Making Music in the Motor City In the 1960s Motown was king, and music coming out of Detroit topped the charts for a decade. But after the riots in 1967, many musicians left for the West Coast. Martha Reeves, former lead singer of the Motown group Martha and the Vandellas, talks about her decision to stay put.
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Making Music in the Motor City

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Making Music in the Motor City

Making Music in the Motor City

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(Soundbite of song "Heat Wave")

MARTHA and the VANDELLAS (Singers): (Singing) Whenever I'm with him, something inside starts to burnin' and I'm filled with desire. Could it be the devil in me, or this is the way love's supposed to be? Just like a heat wave. Burning in my heart. I can't keep from crying…


Is there a better sound in the whole world than hearing that in the summertime?

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: When you're sitting in Detroit, Michigan, no less. The year, the year was 1963. "Heat Wave" was number one in the R&B singles charts. Martha and the Vandellas was a household name, and the Motown sound became a force to be reckoned with.

Then, the violence in 1967 in Detroit caused many of the hit makers to pack up and move - not Martha Reeves. She was the lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: And the Detroit audience knows this, but people around the country may not know that she now serves on the city council right here in Detroit.

Ms. MARTHA REEVES (Singer): Thank you.

GONYEA: If you have questions for Martha Reeves about the legacy of Motown, the influence Martha and the Vandellas had on you, or about her plans for the city as a member of the city council, give us a call. Our number is 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is and you can comment on our blog at

Martha Reeves is with us here. They've already heard you and we are playing, we call it the bumper music. It's the little music that a lot of stations cover up to do local announcements.

Ms. REEVES: Yeah.

GONYEA: And you were singing opera while (unintelligible) something. And then started dancing when you heard "Heat Wave." I take it you're not tired of that part.

Ms. REEVES: I could feel this young, as I was when I recorded it, whenever I hear it. So I love our music, and Barry(ph) did inscribe in our logo that it was the sound of young America. And it's true. It's like a fountain of youth. Anytime I want to feel young, I'll just put on of some of our music and I'll perform.

And we do perform. You know, city council is my second job.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: And it's still the sound of young America. I mean, okay, it's not hip-hop, it's not rap, but I don't know any kids who don't like that.

Ms. REEVES: Well, we've been declared by Smithsonian Institute as our own special folklore, so it's the sound of young America made in Detroit.

GONYEA: We're hearing Detroit on the 40th anniversary week of…

Ms. REEVES: Here comes my teacher, Professor Maxine Powell for Motown Records. I asked her to join me here. She's responsible for all of the talent at Motown…

GONYEA: Making an entrance in a…

Ms. REEVES: …having dignity in the class.

GONYEA: …blue dress in the back.

Ms. REEVES: Yes.

GONYEA: Lovely.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. REEVES: Professor Maxine Powell.

GONYEA: Martha, when the riot started in Detroit, you've been quoted as saying a roar went up in the city of Detroit. And you're actually on stage performing at the time? Did you - I mean, the riots happened like three, four in the morning, but it built over days. Did you make an announcement? Was there an announcement?

Ms. REEVES: May I be candid? I'd like to let you know what's been happening, since we are celebrating the 40th anniversary of something that I don't think needed to be celebrated. But we're bringing it back to our remembrance, and I try it my best to forget because it was an eerie feeling being onstage and being called to the side and asked to speak to the audience, have them leave in a quiet manner, not to a stampede like some things have caused; some panic have been caused in different theaters, and people have lost their lives.

But to go back to an audience, anticipate and hear us sing our new hit record "Jimmy Mack." It was played all over the world and we get Reggie(ph) introduce it to our audience right here in Detroit, where we raised and born. And our music first hit in Detroit and then it spread all over the United States. But we're getting ready to sing this hit record, and somebody, Robin Seymour, I think - anybody remember Robin Seymour?

GONYEA: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Robin Seymour, for those of you around the country, was perhaps the Detroit disc jockey here. He got a TV show called "Swinging Time."

Ms. REEVES: "Swinging Time." We'd go there most Saturdays and perform on "Swinging Time." Anyway, he called me at the side of the stage and he said you got to go and tell the people that they got to leave. There's a riot broken out and there's a curfew. And then, I heard the sirens. It wasn't in my mind. I was onstage singing our hit music and loving every minute of it with a full audience.

