Motown’s Martha Reeves reflects on impact of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Cleveland Connects

March 28, 2018 GMT

Motown’s Martha Reeves reflects on impact of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame: Cleveland Connects

CLEVELAND, Ohio - In 1995, famed Motown group Martha and the Vandellas were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Later that year, Vandellas singer Martha Reeves would stand between Yoko Ono, Little Richard and Mary Wilson as the red ribbon was cut for the Rock Hall’s new home in Cleveland.

The Rock Hall induction ceremony returns to Cleveland this April 14. Ahead of the main event, Reeves will appear at the Rock Hall for a special Cleveland Connects forum 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, April 3. She’ll join current Rock Hall CEO Greg Harris and former executive directors Dennis Barrie and David Abbott in a discussion of the institution’s past, as well as its present impact and lasting legacy.

The Rock Hall landed in Cleveland after a long campaign that built on its ties to DJ Alan Freed, often cited as helping to coin the term rock and roll, and the city’s history of breaking music legends. Public-private investors eventually funded $65 million of the $92 million museum designed by acclaimed architect I.M. Pei. Today, according to a new impact study, it attracts 568,000 visitors annually and has generated more than 1,800 jobs and $59.5 million in wages.

“The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the best thing that’s ever happened to us,” Reeves says in a call from her home in Detroit.

Reeves may talk ecstatically about the night of the inductions 23 years later, but an appearance by the Vandellas almost didn’t happen. A snow storm delayed the band’s trip from Boston to New York, where the ceremony was held, and they landed in just the nick of time. Reeves’ personal choice to induct the band, The B-52s, rushed to meet the Vandellas.

“We were so relieved when we finally arrived at the hotel,” Reeves says. “We pulled out our clothes, put on our little dresses we were planning to wear and ran down to be inducted. We were greeted by (B-52s frontman) Fred Schneider saying, ‘Thank God you made it.’ They had the music keyed up. We got there just in time and in divine order. It was a wonderful night and I’ll never forget it.” 

For Reeves and the Vandellas, who’d hit fame in the 1960s with hits like “Dancing in the Streets,” “Nowhere to Run” and “Heatwave,” it marked not only a milestone, but a new beginning.

“It was the start of our celebration,” Reeves says. “We were part of a sort of revolution. I think our style, and the people we were inducted with, were forerunners. We were standing on the shoulders of jazz greats.”

It wasn’t just the inductions that Reeves remembers fondly. On Sept. 2, 1995, she was part of the unforgettable Concert for the Hall of Fame to celebrate the new Cleveland museum. The Cleveland Municipal Stadium show boasted an all-star, generation-spanning lineup of young stars and legends. For Reeves, it was the memories of the behind-the-scenes action – like introducing her brother to one of his musical heroes or shielding her young grandson’s eyes from James Brown’s dancers rushing around the dressing room - that live on beyond the performances.

“Being inducted was great, but that concert for the opening was just incredible,” Reeves says. “Seeing all the people whose names were sometimes just faces, but getting to know the actual people, and perform with them, that was the biggest thrill I’ve ever had. To get to walk around in fellowship. Everyone was just so happy to be there and celebrate coming together.” 

As many who were in the audience remember, it was a late night. Reeves joined John Cougar Mellencamp for a rendition of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night.” Martha and the Vandellas came to the stage near the end of the evening to perform their hit, “Dancing in the Streets.” 

“It went until 2 in the morning,” Reeves says. “That was an all-day affair. After witnessing everyone, we know why it took so long. Everyone just showed out.”

As Reeves later embarked on a career on the Detroit City Council from 2005 to 2009, she channeled the fiery, Motown-inspired passion that she exuded on the stages in her hometown and around the world into public service.

“People would call me on a daily basis and tell me if I was doing good, if I was making the right votes,” Reeves says. “I owe it all to the people, just like it took the people here in Detroit to make Motown famous. It took the whole city of Detroit to make the Motown sound. It’s a wonderful place to be, and I’m happy to say I was there from the beginning.”

Today, that same pipeline from music to politics lives on at the Rock Hall. The institution uses the Vandellas’ hit, “Dancing in the Streets,” in its the Digital Classroom educational program. The song, released shortly after the signing of the Civil Rights Act, unintentionally became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement. Through Digital Classroom, students throughout the country are taught about the song’s social and polticial impact.

That broad, renowned reach of the Rock Hall is part of what makes the Vandellas’ induction so distinguished, Reeves says. Being a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee is a title that resonates with music loves from Detroit to Cleveland to around the world. 

“I’m very proud to be counted as an honoree,” Reeves says. “I’m proud to tell people we’ve been inducted. And we always get a round of applause when we tell people we’ve been celebrated in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”