits at the time. I have one of those. I wasn’t counting million-sellers or money, I was counting hit records and appearances and the wonderful fans that came with the music. We traveled and went to the same place again and met friends over the years and still have a correspondence with them and still look forward to getting Christmas cards, and seeing that we were playing in their town, we’ve made some wonderful relationships with our music lovers and spiritual friends.
Okay, you do MCA for a number of albums and then you release some stuff on the Fantasy label. Do you still perform the songs from that phase of your career when you perform?
Only if people have heard of it enough to ask me to put it in my act, because that’s what our shows are based on—what songs people want to hear. I’ve recorded over 1,000 songs and I’ve got so many songs that people want me to sing, but the majority of songs in our act are what fans have said they want to hear.
What are the songs that still do it for you, that you’re very, very happy to have in your sets?
Well, “I’ll Follow You” is one that I just recently put in and I’ve asked our arranger, Darrell Smith, who happily came, replaced Al McKenzie, who has been my conductor for 30 years. He just recently passed. But we’re working on new arrangements for songs like “I’m a Winner” that Ashford and Simpson wrote. When Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford came to Motown, I was the first artist that Berry allowed them to produce and we did a song. I think Marvin Gaye did a version of it too, but it was a song called “I’m a Winner.” I’m putting that in the act and soon as we’re back up and running. I’m also doing an arrangement for a song that I did in a soundtrack for Universal Pictures. There was a movie called Willie Dynamite and one of the songs that I’m going to be singing because it’s in my heart to do, is “King Midas.” It just stirs my soul to sing that.
That’s great. Do you do the song that you did with the Crystal Method? I have a hard time imagining that in the set next to “Jimmy Mack.”
Now that proves the point for me that doing the Crystal Method … because I was asked at an interview, what I thought of rap and hip-hop and I was trying to explain to them that I didn’t particularly like the profanity in rap, but the profanity part wasn’t aired. It was edited out of my interview, which caused a whole lot of people to think that I didn’t appreciate the music made with the synthesizers. I call them noisy toys.
Some people took it to heart. So it’s something I had to live down. I made a few telephone calls and they were saying, “Don’t knock our music.” Having that controversy, they’d put me with some synthesized music makers, but they also let me use real musicians to combine the sound. So that was a hit, that epiphany, to have me go and work with synthesizers, but come up with a fabulous song that only they can do on their show because of the power techniques that they use and how they present their song. The synthesizers, the explosions, and the frenzy that it causes.
I had a chance to watch Crystal Method in concert. We worked on the same bill, but they didn’t ask me to sing that song, because they were trying to do the music, not so much the lyrics. “One child with a dream for the future, he changed the scenes, he took the breeze of yours and mine and turned it into a goldmine.” There’s a guy here called Tyree Guyton who took the debris—old lawnmowers and old vacuum cleaners, and tires and toys—and put them on houses and had a whole area that you come and visit here. Tourists come to visit the Heidelberg area and that’s what I was singing about. So there’s no story to it, it’s just that we got together and made some good sounds. The thrill of it all though was doing the Jimmy Kimmel Show and getting some of the finest musicians from every group. [The group included Rolling Stones bassist Darryl Jones as well as guitarist Richard Fortus and drummer Brian “The Brain” Mantia, both formerly of Guns N’ Roses]. They got a collection of beautiful musicians and did a wonderful show for Jimmy Kimmel. I thought that was a thrill and a dream.
Is there anything you haven’t done?
You’ve also done politics, you’ve done acting …
I did that four years on the Detroit City Council!
You’ve done the Super Bowl …
I’m a mommy!
Yeah, you’re a mom.
I’ve got great grandchildren!
I’ve done commencement celebrations at different colleges. I’ve just recently made a demo for AARP, to enhance people’s voting, I’m on a billboard here in the city, asking people to enter the census request because it will mean benefits for the city for different funding for schools and housing and to help the city enhance itself and come back after this pandemic. But I’m available. See? You have to be >available and enjoy being of service and that’s what I live for.
Yeah! So you’ve done everything you’ve wanted to do in your life, right?
I don’t know. I guess I’m satisfied, but I always think that I can reach the next level and it’s been prophesied that I’m going to another level. I had this wonderful spiritual leader take me by the hand and tell me, “Baby, prepare yourself. You’re getting ready to go to another level.” I’m ready! [Laughter] I am ready.
What does that mean, “another level”?
Okay … I’ve come a long way from Eufaula, Alabama. I’ve been through a whole lot of wonderful things by going to public schools. I got an education that people >pay for, just by public domain, I’m a spiritual person, and I’ve still got love in my heart and a desire to do whatever’s next.