Martha Reeves & The Vandellas will be 'Dancing in the Street' at the Arcada show Sunday
Martha Reeves' story in music is one that's often assumed to have started at Motown when "Come and Get These Memories" became the first Martha Reeves & The Vandellas hit to crack the American Top 40 singles chart in 1963.
But as she gears up for a Martha Reeves & The Vandellas concert Sunday, March 12, at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles, Reeves is quick to point out that her first recording session didn't take place in Detroit at Motown. It began with her work in a precursor to The Vandellas original lineup, alongside Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard, in a group called The Del-Phis.
"Our manager, Fred Brown, brought The Del-Phis to Chicago and recorded a song called 'I'll Let You Know,' which was an answer song to J.J. Barnes' 'Won't You Let Me Know,'" said Reeves. "In fact, as The Del-Phis, my first singing group, we recorded a song with John Lee Hooker. I'm still looking for it."
While the Del-Phis' single failed to chart upon its release by a subsidiary of vaunted Chicago blues label Chess Records in 1960, Martha Reeves would go on to unimaginable success at Motown, charting six Top 10 singles between 1963 and 1967 alone.
Hits like "Heatwave," "Quicksand," "Nowhere to Run" and "Jimmy Mack" solidified the group's legacy. But "Dancing in the Street" remains one of the greatest, most easily identifiable examples of the early Motown sound.
Put to tape inside studio A at Hitsville U.S.A. (Motown's famed first studio headquarters in Detroit), "Dancing in the Street" was both recorded and released in 1964, a terrific example of what was quickly becoming the well-oiled Motown machine -- one which featured the combination of terrific songwriting set to music by one of music's all-time great session groups and the performance of dynamic artists and vocalists.
"It was a working place," said Reeves of the Detroit studio. "It wasn't somewhere where you went to hang out. You went there to perform and to record and to write and express yourself musically. It was a machine, and it worked 24 hours a day. The studio -- they called it a pit -- but it was not a pit. It was a place of magic."
While so many Motown hits were written by the legendary writing team of Lamont Dozier and siblings Brian and Eddie Holland (better known as Holland-Dozier-Holland), "Dancing in the Street" wasn't. It was co-written by a young Marvin Gaye.
"[When I was] an A&R secretary [at Motown], Marvin was on the list of [session] drummers" recalls Reeves of her additional, early duties at the label. "There was Benny Benjamin number one, Richard 'Pistol' Allen number two. There was Uriel Jones number three, and on that list was Marvin Gaye. As a drummer. He actually traveled with Smokey Robinson in his backup band in the first year that I was there -- 1962," says Reeves of Gaye's earliest days at the label. "Working with Marvin was just another episode of all the miracles that happened under the guise of Berry Gordy."
Ultimately reaching No. 2 on the American singles chart, "Dancing in the Street" would become one of the generation's defining hits and one Reeves performed frequently in the Chicago area.
"Chicago is one of the first cities called out in 'Dancing in the Street.' I have a fondness and a love and a relationship with Chicago," recalls Reeves of performing at now defunct venues like the original Regal Theater.
In addition to the strong writing of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, it's the playing of legendary Motown session group the Funk Brothers that is perhaps most responsible for the meticulously crafted sounds that would come to define an overwhelming majority of hit Motown singles during a tenure that began in 1959 and ended with the label's notorious 1972 move to Los Angeles.
A 2002 documentary about the group, "Standing in the Shadows of Motown," asserts that the Funk Brothers "played on more No. 1 hits than The Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys combined."
"People embraced our sound. I think basically because [of] the beautiful music played by the Funk Brothers. You could tell whose record it was when it first started off because they gave us all our unique trademarks as singers at Hitsville U.S.A.," Reeves said.
Following work as an A&R secretary, an actress, a writer and more, Reeves served on the Detroit city council from 2005 to 2009. But she never stopped performing. And today, she's joined by her sisters: Lois (who joined the Vandellas in 1967) and Delphine (a member of the group since 1980).
The music of Martha Reeves & The Vandellas has become a family affair, one that Reeves is pleased to see continue to reach new generations. And when asked about the legacy of Motown and the power of music in general, she's clear on the fact that both remain an empowering form of self-expression in uncertain times.
"It is still changing the world," she said. "The message is coming across that everybody is free and everybody is equal and everybody has a right to express themselves. I just think that this life that I've chosen as a career -- or that I was chosen for, if I may put it that way -- I feel that I was chosen to be a performer. Because I love it. And it's in my heart. I enjoy it. There's always something new. Every audience is new. So it's not looking back, it's looking forward."
Martha Reeves & The VandellasWhen: 5 p.m. Sunday, March 12
Where: Arcada Theatre, 105 E. Main St., St. Charles
Tickets: $39-$69. (630) 962-7000 or tix.extremetix.com