Martha Reeves opens up about fighting racism to bring Motown to the world

18 October 2021, 12:32 | Updated: 16 November 2023, 11:07

Martha Reeves & The Vandellas in concert
Martha Reeves & The Vandellas in concert. Picture: Getty

By Mayer Nissim

'Dancing in the Street' hitmaker Martha Reeves talks about the "constant presence" of racism in her life.

Listen to this article

Loading audio...

Martha Reeves is a music icon, leading Martha and the Vandellas to a run of hit singles in the 1960s and '70s, including the signature smash 'Dancing in the Street'.

The group were signed to the Gordy imprint of the Motown label, whose incredible artists have long been recognised as helping to break down barriers and challenge then-widespread segregation in the US.

That segregation extended to the music industry, with Billboard even publishing a Race Records chart between 1945 and 1949, before the magazine's Jerry Wexler renamed it, coining the term 'Rhythm and Blues' in the process.

Martha & The Vandellas "Dancing in the Streets"

Read more: A Marvin Gaye musical biopic with the full backing of Motown is in the works

"Racism has been a constant presence in my life, Martha told The Guardian.

"In the '60s we had to fight and work far too hard to convince people we should be allowed to bring Motown to diverse crowds in auditoriums."

She added: "Rocks were thrown; abuse was shouted. People denied us access to public toilets.

"When we made it to the stage, we’d wipe off the dust and put on our fancy clothes. However we felt, we’d always step out and shine like royalty."

Back in 2015, Reeves told the same newspaper that at one show in Alabama there was a physical barrier between white and black fans with two supposed security guards beating anyone dancing to the music, before Smokey Robinson got them to stand down.

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles - Mickey's Monkey (Lyric Video)

Gold's Hall of Fame: Smokey Robinson

"And we saw with our own eyes, on the finale of 'Mickey’s Monkey', which was his big hit at the time, people get up out of their seats, break the barrier down and become one audience," she said.

They started embracing each other, hitting each other’s hands, giving each other fives and getting up to dance together."

Martha added: "These were people that wouldn’t speak to each other when they first walked in.

"It proved that prejudice and racism is taught, and once people got up and broke those barriers down, we were one happy, lovable dancing family. And at the next gig we did, there was no barrier, no guards, and we went on peacefully after that."

Last Played Songs