Ron Onesti: Mary Wilson, Martha Reeves and Motown memories
Man, as they say, it's tough getting old. It's not really the aches and pains, the advances in technology or the expansion of my "boyish figure" that bother me as the years advance. What is hard to swallow (besides the handful of pills I take every day) is the loss of our icons and legends almost on a weekly basis.
This week, we lost a grand dame of pop music, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Mary Wilson. As one of the co-founders of one of the most popular and successful female-backed bands in history, the Supremes, she cemented herself as a certified pop-culture legend.
She was always kind and very generous to the fans. An accomplished author, actress and artists-rights activist, she was filled with stories. My favorite ones involved the first days at Motown. She was never shy to share them every time she played her all-hits show at The Arcada.
"We would answer phones, sweep the floors, record a hit, then have lunch with the Temptations in the kitchen," she told me. "Berry was a brother, a father and a friend. He had the vision, and we had the talent. We all lived around the corner from each other. Some of us went to grade school together. To watch that machine grow and to be a part of it all was incredible."
Songwriter Berry Gordy Jr. achieved his first major success by penning the Jackie Wilson smash "Lonely Teardrops." But after being grossly disappointed with the dollars he realized from the record company, Gordy decided to start his own label.
With an $800 loan from his family and the royalties from his work with Jackie Wilson, he purchased a single-family bungalow on Detroit's Grand Boulevard and named it "Hitsville U.S.A." Many of his family members joined the team, and on Jan. 12, 1959, Tamla Records was born.
Gordy loved the song "Tammy" sung by Debbie Reynolds for the film of the same name, for which she starred. Being that he could not legally use the name, he named his company "Tamla." But shortly it morphed into "Motown" joining "Motor City" and "Town" together.
Motown's first vice president was a neighborhood boy who was also the lead singer for Tamla's first group signed to the label (aside from Wilson), the Matadors. His name was William Robinson. The Matadors became the Miracles, and William became "Smokey." Smokey Robinson eventually named his daughter Tamla and his son Berry. Talk about a "company man!"
Detroit has suffered some major economic challenges, that's for sure. But it is on its way back to being a strong, vibrant city. And although Motown Records is no longer located there, the original "Hitsville U.S.A" remains, almost as if time stood still.
Each room in the original building is how it was in the 1960s and '70s when the Temptations, the Supremes, Little Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops and so may more ultimate legends hung out there on a daily basis.
Martha Reeves of the Vandellas fame is also a Motown-regular at The Arcada. "We were just neighborhood kids with no real guidance for that sort of thing," Martha told me. "Diana Ross lived around the block and Smokey (Robinson) lived up the street." 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, after seeing Reeves perform in a local club. He gave her his card and she showed up at the "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 holding auditions to making sure a young Stevie Wonder stayed out of mischief. Once in a while, she would sing back up 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 the star whose life ended tragically with a bullet from 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.
"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 I read all the public testimonials of grief about Mary, I could not help think about those young, bright-eyed girls, singing in a church in Detroit, working at local cleaners, not knowing what was in store for them. They became pioneers of that legendary "Motown Sound," and to this day, Martha preaches the gospel of music.
Mary will be sorely missed, and God bless Martha for good health. They are true American treasures sharing amazing, soulful talent with us loving fans. We are the lucky ones to have experienced rock history -- the good, old-fashioned Mary Wilson/Martha Reeves style -- with class, electricity and elegance.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of the Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email email@example.com.