Mention the word “Motown” to a member of Generation X, Y or Z and you’ll likely draw a blank stare. I know, I’ve done it. The magnificent music empire that Barry Gordy, Jr. forged in Detroit in the 1960’s – spawning such artists as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Jackson 5, The Temptations and The Four Tops – is a part of our musical heritage that is in danger of being forgotten. More than just a record label, Motown was an instantly recognizable sound, blending the call-and-response of gospel, the sweet harmonies of doo-wop and the persistent beat of rhythm & blues. The Motown Sound was slicker and more sophisticated than its grittier Southern cousin, the Memphis soul music produced by Stax Studio. And, boy, could you dance to it!
Like Stax, Motown’s heyday ended by the early 70’s. Few of the classic Motown artists are still plying their trade today. Stevie Wonder gets trotted out for the occasional awards program guest shot, and the casino circuit has kept alive the careers of Smokey Robinson, Gladys Knight, and various iterations of the Temps and the Tops. The dwindling number of active Motown artists made Martha Reeves and The Vandellas return engagement at The Dakota all that more special.
Taking the crowded stage with her sisters, Lois (a Vandella since 1967) and Delphine (who joined the group in 1980), Martha opened with “Quicksand,” with the 8-member band already revving up the instantly recognizable beat. The sequined septuagenarian was in good voice, upbeat and chatty, with a well-rehearsed stage patter, familiar to those of us who had seen her last year. Following “Quicksand” with the equally upbeat “Ready For Love,” Martha then introduced “Our first recording on Motown,” and asked the audience to try to recall “Where you were, what you were doing, and who you were doing it with,” leading into “Come And Get These Memories” – a make-out song, if ever there was one.
Returning to more familiar territory, Martha related a story about having gone to a certain movie with her son, sitting in the front row, and her son admonishing her not to make a scene during the movie. “The movie was ‘Good Morning, Vietnam,’ and when Robin Williams played this song on his radio show, you bet I jumped up and made a scene!” The song, of course, was “Nowhere To Run,” one of Martha & The Vandellas biggest hits and most instantly identifiable recordings.
The setlist interspersed the group’s well-known songs with carefully chosen covers. Following their hits, “Love like Yours (Don’t Come Knockin’Every Day)” and a too-slow “Jimmy Mack,” Martha introduced their version of George Harrison’s “Something,” by noting with pride that, although The Beatles caused massive traffic jams when they came to the U.S., when Martha & The Vandellas and the rest of the Motown Review went to England, “We shut down Heathrow!” Back to the hits, with the bouncy, uptempo 1964 smash “Heat Wave,”before Martha and her sisters paid tribute to the late Marvin Gaye, covering “What’s Goin’ On?” The singers were able to take a breather on this one, as each of the eight members of the band was given a solo, and an individual shout-out by Ms. Reeves. Classy! Next up was the Johnny Bristol-penned tearjerker, “No One There,” sung by Martha in a quavering voice that threatened to break at any minute.
But, you can’t end the show on a downbeat note, so it was time for THE BIG ONE: “Dancing In The Streets,” one of the biggest selling singles of all time, recorded by everyone from The Mamas and The Papas and Neil Diamond, to Van Halen and the David Bowie/Mick Jagger duet. Although Martha got no takers when she asked the audience to “Get up and do the ‘Temptation Walk’ with me” during “Jimmy Mack,” for this song, she had no difficulty rousing the crowd from their seats to move and clap along to the infectious rhythm. The stage version included a medley of Motown hits, plus a nod to Stax, with the inclusion of Eddie Floyd’s “Knock On Wood.” Martha and The Vandellas left the stage as they had entered, with the band in high gear accompanying them.
If you’ve followed us at all, you know that seeyouattherockshow isn’t a nostalgia website. While we love and appreciate older, well-established artists, we’re also eager to sing the praises of newer or lesser known musicians. In the case of Martha Reeves and The Vandellas, we pay tribute not just to their own formidable catalogue, but also to their role as purveyors of an important and influential style of music that is fading from public view. The Motown era is a significant chapter in American musical history, and we can be thankful that Martha Reeves and her sisters are still out there to remind us of that. So, pay attention, Gen X thru Z-ers! Do yourselves a favor and drag out some of Mom’s & Dad’s old Marvin Gaye, Supremes, Martha & The Vandellas, and Temps & Tops records and give a listen. There will be a test!