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After 50 years on stage, Motown star Martha loves singing more than ever

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 13, 2013

  • Above, Martha Reeves on stage last year and, left, flanked by the original Vandellas back in the 1960s

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If there just one thing that makes Martha Reeves smile more than singing, it is the mention of her baby great granddaughter, Sophia Rose.

"She's just seven months old and she's a movie star already," says the Detroit RnB star who first made her name 50 years ago on the legendary Motown roster.

"I've just seen the pictures over the internet – she's been to her first Christmas party and they have her in this lovely red dress. She's just beautiful. And she's named after me; my middle name is Rose. I'm so pleased they did that. I am so blessed," says Martha, who brought us Dancing in the Streets half a century ago.

The 72-year-old will be back home in Michigan with Sophia Rose and the rest of her clan for Christmas Day, but she just loves to sing too. And first there's the small matter of a run of tour dates around the UK.

"My whole life revolves around singing," she says. "I can't cook, I have no housekeeping skills, but I am very proud of all my songs. They're like children – you can't choose a favourite "

Last night Martha was on stage for a sold-out show at Exeter Phoenix, and next Friday, December 20, she is back in Devon performing at The Hub in Plymouth. In between there are dates up and down the country on a route that a lesser woman might baulk at.

"Oh, I'm used to it," shrugs Martha. "I've been travelling this country by car for 50 years. And I've been all over the world too – China, Japan, Spain, Italy, Sweden. I love to perform and I am glad to be here."

In the States she tours with her sisters Lois and Delphine as the Vandellas, but for this UK outing she's singing solo.

"The audience are my back-up singers," she declares.

But she is accompanied by her longtime musical director Larry Crockett – "he's from New York, but he moved to Paris" – and an English band that she describes as "great players". She promises a set that's full of nostalgia – and what a fabulous back catalogue she has to revisit. Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were among the most successful groups of the Motown roster, known for a harder edge to their sound than contemporaries like the Supremes.

They are best known for hits like (Love Is Like a) Heat Wave, Nowhere to Run, Jimmy Mack and, of course, the signature Dancing in the Street. But they had at least 26 chart hits in non-stop run from 1963 to 1972, with recordings that embraced everything from doo-wop and RnB through to pop, blues, rock and soul.

"My mum and dad both sang," recalls Martha, who was born in Alabama. The family moved to Detroit when she was a baby. She was the eldest girl of 11 children.

"My first live performance was when I was 17 singing Ave Maria in front of 2,000 people," she says.

Her early inspirations were Lena Horne and Della Reese – whose name she incorporated in Vandellas – and she was discovered by Motown A&R chief Mickey Stevenson while singing at Detroit's 20 Grand club.

Martha has never stopped singing since, with the Vandellas, as a solo artist and with everyone from James Brown to Beverly Sills to Bruce Springsteen and Ringo Starr.

Her performances slowed down a little when she served on the Detroit City Council for four years until 2009, and then she jumped back in with both feet with the Dancing in the Street review – first with the late Edwin Starr and Mary Wilson, then with Freda Payne. She also starred in the US touring company of Ain't Misbehavin'.

"My favourite thing is to open my mouth and just sing," says Martha, who returns in the spring for a show at Falmouth's Princess Pavilion.

Martha Reeves plays The Hub, Plymouth, on December 20. Visit seetickets.com

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