Martha Reeves: Who is the Motown legend with the 'best battle cry in pop'?

Martha's version of "Dancing In The Street" plays in our heads whenever we read the words "Calling out around the world/are you ready for a brand new beat?"

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Female Motown stars like Martha Reeves were ladies rather than girls. Motown's godfather, Berry Gordy, said they were making "the sound of young America", but Martha and her Vandellas were expected to dress conservatively and move stewardess-style. Their Pepsodental appearances on TV pop shows seemed to play down the throbbing abandon in records like "Heat Wave", "Dancing In The Street", and "Jimmy Mack".

Martha was born in the South, raised in the church, and schooled in Detroit's unforgiving nightclub circuit. She was hired at Motown as a secretary with a musical ear, sang back-ups on Marvin Gaye hits, and got lucky with material written by the nonpareil Holland-Dozier-Holland. But there was room for just one superstar female at Motown and that was the boss's girlfriend, Diana Ross. In 1974 Martha made what was hailed as the most expensive solo album ever made. Such accolades rarely augur well.

 

When the label moved to Los Angeles in the late 1960s Martha remained in Detroit. She still roots for the city, particularly in difficult times. Having served a bruising spell on the Detroit Council, she has recently returned to singing those ageless songs live.

Thirty years ago this month, at Live Aid, David Bowie and Mick Jagger unveiled their "Dancing In The Street". Whereas most of us had the decency to forget that version, Martha's plays in our heads whenever we read the words "Calling out around the world/are you ready for a brand new beat?" The way Martha sings it, it's the best battle cry in pop.

David Hepworth co-founded 'The Word' magazine and edited 'Smash Hits'

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