‘Michael Jackson was just another singer’
PUBLISHED: 17:14 06 January 2017 | UPDATED: 17:36 06 January 2017
Danny Loo Photography 2016
One of the leading stars of the legendary Motown record label has told the Welwyn Hatfield Times of its early 1960s heyday.
Martha Reeves, who with her backing group The Vandellas recorded a string of international hits for the Detroit-based label, visited Welwyn Garden City just before Christmas, staying in Cole Green with a long-standing friend, Karen Karbritz.
They met in Los Angeles in the 1990s through James Jamerson, the uncredited bass player on many of the biggest Motown hits.
Martha, now 75, told the Welwyn Hatfield Times: “James was my all-time favourite musician. He made the Motown sound with those bass lines.”
She remembers exactly what she ate and drank on her first visit to his home – “pork and beans, white bread and Kool-Aid”, emphasising to me the humble nature of the meal.
Martha remembers Diana Ross and the other Supremes in those early days as quiet youngsters watching on – Motown’s established star act at the time was The Marvelettes.
Martha said: “The Marvelettes had a number one with Please, Mr Postman, and then another hit with Beechwood 4-5789, which turned out to be the phone number of a real person, so we all got in trouble.”
Martha derived her backing group’s name from Van Dyke Street in Detroit, and her favourite gospel singer, Della Reese.
She said: “Della Reese was my idol. I heard her sing in church before I ever went to Motown. She sang Amazing Grace. It was fantastic. She sang it with so much passion.”
The Vandellas’ first hit was their second Motown single, Come and Get These Memories, written by the enormously successful Holland/Dozier/Holland team, and released in February 1963.
Martha recalls: “Eddie Holland had done some singing, but he didn’t want to be a singer. He didn’t like interviews, and he didn’t like all the girls hitting on him. He wanted to be a writer.”
Consequently, Motown boss Berry Gordy teamed his star songwriters with the Vandellas, who took Come and Get these Memories to Number 29 on the US Billboard chart.
Five months later, the group recorded the immortal Holland/Dozier/Holland composition that earned the label its first Grammy nomination, and reached Number Four.
“Don’t call it Heatwave”, Martha insisted, “It is Love is Like a Heatwave.”
Michael Jackson arrived at Motown with his older brothers when he was eight, but Martha remembers him even younger, singing in church at just five.
Asked if she could have foreseen his flabbergasting later success, Martha told me : “He was talented, but everybody at Motown was talented. Michael was just another singer.
“Michael was not like Stevie Wonder. Even then [aged 11] he was a genius. He was from Saginaw, Michigan, not far from Detroit.”
She said the blind but extravagantly gifted youngster had been brought to the record company by Ronnie White, co-founder of The Miracles with Smokey Robinson.
Martha said: “Ronnie White discovered Stevie Wonder, just like I discovered Lara.”
A few hours after our all-too-brief chat, she was watching her ten-year-old goddaughter, Karen’s daughter, play Annie on the stage of the Barn Theatre.
Martha’s biggest hits were recorded more than 40 years before Lara’s birth, but the youngster, already a professional singer, told me she much preferred Motown to the likes of Justin Bieber.
She said: “It is upbeat and happy, not slow and boring. And it is about cheerful things, not things like drugs.”
Her godmother said decisively: “I like it because it is music to fall in love to,” and I didn’t dare disagree.
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