Q&A: Queen of Motown Martha Reeves At Rrazz Room In San Francisco

Fifty years after joining the Motown family, Martha Reeves is still singing songs like “Nowhere to Run” and “Jimmy Mack.”

The same time a little act called The Jefferson Airplane was making waves in the city by the Bay, about 2,400 miles away, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were dancing in the street(s) of the Motor City.

Fifty years after joining the Motown family, Reeves is still singing songs like “Nowhere to Run” and “Jimmy Mack,” and she will make the long trek from Detroit to San Francisco this week to perform in Hotel Nikko’s Rrazz Room.

You can catch Martha Reeves until Sunday. I chatted with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (and former Detroit City Councilwoman) last weekend.

Corey Andrew: Are you looking forward to coming to California?
Martha Reeves: Oh, so much. It’s so wonderful coming back to The Rrazz Room. It’s so intimate and so special.
Corey: Yes, it’s fantastic there to see performers up close and personal. Is it difficult for you to put a show together with so many songs to choose from?
Martha: I’ve been praying all morning that I have all the right songs because I don’t want to be redundant and repeat the same ones I’ve done in the past engagements. I want to do some of the things people have asked me to do. I may be playing the Richard Perry album on MCA, and I’ve got a couple I’d like to do off the Arista label album. Most of it will be Motown. I’m hoping I can set aside some for those faithful who have come to see me every time.
Corey: I really love ‘I’m Not Leaving,’ the dance song you performed on earlier this year with The Crystal Method. Is there a chance you might perform it?
Martha: There’s a possibility because two of the musicians who were on that session will be with me, Al McKenzie and Darrell Smith. We might do a bit of it. You can’t really duplicate The Crystal Method’s synthesizers.
Corey: Sure.
Martha: I’m sure Al and Darrell will be able to replicate something.
Corey: How did you wind up working with The Crystal Method?
Martha: I was talking with management, and someone had requested me to work with The Crystal Method. I was asked in 1997, at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, what did I think of rap? They asked me as a seasoned R&B artist. My response was, ‘I don’t like the profanity,’ and evidently, ‘the profanity’ was left off.
Corey: Oh.
Martha: Uh huh. I made a lot of ill feelings among the rappers and the artists making hip-hop. I had let them know my first rap artists were black poets. Rap wasn’t new to me. [Poet] Khalil Gibran was the reason I rapped. I would read him aloud, ‘The Prophet.’ It wasn’t that I didn’t like poetry. But, word got around and as gossip spreads it gets changed and altered. The Crystal Method wanted to prove to me you could use synthesizers to make good music. We did the Jimmy Kimmel show. We had Guns N’ Roses’ guitar player, we had Nine Inch Nails’ drummer, the Rolling Stones’ bass player and Tower of Power horns. It was dynamite to have that as a mixture. I just enjoyed being a part of it.
Corey: What a fantastic sound that created!
Martha: I was so excited. I felt new emotion. You think when you hit 71, you’ve heard it all, you’ve felt it all, you know all about music, but there’s always a new door opening, something new to experience. That certainly was an experience. I welcome any work I can do with The Crystal Method or new artists doing R&B and technical music.
Corey: Dance music has been popular forever, but there’s always a new trend, and electronic dance music is having a surge right now.
Martha: We got kind of nervous when disco took over.
Corey: (laughs)
Martha: Not recognizing who’s playing the music and just letting it thump through the night. However, we’ve gotten a mixture now with hip-hop, and music is still alive and making people happy, and that’s what I’m all about.
Corey: What size band are you playing with in San Francisco?
Martha: We just have a quartet. It’s a small room so it can’t merit a big horn section. I’m required to do big songs like ‘Dancing in the Street’ which features the trumpet, and the baritone sax is in ‘Heat Wave’ and ‘Jimmy Mack.’ I think we pull it off quite well because of the intimacy of the room, and we get the best players we can find.
Corey: A really important question, have you picked your attire?
Martha: Yeah. I’m trying to remember everything I brought last time so I don’t wear it again (laughs). There’s also Macy’s around the corner. I frequented there. I am looking forward to going to Glide and getting blessed. I think I’ll get the right costumes, and my attire will surprise the audience.
Corey: You mentioned the Rock Hall. When you were inducted back in ’95, what was that night like for you?
Martha: I was asked who would I like to present our award because I insisted all five of us be inducted. That included my sister, Lois, who joined me in 1968, and Betty Kelly who replaced Annette Beard, one of the original girls and Rosalind Ashford; all five of us were to be inducted. I thought of Fred Schneider. We are close friends, and he brought along one of his group’s members [Kate Pierson], and they saved the day because our plane had to be rerouted because of a snowstorm. They held it up until we got there and could change our clothes to go onstage and accept the award. I love The B-52’s, and we’ve been friends for quite a while. We were with them recently here in Detroit. We do stay in touch. Paul Shaffer and his musicians did a wonderful version of ‘Dancing in the Street.’ Paul wore me out with his version. I’ll remember that always. Al Green did his thing. It was a wonderful night.
Corey: Looking back, do you remember a lot about the recording process of some of these timeless songs like ‘Dancing in the Streets?’
