Backstage with Ron Onesti:
Martha Reeves is still “Dancin’ In the Street”
“Put your toe on the ‘Motown Line’ and point it toward the camera … It will straighten your body out.” I immediately abided by this directive given me by Motown legend Martha Reeves.
I went down to the dressing rooms to meet Reeves before her show with her almighty “Vandellas” at The Arcada and our photographer followed me inside. Before I got to speak with her, she took my hand and “helped” me pose for a photo with her.
She was in a long, sultry gown, a throwback to those glamorous days of the Supremes, the Shirelles, the Crystals, the Ronettes and of course, Martha and her girls. She is as classy and beautiful as ever, with over 60 years in the business behind her.
And what a show it was! As many of the “heritage” acts hit 50-plus years performing, it would be most understandable for the entertainers themselves to pull back a bit on their shows, slowing down and not risking a broken hip! But not these girls! Flanked by her real-life sisters, Lois and Delphine Reeves, Martha gave a “physical” 100 minutes of hits, behind the scenes stories and just plain showbiz glory — the stuff true legends are made of.
Immediately after the show, as if she had not given the roaring crowd enough of her soul, she barely took a relaxing breath before she and her sisters ventured off to the lobby where the performers met every fan. It made me chuckle a bit as I thought of many artists, many years her junior, who are in “traction” after their shows as they are held up in their dressing room, complaining about a 10-person meet-and-greet.
When it was all over, she reminded me how I promised to take her upstairs to show her our new Club Arcada Speakeasy & Showroom on the third floor of the theater. “Where is this lady getting her energy?” I asked myself!
She marveled at the various rooms, fully stretching out on one of the unique couches in the Charlie Chaplin “Little Tramp” Room. As we continued the tour, passing the Gatsby Room, she practically ran to our main stage in the “Fred & Ginger Ballroom.”
“I want to perform on this stage,” she proclaimed. As we both sat on the stage for a couple of photos, she saw the “Jean Harlow Marquee Room” and jumped up to venture into the VIP experience for two to six guests.
The next 90 minutes were magical. It was her and I, her two sisters and about a half a dozen friends, all cozy in the Harlow Room. She told stories, generously spending time with us, and holding nothing back. I referenced the “toe-pointing lesson” I received from her earlier and she said: “Oh, Mrs. Powell taught me that. She taught me everything about class and elegance, and how to be a star.”
Martha was referring to Maxine Powell, artist development director for Motown from 1964-1969. Although Powell was only with the label for five years, she was instrumental in the careers of so many superstars from that Golden Age in Detroit City.
“We were just neighborhood kids with no real guidance for that sort of thing,” Martha said. “Diana Ross lived around the block and Smokey (Robinson) lived up the street. Mrs. Powell was like our auntie. She was only 5 feet tall, but she was tough, sweet and classy, all at the same time.”
Motown was the only label with a “finishing school,” as they called it, where artists were instructed on stage presence, public speaking and other elements of performance elegance.
“What’s a Vandella?” I asked. “Well, I was actually born in Alabama, but by the time I was a year old, we moved to Detroit, to Van Dyke Street,” Reeves said. “I come from a family of eleven kids, and we were church-goin’ and gospel singin’. My idol was another Detroit girl who would sing at our church, Della Reese. This singing thing all happened pretty fast, so I had to come up with a name quickly, so I combined the street where I lived with Della’s name!”
Martha went on to tell me how she was discovered by Motown exec William Stevenson, who saw Reeves perform in a local club. He gave her his card and she showed up at “Hitsville U.S.A.” offices the very next day. “It was a Tuesday, and auditions were held on Thursdays, so Mr. Stevenson had me tidy up the office and take some phone calls,” she said. “Oh, so you started as a secretary,” I said. “Oh no, honey, I was a singer who could type,” Martha quickly corrected me.
So she wound up handling several of the business functions for the label, from arranging auditions to making sure a young Stevie Wonder stayed out of mischief. Once in a while, she would sing backup for performers along with the house band, the Funk Brothers. Berry Gordy noticed her powerful voice and offered her a contract. She was one of Marvin Gaye’s original backup singers, and the two formed a close, personal friendship.
Martha was not shy about professing her undying love for Gaye, a star whose life ended tragically from a bullet shot by a trigger pulled by his father.
Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ string of hits included “Come and Get These Memories,” “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave,” “Quicksand,” “Nowhere to Run,” “Jimmy Mack,” “Bless You” and “Dancing in the Street,” the latter song becoming their signature single and a Motown anthem. During their nine-year run on the charts from 1963 to 1972, Martha and the Vandellas charted 26 hits. The group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, becoming the second all-female group to do so. They won a Grammy in 1999, and “Dancing in the Street” was inducted to the Grammy Hall of Fame that same year.
Two of their singles, “(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave” and “Dancing in the Street,” were included in the list of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.” In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the group No. 96 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.
“Dancing in the Street” was covered several times including a 1982 live recording by rock band Van Halen and a 1985 duet by rockers David Bowie and Mick Jagger (one of my favorites!). “I wasn’t thrilled with the song in the beginning,” she said. “I wanted to dance in clubs, not in the street! I had enough of the streets in those early days!”
As we ended the long night of music and memories, I could not help think about that young, bright-eyed girl, singing in a church in Detroit, working at a local cleaners, not knowing what was in store for her. She became a pioneer of that legendary “Motown Sound,” and to this day preaches the gospel of music.
Reeves is a marvelous lady, with a true gift and a heart of gold. An American treasure she is, and as anyone in her audience will attest, they are the lucky ones to experience rock history the good old-fashioned way — with class, elegance and electricity.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.