Picks and Pans Review: Dancing in the Streets: Confessions of a Motown Diva

updated 09/12/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/12/1994 01:00AM

Martha Reeves and Mark Bego

This is what Martha Reeves has to say about touring with a 1991 soul-revival show that featured ringer groups covering Motown hits: "Thank goodness there is only one Martha Reeves because without me there is no Martha and the Vandellas. I am really irritated by people pretending they were real Motown artists or real members of classic groups they never had any part of creating. Oh, well, that's show business, I guess—like it or not."

And like it or not, that's the kind of self-serving rant that dampens these not-so-confessional confessions. What Reeves delivers here is the Cliffs Notes of her life: Humble beginnings in Detroit, where she started singing at age 3; a secretarial job at Motown in 1961 that led to a shot in the studio singing backup for Marvin Gaye and subbing for an absent Mary Wells; and, eventually, grooming and star treatment from Motown mogul Berry Gordy. Reeves recalls sitting in his car outside her parent's overcrowded house, while Gordy, whom she calls "my knight," thrilled her with tales of a golden future.

For a while it was. By 1964, Martha and the Vandellas were certified Motown divas. It's not clear from Bego's bland narrative why Reeves eventually turned to drugs, though it was surely related to Gordy's shifting his focus to the woman Martha calls Diane, using the ex-Supreme's birth name as a dig. (Gordy saw the more conventionally pretty Ross, with her toothy smile and little-girl coo, as Motown's ultimate ticket into the bigger world of movies and TV.) Reeves, a more powerful, hard-edged soul singer, became one of the also-rans.

Reeves give superficial mention to a number to topics—the son she bore out of wedlock, health problems, her romantic and financial highs and lows—that will frustrate readers who want to know more. All too often, in fact, she shrugs off revealing details with a maddening airiness. Oh, well, maybe that's show business. (Hyperion, $22.95)

BACK TO THE BOOKS

Good news for high schoolers: Starting in 1995, you will definitely rack up higher college boards. The bad news: Every test-taker in America is going to seem more of an Einstein, thanks to the decision by the SAT folks to "recalibrate" the median scores upwards.

Alas, homework will still count. And, for about $60, you can assemble a set of budget reference books that will beef up those last-minute reports. Here is a recommended reading list:

Most abridged paperback dictionaries contain some 60,000 definitions and differ little except in typeface; the Random House Webster's (Ballantine, $4.99) and Webster's New World (Warner, $4.50) are more reader-friendly.

The Concise Columbia Encyclopedia (Avon, $14.95) provides deft precis of people (like seminal U.S. physicist John Bardeen), places (Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America) and things (topping out at 1,454 feet, Chicago's Sears Tower is the world's tallest building) up to 1989. The New American Desk Encyclopedia (Signet, $8.50) is neither as comprehensive nor as gracefully written, but it does contain more current information about world events.

Unlike traditional world almanacs, the Universal Almanac 1994 (Andrews and McMeel, $12.95) lacks a list of showbiz stars' real names (Ben Kingsley was born Krishna Banji). But it's jammed with data both useful (standard math formulae) and arcane (46 percent of U.S. homes have a cordless phone).

Don't know much about geography? Then ditch any atlas printed before 1989, when the Communist empire began to implode. Handiest of the budget atlases: the New Century World (Rand McNally, $11.95).

If science is your interest, consider the Penguin Dictionary of Science (Penguin, $12.50). It defines terms from biology, chemistry, and computers. And, if you're studying a foreign language, invest in a bilingual dictionary (roughly $5) for translating phrases more obscure than hasta la vista, baby.

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