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Martha Reeves: Still Dancing in the Street

Motown legend recalls making music with Marvin Gaye

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spinner image Martha and the Vandellas, Martha Reeves
Left: Martha Reeves (bottom) in Martha and the Vandellas; Right: Reeves singing in Barcelona during an October 2018 performance.
Jordi Vidal/Getty Images; Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Martha Reeves, now 77, lives in Detroit, where she served as a member of its City Council decades after she made hits for Motown as Martha and the Vandellas. The group disbanded in 1972, but Reeves continues to perform as the Vandellas with two of her sisters, Lois and Delphine Reeves, singing hits like “Dancing in the Streets,” “Quicksand” and “Nowhere to Run.” In 1994, Reeves also published a memoir, Dancing in the Streets: Confessions of a Motown Diva. The following are edited excerpts from her discussion with AARP about Motown's 60th anniversary.

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On leaving home with the first Motortown Revue tour:

I wasn’t really thinking about myself. I was just glad to leave town and send money for my mother. That’s what my whole ambition [was] — that I could earn money. That’s why I started working in the A&R [Artists and Repertory] department in the first place. I would come in at 9 in the morning and leave at 9 in the evening, every day of the week because the doors never closed. For nine months I’d hoped to be on that revue ; I’d hoped for a contract. I was hoping that the girls I was working with, Rosalind [Ashford] and Annette [Sterling] and Gloria [Williams], would be in a frame of mind to be a group.

On their first time recording, as background singers for Marvin Gaye’s “Stubborn Kind of Fellow":

I knew that Annette and Rosalind and I could nail that harmony. Gloria was creative and we made up our parts. [Martha sings those signature introductory notes] Doo doo doo DAH… Gloria made that up as well as most of the harmonies for the Vandellas. Marvin was on the mike and we were standing around him. It was close in there. We were able to touch him and flirt with him and sing that perfect harmony with him. We loved him so much. We sang behind him with no compensation a lot. On the Motortown Revue we’d stand offstage and sing behind him and make it sound like the record. We were very proud to help bring Marvin out of his ballad mode and into a funky choir-like sound.

On the boss, Motown founder Berry Gordy:

His basic talent was spiritual. Berry could look at you, he could tell you had true talent and whether it came from your soul. He would critique you if you needed help. He was a great mentor not only to the singers but to the musicians. I have to speak for myself — he inspired me to do the best that I could every time we were in the studio.

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I have had a personal relationship with Berry Gordy, but not of a sexual nature. We’d sit in cars after he’d taken me home — before my dad gave me a car — we would talk. I was a good listener for things that he proposed for Motown on a creative level. We could speak openly and honestly to one another.

On her live shows and the legacy:

We work as much as we like because the Motown sound has proved to be a favorite. I get the grandchildren [in the audience] now. I’ve got the family, three generations. You don’t have to send children out of the room when you do the Motown sound. I had one lady tell me that her mom requested that “Dancing in the Street” be played at her funeral. That gave me goose bumps — that someone would want her children to be happy and rejoice over her life.

I’m still in Detroit. I sing with my two sisters. Lois has been with me since 1968 and Delphine joined me in the 1980s. This is my 56th year in show business. I’m still here.

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