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Reinventing Motown

Martha Camarillo Councilwoman Reeves

Photo: Martha Camarillo

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.

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