Martha and the Vandellas (and Martha’s Dad)

From 1963 to 1967 Martha and the Vandellas had a lot of hits for Motown.  Their most famous singles are (Love is Like a) Heatwave (1963), Dancing in the Street (1964) and Nowhere to Run (1965), but they had many other Top 40 hits besides these.  Because they had the same writers as The Supremes (Holland-Dozier-Holland), and the same band (The Funk Brothers) and they are also a girl group, Martha and the Vandellas sound like an early prototype for The Supremes.  While it was Martha who had the early running it was Diana Ross that the director of Motown decided to run with.  The Vandellas were pushed sideways, while the The Supremes‘ star rose.  Martha Reeves still seems quite peeved about this in her autobiography Dancing in the Street published in 1994.

The last time I read a rock biography I was probably in my twenties and it was probably about Jim Morrison.  I am now in my thirties and a few things have changed that have affected how I read the autobiography of Martha Reeves.  I have become a parent for starters.

Martha 1

About half way through her book Reeves tells a story that I found quite poignant.  In 1968 Martha Reeves and the Vandellas were performing at the legendary Copacabana, and Martha Reeves invited her mother and father to see the show.  There are a few anecdotes about Martha’s Dad confronting modernity on his trip up from Detroit to New York for the show, about how he didn’t understand why he had to give his suitcase to a complete stranger at the airport and check in his bags, or complaining that being on the ninth floor in the hotel in New York was too high, but then we come to the most memorable scene in the book.

I asked Mom and Dad to join me in my room….  Dad wasn’t impressed with the room.  Suddenly he got all bent out of shape when he noticed the amount of pill bottles lined up on my windowsill.  He sat down on the foot of my bed and put his face in his hands and began to cry silently.  I felt his pain instantly, and asked, “What’s wrong Daddy.  What is it?”  He looked up at me through reddened eyes with tears running down his face.  “You’re taking all those pills?!”

He had told us time and time again that God made us right when we were born, and we didn’t need anything for the rest of our lives….  He said, “When you work hard during the day and have your mind straight, sleep will come.  Sleep is earned.”  He should know because he had worked all of our lives.

I can assure you that I wouldn’t have noticed this scene in the book if I had read it ten years ago, but reading it now I couldn’t help but notice Martha’s parents.  In particular I noticed Martha’s Dad.

Elijah Reeves is hardly in the book.  He was nineteen when he married Martha’s Mom, Ruby,  in 1937 (she was fifteen) in Alabama.  Elijah and Ruby later moved north to Detroit and would eventually have twelve kids.  When they first lived in Detroit they lived in a three bedroom house with two other families where they used closets as extra rooms.

Dad was rarely home.  It seemed as if he were always coming from and going to work.  He was a man of few words, but at special rare times, when he felt like it, he would take his guitar down from the wall where it would hang and play us some down-home blues.

A little later in the book we learn this:

Dad had recently been struck by an out-of-control automobile while working a jackhammer with his back toward oncoming traffic….  Dad worked every day for the city and brought the money home.  He left for work around 6:00am as we were awakening to rise and get ready for school.

Although Martha doesn’t really mention Dad much after this, the overall impression is that Elijah Reeves worked his whole life in road gangs, getting up at the crack of dawn and seeing little of his family.  The accident Martha mentions meant her father had to wear a back brace until he died many years later.  Elijah’s death is given a paragraph but not much else.  I suppose that Martha didn’t know her father very well.  She was, after all, one child out of twelve, and he was always working, but even at this distance he was still her father and could still break down in her hotel room and cry over all his daughter’s pill bottles.

And then there were the phonecalls.  The first phone call came when a teenage Martha left for Boston because she had been promised a gig by a man she hardly knew and found herself in Boston without a gig, or money, and the man trying to feel her up.  She called home and asked for help.  Other phonecalls were worse.  Later in her career Martha took drugs, and sometimes overdosed.  There were calls from hospitals about Martha being admitted.  Receiving those calls must have been like the cold hand of dread closing on your heart: “What has Martha done now?  Is she ok?”

Martha

I want so much for my daughter that it’s impossible.  I know it’s impossible, and that she will find life hard at times and that she will make mistakes like we all do.  I often regret walking out the door in the morning after kissing her goodbye and going to work, and I sometimes wonder as I face the classroom during the day why I am with these people instead of with Eleanor playing games, or painting pictures or kissing her imaginary hurts better.  The answer of course is easy, money, and I had better be thankful that my job is not as long, and hard and dangerous as Elijah’s was.  But even in a life as hard as his there were also the good things about being a Dad.

The night Elijah saw his daughter sing at the Copacabana his heart must have swelled.  She has a great ol’ powerhouse of a voice with a little gravel in it, and a dash of yearning.  When her voice climbs to its climax over the stomp and clap Motown sound and the Vandellas hit their supporting harmonies it’s magic….  Listen to her: “no other guy can whisper sweet things in myyyyyyyy ear,” all the heartache she pours into the stretched note.  It might be cheap music, but it’s good cheap music and I bet her Dad felt it, and forgave again the phone calls, and the pill bottles on the window sill, and thought: “there she is, my beautiful girl, the one I held in my arms the day of her birth.”