open Vault

WGBH Media Library and Archives

Interview with Martha Reeves [Part 1 of 2]

  • Cite

Summary
Interview with Martha Reeves [Part 1 of 2]
Topics
Reeves, Martha, Rock and Roll, Singer, Motown
Tags (0)
Add Tag Add Annotation

Transcript

:

Interviewer:
Since we're sitting here in the Fox Theater, tell me about the first time you performed here, what you were doing and what that was like?
Reeves:
I don't even have recollections of my very first time here because between the years of 1962 and 1972 we frequented this place as much as much as we did probably the Hitsville USA Building. We were here mostly every Thanksgiving, every Easter, every Christmas. I remember six shows a day at one time, a five day week engagement or sometimes ten days, all depends on how long the holiday was. And we've had lines around the corner and fond memories right here in the Fox. One of my fondest memories however is the day that the riots broke out here, I was actually on stage and someone was standing in the wings of the, at, by the curtain waving to me furiously and I didn't know what the occasion was and it never happened before where your show was interrupted. So I said, - wait just a minute to the audience and then went to the edge of the stage and was told that there was a riot and to tell everyone to go home because there had been a curfew placed on Detroit. The, there were fires everywhere and to see if we could get the people here and it was jam packed, to get them to quietly leave in a, in a conducted manner and, ah, I made the, the speech. It was quite a, a task. I didn't want that kind of responsibility ever in my life but I was faced with it - I think I handled it very well, by the grace of God, I did manage to get everybody to walk out quietly. And, ah, we all had to get to our families and to our homes and secure ourselves because there was Pandemonium all over the City of Detroit.
Interviewer:
Did the riots in '67 was that a turning point for what was happening at Motown and the feeling and relationship between Motown and the City of Detroit?
Reeves:
No, it didn't have any affect at, at all on Motown. Ah, our entry into the music business here in Detroit had gotten us a well-respected position, ah, the riots had nothing to do with our music. And, ah, the mere fact that we were all gathered here at the Fox Theater, one of the biggest theaters in Detroit it was necessary that they used whoever was on stage and at that time it was a Motown review and I was the elected one. I remember Jimmy Mack was, had just been released and I was anxious to sing it but I never got to sing it because we had to ask the audience to leave.
Interviewer:
Jumping back in time and ask you about your childhood.
Reeves:
My book will be released August 11th and it has, it has full stories about my childhood, about my first days at Motown, my actually being a secretary there and, ah, how I evolved from a clerical position to a actual singing position which was my intentions in the first place.
Interviewer:
Tell me about your childhood and singing in the church and how that got you going musically.
Reeves:
Okay, ahm, my mom and dad were mu., musical. Dad played guitar and his favorite music was the blues and mom also sang and her idol was Billie Holiday. So I remember, the first recollections of my mom was this caramel colored woman who kind of walked with a rhythm. She was slightly pigeon-toed so she always gave the appearance of look, of liking stepping on her own toes. And, ah, there were 12 children born to Elijah and Ruby Reeves; I'm the third child and the first girl. And I can remember her putting me in my cutest dress, standing me on a table and encouraging me by saying - sing it baby, but at night singing to us and teaching us songs: church songs, popular songs, jazz songs. So I have a musical background. And as a child I won candy at the age of 3 with my two older brothers in church, we won chocolate covered cherries for being the best ones on the, the talent show and my first applause, my first audience. And I knew then that I had a talent. In the good old days we didn't have television. So when we visited each other's houses the children were the show. And I've been asked on occasion to do that song that mama taught you. I've been put on coffee tables and told to shake your boody baby like mama taught you and she kind of gave me the inspiration to be a performer. She still does. She still tells me what to do. I lost my dad in '83 but I have fond memories of him taking his guitar down off the wall and singing - "Good Evening Little School Girl" just for me.
Interviewer:
In the sixties, the music coming out of Motown and Chicago, there was a lot of gospel influence in the popular music at that time. Were you aware of that happening and was Sam Cooke an influence on you and were you aware of him becoming a secular singer?
Reeves:
