Published: March 2011
By Christopher Petkanas
On a mission to set her hometown’s image to a whole new tune, <em>Dreamgirl</em> manqué Martha Reeves has unveiled a bold new act as a city councilwoman. <em>Christopher Petkanas</em> listens in.
Imagine that the last time you saw someone it was 1971, and she was one of three foxy but elegant young ladies on stage at Madison Square Garden, dressed for An Evening of Gold in identical liquid pours of flashing pink sequins. Then imagine the next time you see her it’s 35 years later and she’s seated in a big leather swivel chair, wearing a tweed suit and chairing a meeting of the Detroit City Council. If you’re me, you could use more oxygen.
Is there anyone who doesn’t love a crazy second act?Martha Reeves, of Martha Reeves & the Vandellas, was first known to the world as the clarion voice on a handful of landmark records some swore were pop and others, just as vehemently, insisted were R&B. Slick, but with a churchy undertow, they’re as crisp and brisk as a just-dug radish. Maybe you’ve heard them: "Dancing in the Street," "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave," "Nowhere to Run," "Jimmy Mack." So closely and sentimentally are these anthemic hits identified with a time, a place, a man, and a company, it hardly bears repeating that they were cut in the sixties in Detroit for Berry Gordy Jr.’s Motown Records. Whether you take Dreamgirls as an unfaithful or faithful recounting of the anguished story of the Supremes, there’s a lot of Reeves’s narrative in the movie, too.
Can you imagine being a girl-group scholar and having the lead singer of one of the most important groups in history elected to the city council of a major American city on a platform with a wide tourism plank, and being a writer for a travel magazine like the one you’re holding?Can you guess where this is going?Armed with a picture of Reeves I took as a teenager at the Garden with a primitive Instamatic, I went to Detroit to consider her shot at turning a brave, if besieged, Midwestern city into a destination. As Detroit struggles with an estimated $150 million budget shortfall, a homicide rate for the crime rolls, and a hemorrhaging auto industry, Reeves largely proposes to do this by leveraging the city’s musical heritage—meaning Motown, Aretha Franklin, and more contemporary figures like Madonna and Eminem. She has made no mention of Kid Rock or the White Stripes.
Reeves, 65, has good timing. It’s an auspicious moment for Detroit. If you weren’t such a spoiler, you might even say it’s hot. In February 2006, the city raised the bar for hosting cold-weather Super Bowls higher than anyone fantasized and reaped a public-relations windfall. The $70 million Lower Woodward Improvement Program, which rehabilitated a two-square-mile chunk of downtown for the game, has been injected with additional funding. Sixty-five businesses—boutiques, restaurants—that opened for the event are now permanent.
Reeves’s vision of a tourist-friendly Detroit is also bolstered by RiverWalk, a five-mile riverfront redevelopment project that is nearly half complete; the city’s standing as the birthplace of techno music; a lively, if scary, casino culture; and a blistering club–underground hip-hop scene ruled by acts like J. Rawson, Yung Cassius, and Crazy-L. Too bad the Motown Center—a museum, educational, and entertainment complex, according to the most recent proposal—remains epically stalled. Gordy, Warner Music Group’s Edgar Bronfman Jr., and other investors missed a November deadline to submit plans to the city for a new structure on the site of the headquarters Motown occupied before moving to Los Angeles in 1971. If the center happens, critics might start forgiving Gordy for never having fully moved out of the offices, even as they became derelict, with junkies fouling memorabilia that would now fetch huge sums on eBay. In 1967, according to an invoice recovered by an eloquent blogger before the wrecking ball swung, it cost Marvin Gaye $6 to cold-store his wife’s lynx-trimmed coat. GUESS WHO?asks a piece of promotional material, a grid of extreme close-ups of your favorite Motown stars. Two up and two across from Smokey Robinson’s mouth and chin and one up from Temptation Melvin Franklin’s right eye and nostril is the lower half of Martha Reeves’s face.
Despite her new job, which is full-time at least in theory, Reeves continues to perform with her sisters Lois, who recorded with her, and Delphine, a Vandella in name only. It’s best not to ask about Annette Beard and Rosalind Ashford, who originally backed her. ("The last Christmas cards I sent went unanswered.") Reeves’s singing today has a desperate, zealous quality, but she does do credible renditions of her hits. "I haven’t reached my utopia as an artist," she says.
A regular income was one reason Reeves ran for council; members earn $82,000 a year. Her office is hung with a gold record and publicity stills of her group’s various lineups (fans felt that it had really traded up when the late, glamorous Sandra Tilley left the Velvelettes to join). Most days, Reeves’s computer is tuned to the all-Motown program on Accu Radio.com. When her own "I’m Ready for Love" comes on, she mutters, more to herself than me, "Hey, and I didn’t even ask them to play that," then sings along softly.
I spent three days with Reeves (more of them than I would have liked at the Greektown Casino, where she enjoys playing the slots), and over that time, two people emerged: the freshman civil servant struggling with the parliamentary arcana of Robert’s Rules of Order, and the proud Motown artist who is also extremely angry. Slights suffered some 40 years ago—Gordy canceling the release of a Live at the Copa album; Diana Ross, whose trio would brutally eclipse Reeves’s, hogging the scene in Eartha Kitt’s London dressing room—are as fresh as if they happened yesterday.