Martha: It’s singular, ‘Dancing in the Street.’ I have to make that correction. People think I’m singing about people going in the middle of the street, getting hit by cars and all that. In my early days, the houses on the street were very close, and most of our streets were cobblestone. We would put our record player—not woofers and tweeters—record players on the front porch and put up those police horses and yellow tape, so we might dance and not get hit by a car. It was the joy of dancing in the street.
Marvin Gaye wrote the song and Ivy Hunter and ‘Mickey’ Stevenson said, ‘Get Martha to try it,’ after hearing Marvin sing it. I thought about my neighborhood as a teenager growing up and how we used to enjoy each other, before television. Just enjoying dancing and partying with neighbors. The parents of the children would discipline each other’s. We had the nosy neighbors who would watch us and make sure we did right, unlike today, where kids are mostly on their own to do whatever they want. We had some organized dancing in the street by our parents. We enjoyed the music together.
That’s one of the reasons why I enjoy the Motown sound. Music can be enjoyed by the whole family. As a matter of fact, I’m getting three generations in my audience now. Grandparents are bringing their grandchildren. Everybody enjoys the Motown sound.
Corey: Are there quite a few of your songs that are still in the Motown vaults?
Martha: We had them release a two-disc package called ‘Spellbound,’ and it had 40 or so unreleased songs. Every one I listened to—I must be partial because it’s my life—the songs were all hits to me. I wouldn’t have sang them if I hadn’t felt them. There’s some more in the vault. That one [‘Spellbound’] is special. Some people have heard it.
Corey: When you hear some of those songs that you haven’t heard in a long time, where does that take you?
Martha: The magic about the Motown sound is that you feel young every time you perform it. I can feel as young as I was when I sang, ‘Come and Get These Memories.’ It’s the same to me. It still has a special part in my heart. There’s a point in the song ‘(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave’ that I actually get a little light-headed because of the words and spirit in the song. All of the songs have a special meaning, which is why I can’t choose a favorite. I love singing, and I love the fact we made music that everybody has embraced all these years. Fifty-two years now, people are still with it and enjoying it. They’re singing along and dancing along to our sound.
Corey: I don’t think you really hear love songs like that anymore.
Martha: I wish we did because somehow we came up loving, and I think the world needs more compassion. We would all get along better if we could sing songs like, ‘You Are the Sunshine of My Life’ or ‘My Girl,’ ‘My Guy,’ ‘(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave,’ ‘My Baby Loves Me,’ I could go on.
Corey: When did you get passionate about politics?
Martha: My Dad worked for the city of Detroit as a laborer. He had a dedication to the city. We’re from Alabama. My mother and father came here with three of us: Thomas, Benny and myself, about 11 months old. Dad had a special dedication to the city of Detroit. He felt at home here. I watched it grow. Dad had the dedication of getting up any time they called him to go fix broken water mains.
When business got a little slow, I had some time on my hands, and I looked around in the city to figure out what was missing. There’s memorabilia that should be there. There should be signs and posters and statues, saying ‘This is where the Motown sound was made,’ like other cities I had traveled in. There was also a need for a spokesperson for the people. A lot of times it takes a person who is not a politician to understand the needs of the people. I voted for the people. I thought I was a politician. I felt very helpful. There are some ordinances that are on the books that I introduced. I also got a secondary street name for West Grand Blvd. Berry Gordy Jr. is now also posted as a secondary name. I feel good about and fell more in love with the city after being a politician for four years.
Corey: What was one of the most challenging things you faced when you were on city council?
Martha: Being scrutinized. I had an investigative reporter follow me. As a matter of fact, one showed up at The Rrazz Room, to my embarrassment. He wondered why I was in San Francisco having so much fun while Detroit was suffering an economic crisis. I had to let him know we were on recess, and there wasn’t much I could do about the economic crisis. There’s one all over the world. I’m just one of nine, and as we vote, we’ll try and make decisions that will help the city. I was having a good time performing my music. Everybody knows I’m a professional entertainer. Singing is my first love and my first life. He kind of went away. That was one of the obstacles. I was glad I was able to answer him and send him away.
Corey: Are you getting excited about the election?
Martha: Yes, and I know in my heart that the right vote will be made. I know in my heart. We have come a long way. The first time I felt like this, the United States was actually united. It took us all to vote him in. I’m speaking of our beloved President Obama.
Corey: Are there any female singers you enjoy following today?
Martha: I don’t follow anyone (laughs). Sorry. I got a feeling that because I’m from the ’60s, a lot of female vocalists have followed me. My mom was my first idol. She taught me to sing. She insisted I sing things right and sing them from my heart. I followed that rule most of my career to always do the best you can at first so you don’t have to apologize or do it over. That is one of her mottos that has given me wonderful songs and wonderful opportunities.


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