I was, ah, taken to church as a young child four or five times a week, my grandfather being the minister of our Methodist church. And, ah, I knew about Aretha Franklin when I was about 8 years old. I don't know how old she was 'cause as the records show I'm a bit older than she is but I remember her singing a song called "Never Grow Old" and she was my first inspiration that, as a child, that I could even be a recording artist. She later switched to secular music which was alright with me because I have closely associate rhythm and blues with gospel music. I don't know anyone in show business who didn't start in the church even Tom Jones has a church background, a religious background. I think God gives everyone the talent and it's up to you to take it wherever you'd like for it to go. However, in my music I can place my religion along with the lyrics. Everything I sing I could always place God in it. My songs have been about love and it's about happy time and good times. And if there was a heartbreak there was always the hope in the song. So I've kind of have to had that in a rule that I wouldn't sing anything that I couldn't put my religion or my God or Jesus in.
Interviewer:
Were you aware of Sam Cooke as a singing idol who led the Soul Stirrers into recording …
Reeves:
My brother Benny was the first singer in my family, my oldest brother and he had a group called the Motor City Travelers. They used to tear the churches up singing songs that they copied from records that mom would play by Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers, the Five Blind Boys, the Pilgrim Travelers, the Dixie Hummingbirds. And I used to emulate Shir… Shirley Caesar when she was with the Caravans. I could go on and on. Haley Jackson always makes me cry. Our house was filled with their music and Same Cooke was as much a part of our family as anyone could be, through his recordings. My brother Thomas would sing lead on the Sam Cooke songs.
Interviewer:
Any sense in your family or among people you know that Sam Cooke was somehow selling out when he left the gospel ranks to record ...
Reeves:
No because Sam's music, some of the songs that he sang were actually church songs with lyrics rewritten. He's always been one of God's favorite vocalists to me and I didn't think the switch in lyrics had anything to do with his spirit or the same, he gave the same effect, input in the music, ah, regardless of what the lyrics were. He always, you always knew that he was that guy who sang in the Soul Stirrers. I think he kept his talent about the same register. There was no change in his voice or delivery from gospel to secular music.
Interviewer:
Let's skip ahead to when you were with Motown and you were one of the performers that went out in that first Motortown Review. Tell me what it was like on that crowded bus and all those one nighters and your first experience in the South.
Reeves:
There was a difference in the city born and raised artists and the ones like myself who were born in the South. I was born in Eufaula, Alabama and brought here at the age of 11 months old but every summer we went South to visit my grandparents farm. So I had a city life and I had a country life. Most of the people on that tour had migrated here with their families from the South. There were a few who were surprised at how things were done in the South. There were a lot of restaurants that we went in, we had to actually go in the back door and have cold hot chocolate and cold hot dogs and that's all that we were served. I've seen the different fountains they refused to drink if it was a white and black fountain but I knew about them before because of my experiences, you know, living on my grandparent's farm for two months every summer. Ah, they were very surprised how hatred and prejudice, ah, kind of engulfed our relationships there but it changed once the music started. I have been in front of a Confederate flag on stage with it in back of me and watch a segregated audience integrate with the music and not know where they were sitting when the music started. Once the show got involved everybody forgot their hatred and Motown's music made a marriage. I, I've seen that happen. When you say, clap your hands, everybody clapped their hands. When we say, get up and dance, everybody got up and danced. And the prejudice and the hatred was forgotten, at least during show time. They would get back on the bus and we were denied entrance into a lot of the hotels. I have to accredit the Holiday Inn chain of being the first real hotel people to let us occupy their hotels. Always make it a point, if I have a choice, I chose Holiday Inn.
Interviewer:
At the time of that first tour it was the first time that a lot of these acts had been out performing.
Reeves:
Or traveled anywhere, they had never been away from home.
Interviewer:
By the time you came back home you must have all been much better performers.
Reeves:
The Motown Review, the fir., very first one was 94 one nighters. That's three months of living on a bus. Out of those 94 one nighters we had about three hotels stays. So it was actually sitting on that crowded bus with a 12 piece band and 8 or 9 acts, Little Stevie Wonder and, ah, who is now not little anymore. But he was our only child on the bus and he kept everybody excited.
Interviewer:
Go through who some of the performers were and how they must have matured and come together as acts.
Some of the performers and matured on this tour.
Reeves:
The day in, in, ah… The day in October that the bus actually pulled off we had a meeting, Berry was there, Mr. Gordy was there, Thomas Beans Bowles who's idea this whole tour was, was there of course and he also rode on the tour, he went along with everybody to make sure that things were carried. The artists who had hit records at that time and had world recognition were the Miracles, the Marvelettes and Mary Wells. Everyone else was an unknown. We had just had a _____ _____ ___ released and singing behind Marvin Gaye on "Stubborn Kind of Fellow", "Hitch Hike", "Pride and Joy". He was riding the crest of a, of a hit but not really there yet. And after, I think we introduced Kim Weston, the Contours, the Temptations were singing backup for Mary Wells that's before David Ruffin had joined the group. And, ah, we had, ah, I think that the, the list of artists. When we came back after those three months everybody record had hit. It's amazing how fast Motown grew. I was only a secretary there for nine months by the end of that nine months everybody was famous. Everybody had a record out. And I never looked back. I gave my job to three girls from secretarial college and I never looked back. We had a, a wonderful reception. It was amazing to go to different cities and find so many people who knew our music, who had actually heard the records and had waited to see us. And I'm still friends with a lot of those people that we met on that first tour, people were friendlier then, they loved more and they supported you even more than they do today. And we made good, a good impression because of Mr. Beans Bowles idea to put us all on a bus and have us tour.
Interviewer:
That tour ended at the Apollo.
Reeves:
It didn't end… it didn't end there… we went through there.
Interviewer:
That must have been one of the high points.
Reeves:
I, I remember going to the Apollo and being frightened out of my mind because there was this gentleman there by the name of Honey Cole from the Cole and Atkins dance team, a lot of people remember him from his movies that he made just before his demise. But he scared us. He was standing backstage, this tall, genius, he looked like a wizard, walked up to us and said, you little Hasta Street girls better get back to Detroit, if you're not good they're going to throw bottles and, and vegetables at you. I know two guys in the second row with lettuce just waiting if you're not good but you got time now to back out and go home. And he scared us so bad until we thought about it. But once we got on stage and sang - "Come And Get These Memories" they received us so well until I knew if you could make it at the Apollo you could make it anywhere.
Interviewer:
Marvin Gaye supposedly has had a problem with stage fright and being shy but to see him out in that show at the Apollo in '62, he's really getting down, it's hard to imagine. Is that right? Was it hard for him to perform?
Reeves:
Marvin always reminded me of, ah, Sam Cooke in a way because the way he looked and the way he sang, they had similar tender qualities about their voices to me, that's a personal opinion. And, ah, he's always been the kind of guy that you had to kind of watch after. If left on his own, he wouldn't have gone on stage so you had to go and check his dressing room from time to time and encourage him to either prepare that his time would be soon or to, come on Marvin, let's get on stage. We sang backup offstage for him a lot. And once in a while we'd go on stage with him but the majority of times he was left on his own. By the time we had arrived at the Apollo and that footage was made that we're so proud of, with all of us, our very first time at the Apollo, we had practiced with Marvin and we had taught him to do a few dance moved and we'd also encouraged him to open his eyes because he had the habit of singing with his eyes closed, basically because he's shy. And he has, he had like an abundance of talent and it was slowly discovered by the world but we knew that he was a genius. I did, personally, because he was one of the guys on my roster as the NR secretary. When we couldn't get Benny Benjamin for a session we called Marvin Gaye, I didn't know he was a singer. And later on when his background was revealed to me he had sang as a gospel in a gospel group. His father is a minister and Harvey Fuqua had had him also in a group and brought him to Motown. He had taken a job as a drummer and worked as a road drummer for Smokey Robinson. They toured a, a lot with this guy on drums who wore this straw hat on his head, kept a pipe, pipe in his mouth and wore these dark glasses, he wouldn't let you see his face. And then once he was discovered it was like a male Cinderella story, here comes this beautiful guy with all this talent and he shared it with the world.
