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Saturday, 1 June, 2002, 21:50 GMT 22:50 UK
Motown magic undimmed in Detroit
Martha Reeves
Martha Reeves is a Motown legend

The perks of the reporter's trade don't come much richer than dancing with the Motown legend, Martha Reeves, in her own flat.

It happened to me last autumn when I interviewed her for a radio documentary on the record company.


Martha Reeves is a delight. Not a trace of the prima donna, just an articulate, intelligent woman

I went to the small apartment where she still lives in ravaged, downtown Detroit on a Saturday morning.

Her tiny apartment is crammed with a piano, pictures, plaques, awards - all the accoutrements of true stardom, all the accoutrements, that is, apart from wealth.

She's got a kitchen so small you couldn't swing a microphone in it. Nonetheless, when I arrived, she made me a cup of tea because, as I recall it, "the British love tea" and she loves the British.

Then she sat down to breakfast on the sofa with a tray on her knees - at which point, there was one of those awkward moments where I tucked into my breakfast and she immediately closed her eyes, clasped her hands in prayer and said grace as I munched my muffin.

Personal performance

Having ignored my faux pas, she talked about Detroit, about music, the car industry; about her youth, about the virulent, violent racism directed at her - like being shot at.


These people were part of a great movement ... It didn't make them rich financially but it did enrich them as human beings

After all the talk of the formal interview, Martha Reeves sang for me, just for me, the hymn she sings in the bath - though I hasten to say that she wasn't in the bath when she sang it for me - and she sang a bit of Motown.

And then, the icing on the icing, she stood up, put her CD on and beckoned me to my feet to dance with her.

Martha Reeves was and is a delight. Not a trace of the prima donna, just an articulate, intelligent woman reflecting on the ups and downs of life.

The same could be said for the others I interviewed: Gladys Knight with her loud, disarming laugh, more anxious to talk about her mother's diabetes rather than her own extraordinary life.

Or I remember a marvellous woman called Cal Street who was and is the lead singer of a band called the Velvelettes.

Lust for life

She was in her early teens when she started. Now she's a hospital administrator in Kalamazoo and still sings with the group, often at a Detroit club called the "Roostertail".

Gladys Knight and the Pips
Gladys Knight (and a Pip) appear on Top of the Pops in 1970

When I caught up with her there, she had nothing but a relish for life, only a tinge of anger when she mentioned another group taking their name - the Velvelettes - and living off it on tour in Britain.

What was heart-warming about all these people was their friendliness and lack of bitterness, even though stardom hasn't left them with any great fortune.

They were part of a great movement - a musical movement and, in a sense, a political movement. It didn't make them rich financially but it did enrich them as human beings.

For the human enrichment, they do seem grateful; and for the lack of financial enrichment, they don't seem bitter.

These are the people who stayed in Detroit when Motown abandoned it, deserted the grit that produced the musical pearl. Detroit, it has to be said took some staying with.

City struggles on

The city never really recovered after the riots in 1967 - or the rebellion, depending on your point of view.

Detroit
Detroit has seems its fortunes decline over the last 30 years

It does its best - there's a new monorail train that runs around the city centre after all those years when the car companies did their best to block public transport.

But it's still a rough town.

Not quite as rough as it was when there were 800 murders in one year, or not quite as rough when disgruntled car-workers would go into the factory and shoot the foreman - and be cleared of murder by the jury.

The streets remain deserted at night. In Detroit, they're even aggressive when they play chess. I watched big black guys playing chess in the heat and humidity of July.

They strutted above the stone chess tables in the park by the river, shouting at their opponents' pieces: "Get that rook out my way, man." Or bawling at the opponent's king: "Get your butt in that corner. You're dead, man."

Now, when they play chess like that, you know it's a tough city. And yet, and yet ... it contains some of the funniest, shrewdest, warmest people I've ever met.

See also:

07 Jan 02 | Business
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