But then, they said you got to tell everybody to leave. And I was able to do that. And since this anniversary has started, I think I've done quite a few interviews and we've always - also been featured in the Wall Street Journal. And I was asking my friends of my generation, how did it start and what was the reason for this uproar? And I was reminded of the four gentlemen who we referred to as the big four, who still ride around in this big (unintelligible) …

GONYEA: And these were police officers?

Ms. REEVES: These are police officers.

GONYEA: White police officers.

Ms. REEVES: White police officers - never black one - and they'd ride in the black neighborhood and the only thing that they saw was the color of the skin and they'd arrest our men. And I think it came to a hit when maybe three days prior of this performance at the Fox Theater, there was a rumor of an arrest on the corner of 12th and Clairmount, I was told. There was a blind pig being raided, and there was a crowd standing around as people were being put into a what you call the Black Mariah, and one of the policeman supposedly had kicked one of the women being put into one of the vehicles, and the standbyers started to riot.

GONYEA: You were already a working musician, obviously, already a star by then…

Ms. REEVES: Yes.

GONYEA: …with all the things holds on.

Ms. REEVES: Hoping to be a star.

GONYEA: All right, and you watched a lot of folks - other great musicians and eventually Motown Records leave town.

Ms. REEVES: Yes.

GONYEA: Why are you still here?

Ms. REEVES: Because I love the city, my family is here, my legacy is here, my alumni are here. We celebrate Miller High School as well as Northeastern High School every year in August, and I wouldn't be anywhere else. I live a little while in…

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Did you ever think maybe I'd be better off going to Los Angeles, maybe I should go some - to some other music center as an exodus started from Detroit?

Ms. REEVES: Yes. I stayed here - I moved away a couple of times. I lived in New York for about 24 hours…

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: That was enough.

Ms. REEVES: …and then 14 years in Los Angeles. I tried, because when you're in New York and when you're in Los Angeles, you're on television all the time because they don't have to pay your transportation. And you know that's…

GONYEA: In fact…

Ms. REEVES: …that's the trick of the trade. If you're a local, they'll use on some of the TV shows, and I've done some great shows living in Los Angeles. But here in Detroit, it's where we were made and this where, as a city councilperson, I intend before I leave this Earth to have monuments, statues, plaque, just like I saw in Liverpool, England, and I see in Memphis, Tennessee, and Nashville, Tennessee, and Chicago. Do you know I can go to Cleveland and see myself in IMAX?

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: Really?

Ms. REEVES: I'm as big as life in Cleveland, Ohio. And it's because the people pay the mileage through their governor's incentive and they made a museum that all of the world's talent is proud of.

GONYEA: This is the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

Ms. REEVES: And this Detroit - Berry Gordy made Thirty X(ph) famous.

GONYEA: Really?

Ms. REEVES: We're the only record company who had teachers, and Professor Maxine Powell has joined me here - and I love you so. Thanks for coming. She's on my staff at the city council, too. I want you to know that. She's got a job two days a week.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. REEVES: And I tell you it's not for the money, but she's going to make me into a politician; just actually made me into a star.

GONYEA: Professor Powell, can you hear me okay in your headphones?

Professor MAXINE POWELL (Martha Reeve's Friend): Yes, I can hear you.

GONYEA: Tell us about the first time as a teacher you heard…

Ms. REEVES: Ask her to say hello.

GONYEA: Say hello, say hello.

Prof. POWELL: Well, hello, beautiful people.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Could you tell us about the first time you met Martha Reeves and you thought maybe there was something a little something extra there?

Prof. POWELL: Well, it was 1964. I had a successful finishing school, and we closed it and opened up a finishing school in Motown, which is unique today. There's never been a finishing school within any record recording company around…


Prof. POWELL: …the world and we're very proud of that.

GONYEA: But why a finishing school?

Ms. REEVES: We met in a group - I want you to know that - with the Marvelletes, the Supremes, Kim Weston. It was a bunch of us. It wasn't just me as a personal invitation to meet with Professor Maxine Powell. We met in a clan.

GONYEA: So tell me again who is there, who's in this room?

