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Martha Reeves was three spoonfuls into her chicken noodle soup at the Wheel Inn in St. Johns two Wednesdays ago when a woman walked into the dining room.
“The owner told me you were here. Oh, I can’t wait till I tell my sister,” the woman said. Her voice broke and tears were in her eyes.
Reeves gave her a hug. “Where’s your camera?” she asked. “Everybody has a camera.”
Yes, that Martha Reeves, of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, the most buoyant of the girl groups of the Motown era, the honey-sauce voice that sang some of the 1960s’ greatest hits: “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave,” “Jimmy Mack,” “Nowhere to Run” and the unofficial anthem of Motown, “Dancing in the Streets.”
Reeves will sing all of these and songs from her gospel roots at the William E. Tennant Performance Shell in St. Johns City Park Wednesday (July 18) — her 77th birthday.
She was in St. Johns June 27 to meet a local friend, Tim Black, along with a few city officials and arts council people. That night, she sang an impromptu gig with her brother, Benny, at the Lansing VFW.
“He’s the better singer of the two of us,” Reeves said, nodding toward Benny. “He sang with Motown before I did.”
“Mmmm,” Benny said, in the same cavernous bass that provided the “bum, bum, bum, bum” at the end of the Contours’ biggest hit, “Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance).”
Reeves was born July 18, 1941, in Eufala, Alabama, but her family moved to Detroit when she was a baby.
“We grew up on the east side, near the Pepsi bottling Company on Russell and Mack, near Eastern Market,” she said.
William Tennant, director of the St. Johns summer concert series, retired music teacher and namesake of the band shell, sat across from Reeves.
“I was 7 Mile, between Woodward and John R,” Tennant said.
“Oh, west side,” Reeves shot back. “If you wanted to get beat up, just cross over. They’d be waiting on you. We call that the good old days.”
She took a spoonful of soup. “Do you still have music in your schools?” she asked Tennant.
“Oh, yes, orchestra, band and choir,” he replied.
She nodded in approval. “But for school, I would not be a singer,” Reeves said. “I got most of my experience and training in public schools.”
Her soup got colder as she warmed to her favorite subject: music.
“The first people I heard sing gospel were my brother and the Motor City Travelers,” she said. “I learned harmony by standing at the door. They’d tell me to go away. I was about 12.”
“And we were 15,” Benny said. She tore her dinner roll in half. “Our dad worked for the city and usually had hurt hands,” she said. “But when his hands weren’t hurting, he’d take that guitar off the wall and he would play for us all evening. We dared not touch his guitar.”
She credited her mother with keeping her focused and grounded.
“She told me never to sing a song unless I could feel it,” she said.
One memorable night, Reeves was sitting in the living room with her family, gathered around the radio as usual, when her first hit, “Come and Get These Memories,” came on.
“I jumped up and started running around and screaming,” she recalled. “Mama said, ‘Sit down and stop acting so crazy.’ She told me when the light goes out, go off stage. Be excited about the business, but be cool, come down to earth.”
Maybe that explains why, despite her vivid red dress and star aura, Reeves seemed totally content to hold court in a St. Johns diner, basking in the admiring gaze of city manager Jon Stoppels, sitting next to her.
“I spent 56 years of my life doing this,” she said. “I find that a lot of people think I should be different, but I’m not. I’m easy going, easy to find. I’m not a recluse.”
Reeves gladly leads tours of the Motown Museum at 2648 W. Grand Blvd., telling stories like this: One day, a secretary went to the ladies’ room to reinforce her beehive hairdo with even more hairspray. When she lit a cigarette, her hair caught fire. Fortunately, Stevie Wonder grabbed a coat and put it out.
Reeves started at Motown in 1960, after winning a prize in an amateur singing contest: a three-night gig at Detroit’s 20 Grand club.
“It was the biggest club in the city, big names played there,” she said. “Count Basie, Chuck Jackson, Lena Horne, everybody.”
“It was a bowling alley,” Benny deadpanned.
“It did have a bowling alley and a motel, but it wasn’t a bowling alley,” Reeves shot back. She closed her eyes and put herself there. “They had four rooms: the bowling alley, the Gold Room, the Driftwood Lounge, and the Fireside Lounge, where we could go and take our shoes off and have sock hops and introduce our records.”
Reeves started as a receptionist at Motown, but when after filling in for Mary Wells at a recording session and backing Marvin Gaye on “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” she quickly became one of the biggest stars of Berry Gordy’s Hitsville, USA.
“Matters of the heart are usually forgotten and Berry Gordy really loved Detroit,” Reeves said. “He made over 30 people famous with his own money, in his house, turned it into a multimillion-dollar business.”
After stopping in St. Johns, Reeves was off to California to sing with another Motown legend, the Supremes’ Mary Wilson in a “Legendary Ladies” concert. Then she was off to Brixton, England, for the Fourth of July. Reeves and Motown are idolized by a fanatical Northern Soul fanbase in England.
“It’s my life, and I like it that way,” she said. “I prayed real hard to be a singer and God blessed me with it.”
As the lunch broke up, Reeves’ friend, Tim Black, reminded her of a rehearsal coming up with Jack Clarkson and the band, a stellar mix of local and out-of-town musicians that includes James Williams, stalwart bassist for Root Doctor; violinist Rodney Page of Detroit; singer/keyboard player Kathy Ford and her saxophone player, Mocha James Waller.
Benny Reeves, a longtime Navy veteran, will add his velvety battleship of a larynx to the mix as well.
“Poor Jack is nervous as all get out,” Black said.
“And you are too,” Reeves said. “Bringing you here is scary, a star of your magnitude,” Black pleaded.
“Slow down, junior.”
Martha Reeves in concert
7 p.m. Wed., July 18 William E. Tennant Performance Shell St. Johns City Park 804 W. Park St., St. Johns Free