There it is, the D word. Most books on Motown cleave to the same line: If Gordy hadn’t become obsessed professionally and every other way with the Supremes’ skinny lead singer, Reeves would have continued to make (great) records for the company instead of becoming an oldies act who has had trouble paying her bills. This theory ignores several realities. Marvin Gaye bitterly traced Motown’s neglect of him to the same source, and it didn’t hold him back. Reeves was stroppy, which, given the moldability Gordy demanded of his artists, you kind of have to admire. And though at the height of her powers, Reeves was a perfectly pleasant performer, she lacked the charisma and wig-and-clotheshorse affinities of the supreme Supreme.
In this context, Reeves can be forgiven for exacting an element of retribution from her electoral victory. "I’ve been doing things with the council all along—visiting schools on career days, working with the kids," she says. "So rather than being used by the council, I’m a part of it and getting paid. Teachers are being held up in classrooms at gunpoint. I can be more helpful if I have some power. And I feel productive, needed."
Despite Reeves’s battles with Gordy over royalties, she is the author of a bury-the-hatchet resolution—pending approval—to rename West Grand Boulevard after him. Number 2648, the birthplace of his empire, is now the Motown Historical Museum. Much of the modest residential building—the boss’s apartment, a tiny studio basement where most of the company’s monster hits were waxed—is preserved as it looked in the sixties. (The Motown Center’s museum would be in addition to this one.)
Reeves’s proposal to decorate Detroit with statues of local music figures will be a harder sell; a city that has trouble paying its cops may not be able to contribute a dime. A bookend idea would enshrine hometown celebrities on a Walk of Fame. "Stevie Wonder is the Eighth Wonder of the World," says Reeves, making her case for the statues, over king crab legs washed down with Guinness at a favorite restaurant, Sindbad’s, a Detroit institution founded in 1949. Seated at the bar, patrons can watch four televisions, each tuned to a different channel. Pausing to catch the climax on Deal or No Deal, Reeves continues: "Smokey Robinson is the most prolific songwriter ever. I want Aretha on a throne wearing a crown in Hart Plaza. I want the Supremes facing across the river toward Canada striking their ’Stop! In the Name of Love’ pose."
For Reeves, everything circles back to Motown. When the chairman of the Super Bowl XL host committee made his final report to the council at its morning meeting, she could not resist taking a star turn. Council members rolled their eyes. "Mr. Penske," Reeves said, "I didn’t see in your report that the Four Tops were at the Fox Theatre the weekend of the game. So were Martha Reeves & the Vandellas."
Reeves isn’t into clubs ("I don’t go to them, I play them"), so I was left on my own to explore the Bleu Room Experience, which has a barking velvet-rope policy and female bartenders in T-shirts and bikini bottoms. At Envy, hot shots en route to the VIP sanctuary cool off before a 20-foot waterfall. Elysium Lounge numbers four bars spread over 12,000 square feet of plushness.
The next night Reeves invited me for dinner at what she called "the best place I know." Seldom Blues has 350 seats, live jazz, and big views of the Detroit River. Maybe I should have had the Blue-B-Que bass with blueberry glaze, because the pasta was gluey. Also with us was the 91-year-old creator of Motown’s legendary "charm school," Maxine ("You Don’t Protrude the Buttocks") Powell, whom I had always longed to meet. Professor Powell now works in Reeves’s office, and I guess I got carried away, because the council member scolded me for huddling with her former teacher and not paying attention to the food. The things a reporter can get in trouble for!
Reeves looked her diva best in a long hooded mink coat for our visit to the Motown museum. Inside she stood in the exact spot where, inches behind Marvin Gaye, she famously sang backup on "Stubborn Kinda Fella" ("do-do-do-whaa!"). "The first time I recorded ’Dancing in the Street,’ " Reeves remembered, "they forgot to turn the tape on. The fire you hear in my voice is the anger at being asked to do it again." Upstairs, she recalled stuffing 45’s into sleeves at Gordy’s dining table between sessions.
Reeves lit up when I produced my old snapshot of her, and we connected when I told her how bogus I thought the albums of Motown songs by Michael McDonald were. Still, despite my obvious credentials, I never felt she took me seriously as a fan or connoisseur. At lunchtime on my last day, pizza was ordered in for everyone in Reeves’s office, including Ms. Powell, but nobody offered me any. So much for charm school. In the future, I think it would be better if I did not try to meet the musical idols of my adolescence, even second-tier ones (they weren’t called the Supremes for nothing). Reeves’s first hit was "Come and Get These Memories." Now I understand.
Christopher Petkanas is a T+L special correspondent.
WHERE TO STAY
Detroit Marriott at the Renaissance Center
High-rise hotel overlooking the Detroit River. Renaissance Ctr.; 800/352-0831; www.marriott.com; doubles from $269.
WHERE TO EAT
400 Renaissance Ctr.; 313/567-7301; dinner for two $100.
100 St. Clare St.; 313/822-8000; dinner for two $55.
WHAT TO DO
Bleu Room Experience
1540 Woodward Ave.; 313/222-1900.
625 Shelby Ave.; 313/962-2244.
234 W. Larned St.; 313/962-3689.
Motown Historical Museum
2648 W. Grand Blvd.; 313/875-2264.