Interviewer:
You mentioned Benny Benjamin, let's talk about the Funk Brothers especially that rhythm section. Do you think they were the basis of what is called the Motown sound, specifically talking about Benny Benjamin and James.
Reeves:
I think the, the Funk Brothers who were first labeled the Greasies, this is the story I got from Errol Jones the drummer, ah, because they were all overweight, Earl being the heaviest he topped the scale at 250. Ah, they were the unsung heroes of Motown. Had it not been for them none of that beautiful music would have ever been recorded.
Interviewer:
Back up on this, the importance of the Funk Brothers rhythm section to the Motown sound.
Reeves:
These were jazz musicians. The Funk Brothers were jazz musicians who, William Stevenson was my boss, Micky Stevenson went and handpicked the best of jazz musicians and kept them in the studio. They are not the guys who toured with us. These guys could not travel. James Jamison specifically could not leave Detroit. Billy Benjamin did travel a little bit with Mary Wells being the Motown drummer and the inventor of all the fine drum licks and pickups and, and, turnarounds that you hear on our sessions and on our music. He, that's, that's his trademark, that's his style that we all were glorified with. They were excellent musicians who left music that I have yet found musicians who can emulate or imitate or duplicate their skill and expertise. Ah, I find it very difficult to get the sound that James Jamison had on that upright bass on our early recordings from anyone with a Fender in their hands. Ah, he had a touch and he also gave us notes. Unlike the bass players of the day they'll give you sound because of all the woofers and tweeters and fuzz boxes and things they can click on at their toes. But Benny Benjamin spoiled us rotten by giving us notes to actually sing to and bass lines…
Interviewer:
James Jamison, you said how he gave you notes to work with.
Reeves:
Yes, James Jamison was a bass player who played an upright bass. And it's really difficult to get new bass players with their Fenders to give us notes, now you get tones and sound and they even pluck and pull at strings, something James would never have done and they allowed us to be heard, the Motown sound would never had happened had the musicians not been the skillful guys that they were and the tasty jazz musicians that they were because they allowed us to be heard. They played special things where you could fit your vocals in just like they fitted their music together. ____ was sharing with me after Earl, Earl's passing that they played so well together until they didn't even have to look at one another, everyone knew its place musically and gave each other the respect to play along. And that's the reason for the Motown sound. That's the reason for the real grooves that we had and still maintain our music because of the Funk Brothers.
Interviewer:
Being jazz musicians, did they have trouble with this simpler music when they first started recording at Motown?
Reeves:
I think they took it seriously to the point where they, ah, the music is not simple. It sounds as if it's easy to do and it sounds simple but it's not. And you'll only know that when you ask a band to play it. The hardest thing in the world is to get a bass player who can play "Nowhere To Run" that's one of James' masterpiece if you ask me. And, ah, I can't do "My Baby Loves Me" if the bass player can't read. That's one of James Jamison's inventions. They would give him a chord sheet, all the musicians had chord sheets. And it was their ingenuity and their expertise to add the lines that they did. I think James studied at home and once he was approached with a session, he'd figure out something that he had invented at home and he'd lend it to the Motown sound. He never got compensated any more than anyone else. As a matter of fact the Funk Brothers I think were getting, when I was secretary, getting five dollars a session. And the new year came in and then it boosted up to twelve dollars a session. But imagine having played on a song like "Shop Around".
Interviewer:
The other big piece of the Motown sound is HDH, one of your their first hits was your "Come Get … Tell me how it was working with them? Maybe you could describe the three of them and how they divided up the work.
Reeves:
My first arrival at Motown in the A and R department. I was given a card by William Stevenson at the 20 Grand and asked to come to Motown for an audition. I had a job at the Citywide Cleaners and I was moonlighting by being Martha Lavaille on the weekends, this is in between groups, the Delphis had broken up and I know that I had…
Enter the timecode: