Martha Reeves set for UK tour - interview
Martha Reeves is playing Glasgow on her birthday. Nicola Meighan chats to the ex-Vandella and Motown icon about protesting, evolving, and lots of dancing in the street
‘I’m happy to say I’m back in full-time showbusiness,’ declares Motown icon Martha Reeves.
After four years of splitting her days between music and politics – as a Detroit city councillor – she’s now focusing her energy on reviving the legendary R&B career that’s included 48 years of live performance, and 26 soul-pop hits with the Vandellas, ‘Dancing in the Street’, ‘Heat Wave’, ‘Nowhere to Run’ and ‘Jimmy Mack’ among them.
Reeves’ commitment to Motown, and her Motor City home, is life-long. ‘I just think Detroit is wonderful,’ she marvels. ‘And I think the most sensational music ever made was [Detroit-based] Hitsville USA’s Motown – that combination of gospel, jazz, blues, all genres.’
Although Motown relocated to LA in 1972 – leaving behind artists including Reeves and The Four Tops in favour of ‘self-contained’ acts like The Commodores and The Jackson 5 – Reeves remains fiercely loyal to its memory. ‘It really was like a family, and I still consider [Motown founder] Berry Gordy Jr to be the best mentor that I ever had – with the exception of my parents, of course.’
Reeves’ schoolteacher, Mrs Wagstaff, also proved integral: she encouraged her pupil to perform, and celebrated music as a liberal and historical force. ‘She taught me all the anthems: “The Star-Spangled Banner”, “God Bless America”, “Only A Rose” – that was one of her favourites – and “This Is My Country”. Before that, I didn’t really realise I had a country,’ Reeves remembers. ‘I never really felt like America was my home, until I learned that song. Because, you know, they surely didn’t encourage me to feel that way in the South.’ She laughs, and sighs.
Reeves became familiar with pop as socio-political conduit: her hair-raising 1970 Vietnam protest song, ‘I Should Be Proud’, (Reeves herself lost a brother to the war), had her earmarked as an antagonist. ‘Yeah, it’s a song that made the CIA follow me around for a good six or seven months,’ she casually recalls. ‘The record company told me, this is a good song, but it’s not going to be played on the radio. The CIA thinks it would be harmful. I did a good job singing it though! That’s one of my best vocals.’
Her biggest hit, ‘Dancing in the Street’, also accrued political significance: it was adopted as an anthem for the Civil Rights Movement, despite being originally penned as a love song. Was Reeves conscious of its evolution? ‘I don’t think it changed – I think people changed it,’ she reflects. ‘I didn’t write it, Marvin Gaye co-wrote it and sang it first, so I can’t put that Civil Rights meaning in there. But I am a person who lived through it – we used to have segregated audiences – and I am an activist, so I’ll accept it. I’m for freedom, I’m for music, I’m for unity – and I’m for international unconditional love.
‘“Dancing in the Street” was meant to be The Sound of Young America,’ she continues. ‘And it is! It makes me feel young whenever I sing it. I may not have the appearance of a teenager anxious to be famous, but I feel it. Music changes your spirit, it changes your mood. It makes people happy. That’s what it’s about. The music is as fresh in my mind, and as fresh in my heart, as it ever was.’
Martha Reeves plays The Arches, Glasgow, Sun 18 Jul.