Ms. REEVES: The Marvelettes…

GONYEA: The Marvelettes.

Ms. REEVES: …the Supremes…

GONYEA: I've heard of them.

Ms. REEVES: …Kim Weston…

GONYEA: Heard of her.

Ms. REEVES: …Martha and the Vandellas.

GONYEA: Heard of them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GONYEA: It's quite a group. You raise your hand?

Prof. POWELL: When I first met Councilperson Martha Reeves…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. POWELL: …I'm so proud of her…

GONYEA: Do you call her madam councilwoman now or is it still Martha?

Prof. POWELL: Only every day. I'm so afraid I'll say Martha, and tell, I better say Councilperson Martha Reeves.

Ms. REEVES: I always refer to her as Professor Powell, too.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REEVES: I know my respects. I always call you Professor Powell.

Prof. POWELL: All the time.

Ms. REEVES: I never slipped to say, hey, Maxine.

Prof. POWELL: Never, never, never.

GONYEA: We've got somebody in the audience here in Detroit. Who do we have? Corrine(ph)…


GONYEA: …from Ferndale.



CORRINE: I just want - I had a comment from Martha. As a Detroit musician myself, I wanted to thank you for paving the way for women in Detroit music and women all over because Detroit is a very special city where women aren't the token musician in their band or their group. And unlike any other city, when we travel - in Detroit, it's wonderful to be a woman in music. So thank you very much.

Ms. REEVES: Thank you.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. REEVES: Might I add - I'm on the board of AFTRA - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. And at our last convention, we joined FLCIO(ph). We're now a labor union as well as performing union, and I'm going to Congress to fight for performers' rights, for artists.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: So you're still agitating, you still have, clearly, the…

Ms. REEVES: This is one five countries that don't pay the artist when the records are played. And when our records were new, people went out and bought them. But now that they're in your households, all they do is listen to them on all little goodie stations. And that if they're being played and advertisers are paying for station time, we're not being compensated. So I'm on the battlefield yet to get every artist whose records are played on the radio some compensation. Their money is stacking up in other countries who pay their performance. They can't pay us because we don't have a pay system, and I'm praying that this goes too in Congress. So keep our hope for that particular…

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Well, let's start - let's go to a phone call. We have Sue(ph), Sue in Charleston, South Carolina. Is that you? Do we have Sue? Did I get Sue? Let me try hitting this again. Sue, are you there?

SUE (Caller): I'm here. Can you hear me now?

GONYEA: There we go. It was my fault. It was my fault. It's new equipment. You're on and Martha Reeves is listening.

Ms. REEVES: Hi, Sue.

SUE: Hi, Councilperson Reeves.

Ms. REEVES: Hi, Sue.

SUE: This is so exciting. I just want to tell you that in 1970, when I was 18 years old, I ran around with this rock and roll band for so long they finally let me sing with them. And when I sang - and I sang "Heat Wave." And I got up on the stage and did the jerk. I butchered it and I'm so sorry, but I just have to tell you, every time I hear it start, my heart jumps up and starts beating again. And in my age, that's really exciting.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. REEVES: Well, I love you for that. And it happens to me too. They saw it firsthand right here, in this studio, in this wonderful museum. Everybody started dancing when they heard "Heat Wave."

SUE: Right. Like the first note. The first note.

Ms. REEVES: Yeah.

SUE: You go, oh, no. I got to jump up now. So I just want to share that with and thank you so much. And I'm really excited to hear about all your work with Congress and everything. So good luck.

Ms. REEVES: Thank you, darling. Thank you so much.

GONYEA: Thank you, Sue.

SUE: All right.


SUE: Take care.


So at some point - and we can point to maybe 40 years ago, the riot in 1967 -that some of the tenor and tone of the Motown songs were changing. We were getting Marvin Gaye singing "What's Going On" and we were hearing the Temptations sing "Ball of Confusion." How did those events affect this utterly joyous entity that was to come?

Ms. REEVES: I always have this special place - and I'll always have a special place in my heart for Marvin Gaye because he was one of the artists who could play his own music as well as produce it as well perform it. And when you listen to his music, that's him playing the drums, that's him playing the keyboard. That's him doing most of the backup singing. And he's such a producer. After the riots, Marvin felt that we should sing more than just love songs because the world had changed. The hippy movement changed the world. The Motown sound and our songs of love changed things. There were people who are riding in buses and protesting and sitting and picketing and marching. And we were on a bus, singing music, going from town to town, getting the same treatment as those people who are actually petitioning for equal rights and for human dignity. And our music spoke for itself.

