Soul legend Martha on York gig - and Obama’s Amazing Grace

Martha Reeves,
Martha Reeves,

Interview by Graham Chalmers

The beat may not be brand new anymore but it continues to call out across the world thanks to the enduring charisma of legendary singer Martha Reeves.

The soul power of the vocals she displayed with her band the Vandellas in the 1960s with all-time classics like Dancing in the Street or Nowehere To Run remain intact as she prepares to cross the Atlantic on her latest tour which takes in Yorkshire next Monday in the shape of The Duchess in York.

Her longevity is testimony to the lessons this incredible singer learnt in church in the 1950s as a young girl before Motown was even born.

But, as Martha tells me on her ‘cell phone’ as she makes her morning tea at home in Detroit, it was gospel that came naturally not soul or pop.

Martha said: “I used to sing in the church choir all the time. I didn’t even hear secular music until I was 11. But I don’t know anyone close to me in showbusiness who didn’t start in church.”

It was a route taken by most of the soul greats, from Sam Cooke to Aretha Franklin, but few flew as high as Martha who scored hit after hit - Heatwave, Jimmy Mack and more - those finger-snapping songs which remain household names to this day. Martha, now aged 73 and still a devout believer, says being part of Berry Gordon’s Motown label was almost a case of being at work with a strict regime.

There were even classes to attend to learn all parts of the business; a hit factory, indeed.

But she still gets as much pleasure singing to fans as ever, she tells me, especially as the Vandellas’ line-up contains two of her own sisters.

“I’ve been coming to the UK nearly every year since 1962 and I love it. To be on stage in front of adoring fans with longtime friends and family beside me is my favourite place. I feel as young as when I first recorded those songs.”

The peak years may have gone but Martha’s career has carried on successfully in musicals and movies. Even a four-year stint as a member of Detroit City Council didn’t stop the music.

With politics in mind, I ask her whether she had enjoyed President Obama’s rendition of Amazing Grace at the memorial service after the terrible events at Charleston.

“I’m sure he enjoyed it and the congregation joined in, which says something. We need as a country to be more unified. Everyone needs god’s grace and mercy.”