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Reinventing Motown

Martha Camarillo Councilwoman Reeves

Photo: Martha Camarillo

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."

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