We go to places where they where there were segregated audiences. But when we finish singing, they would get up and mingle and forget where they were sitting. We've had some wonderful experiences on the road with our music and it was timely. But Stevie Wonder doesn't get the credit for being the first one to sing "Blowing in the Wind."

GONYEA: The Bob Dylan.

Ms. REEVES: Bob Dylan's. He cut - did a cover version. He was the first Motown to do a controversial record. And then Marvin, as you know - being a producer the same as Stevie - got on the bandwagon and start to write. And I got a song that Pam Sawyer and (unintelligible) wrote entitled "I Should Be Proud," and protested the Vietnam War. I got no credit for it because the CIA followed me around and found that I was....

GONYEA: Really?

(Soundbite of audience laughing)

Ms. REEVES: …I was (unintelligible). So they stopped it from being played on the air…

GONYEA: Really?

Ms. REEVES: …that it's about a woman whose husband had been killed in Vietnam and she considered it the evils of society. I didn't write the song, but I sing the lyrics. And I took the blow.

GONYEA: And you recorded it for Motown?

Ms. REEVES: I recorded it for Motown, yes. Most of the songs that I recorded on Motown were written by other people.

GONYEA: Let's take another call. Kevin(ph) in New Jersey, are you there?

KEVIN (Caller): Yes, I am.

GONYEA: Martha Reeves is listening in.

KEVIN: Martha.

Ms. REEVES: Hey.

KEVIN: Love your music. Love your (Unintelligible).

Ms. REEVES: Thank you, Kevin.

KEVIN: My question revolves around - I consider myself musically educated until I read the book "Standing in the Shadows of Motown" that I ever hear The Funk Brothers. My question to you is one word at your backup band and how was it playing with James Jameson and The Funk Brothers.

Ms. REEVES: This is other secret. I never actually toured with The Funk Brothers. They were never allowed out of the studio. They were jazz musicians who have the knack of playing the music behind The Supremes, The Marvelettes, The Temptations, The Spinners, the Four Tops, The Velvelettes, Mary Wells and changed their style to fit each artist. My music doesn't sound anything like anything The Supremes ever sang or anything like Jr. Walker's tracks. They were excellent musicians, all with degrees in music, who played behind and were not allowed out of the studio. They weren't known because they weren't famous on the stage. But everybody at Motown knew if The Funk Brothers were on the track, they had a hit record.

KEVIN: Oh, yes...

GONYEA: Oops, you know, I'm sorry. I accidentally hit the wrong button there.

(Soundbite of audience laughing)

GONYEA: Just really quickly. "Dancing in the Streets." After the riot, it almost like it became this just hopeful anthem.

Ms. REEVES: Marvin Gaye had sung the song prior to my hearing it. And he just sang it like a love song. Like...

(Singing) calling us around the world. Are you ready for a brand new beat, baby?

You know, Marvin style. And he said try it on Martha. Put this on in Martha. See if she can sing it. Well, I didn't relate to the romantic side of the "Dancing in the Street." I related to Rio de Janeiro, where I have to came back from. And the Mardi Gras in New Orleans, where people actually danced in the streets. So I say, well, can I sing this how I feel it? And they said, go ahead. Well, I gave them a version of "Dancing in the Street" that I probably would like to hear again, but I was told by the engineer, Lawrence Horn - he said the machine wasn't on.

(Soundbite of audience laughing)

GONYEA: We're hearing it underneath you, Martha Reeves. Thank you. Thank you.

Ms. REEVES: I did it again.

GONYEA: Sure, you've it.

Ms. REEVES: And the version you hear is a little bit of anger.

(Soundbite of audience laughing)

Ms. REEVES: But all the way through without a stop.

GONYEA: Martha Reeves is the former lead singer of Martha and the Vandellas, now with the Detroit City Council. We also want you to sing.

Ms. REEVES: I'm still singing. I'm still Martha Reeves. I'm not a former - I'm present.

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