Gig preview: Martha and the Vandellas at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds

Martha Reeves

Martha Reeves

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Martha Reeves is about to pay her sixth visit to Britain this year and the former Motown singer, famed for the ageless Dancing in the Street, sounds over the moon.

“It’s always a thrill to play in the UK, I feel like I’m at home when I play there, I don’t care who knows it,” says the 73-year-old star who’s still based in Detroit, Michigan, the ‘Motor City’ which gave her one-time record label its name.

“I’ve been coming to the UK for 55 years now. I know my way around. I see people again and again, they have a fellowship with me, they make me feel so swell.”

She remembers the days of the Wigan Casino with fondness (“2am to daylight, partying to Northern Soul”) and, further back, to the Mods and Rockers (“I was a member of both sides – I’ve got a scooter club following, I recently signed a Fender and I own a flag and a plaque”).

“When I venture to the UK I come home, I feel good about performing, my music is well known, it’s often played in the UK, people know it, they come out and support me – I owe them for it. They make me smile, I’m grinning with joy.”

Born in Alabama, the third of 11 children, Martha Reeves moved to Detroit when she was less than a year old. Her grandfather, Elijah, was a minister in the city’s Metropolitan Church and the Reeves family were active churchgoers.

She recalls that she “started singing as soon as I could walk” and being rewarded with candy which she would refused to share with her older brother Thomas and Benny “if they were not nice to me”.

Reeves’ mother, Ruby, taught her “how to retain lyrics” and she “fell in love with poetry and prose” as a child.

“It was a nice family to be in,” she says. “There were 11 children. We did not have a television, we entertained each other with our songs.”

Reeves went to church three times a week. “There was choir rehearsal and I was on the usher board and I would teach in Sunday school.” She also sang at high school.

Education remains important. “I recently received a doctorate in humanities and a masters in religious studies,” she says. “I’m continually learning now.”

Reeves was working by day in a dry cleaners and performing at night in clubs as a jazz and blues singer when she was spotted by Motown A&R man Mickey Stevenson and invited to audition.

She turned up the next day at Hitsville USA, the label’s studio and offices. “It was a house with a hand-painted sign on it that belonged to a middle class family by the name of Berry Gordy Jr. Berry Gordy Snr was putting boards together to make the basement soundproof.”

Though as it turned out she’d turned up on the wrong day (“they only did auditions on Thursday”), Stevenson offered offered Reeves as job. “I was the the first woman allowed in the artist and repertoire department,” she says.

She got “right in the mix” and her parents quickly realised their 21-year-old daughter had found her niche.

Over the next three months she sang and did handclaps on demo records, paying close attention to working methods of the Hitsville USA team of producers and writers. The label also had its own artist development department, that taught performers deportment (“class, self-esteem and dignity”) as well as music theory and choreography.

With her backing group the Vandellas, Reeves began making records and in 1963 hit the charts with Come and Get These Memories, (Love is Like a) Heatwave and Quicksand.

Her worldwide breakthrough came the following year with Dancing in the Street. Fifty years on, it remains her signature tune. Reeves is quick to correct the story that she first heard a demo recording of the song by one of its co-writers, Marvin Gaye, then a session drummer. “I did not hear a demo, I heard him sing it at night. I’d finished classes at artist development and went to Studio A. I’d always admired him. I watched him singing this in a melancholy way. It was so smooth, he made it sound romantic.

“He told his co-writers Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Hunter, who was a great producer, ‘Hey man, let’s try this song on Martha’. I was overwhelmed, when I sang it I practically knew it, I sang it the way I felt it – that difference was what you heard on the record.”

She has since sung the song to two US Presidents – Bill Clinton and Barack Obama – the latter as part of a Motown revue. “I sang Dancing in the Street for the President,” she smiles. “It was wonderful.”

Martha and the Vandellas play at the Brudenell Social Club on Sunday December 21.

Sam Airey. Picture: Tom Martin

Music interview: Singer songwriter Sam Airey on his album launch at Brudenell Social Club, Leeds