Times have changed – a lot – since Martha Reeves was a secretary for Motown songwriter William Stevenson in the early 1960s.
Today, secretaries are personal assistants, and back then, Motown didn’t hesitate to pull Reeves from her desk to sing backup on Marvin Gaye’s first hits “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and “Hitch Hike” when the original backup vocalist (supposedly Mary Wells) failed to show up for the recording sessions. Today, some personal assistants fear they might lose their jobs if their bosses knew they had aspirations beyond answering phones, taking dictation and making coffee.
Welcome to Julie Roberts’ world.
After graduating from Belmont University in Nashville, the 25-year-old South Carolina native took a job at Mercury Records as the assistant to Luke Lewis, chairman of Universal Music Group Nashville. At night, the strikingly beautiful singer held on to her dream of becoming a country star, playing small, out-of-the-way venues with her band – hoping co-workers wouldn’t find out.
“You keep the secret because you’re scared,” Roberts said recently. “When you’re scared, it’s not hard. I was afraid I’d get fired. I have bills just like everybody else. I took out a lot of loans for school; I had a car payment and rent to pay. I needed the job. I would do my work then do my thing at night.
“People would say, ‘Well, didn’t people hear you play out at night?’ They didn’t because we were playing in places like laundromats, little pizza houses. In Nashville, people play wherever they can – even for free.”
Besides, Roberts says, no one wants to hear about yet another ambitious singer. Nashville is full of them.
By 2003, the secret was out. Producer Brent Rowan pitched to Lewis some songs from new artists he had been working with – among them Roberts. Her rich, soulful voice stood out to Lewis. He wanted to know who she was. “It’s the girl right down the hall,” Rowan told him. “It’s your assistant.”
Lewis didn’t fire Roberts. He signed her to Mercury, and she even helped him find her replacement.
“Even before he knew I was a singer, he’d ask for my opinion on things,” she said. “He was a great boss. I didn’t want to leave him. I worked there until August of last year, when he hired a new assistant. He told me jokingly, ‘When you find a new assistant, just make sure she can’t sing.’ “
Roberts definitely can sing, as evidenced on her self-titled debut album, out May 25, and her first single, “Break Down Here.”
“I’m very strong in my faith,” Roberts said. “I knew this was the dream that God put in my heart from the time I was really little. If I kept my faith, I knew some day it would work out. I didn’t know how and I didn’t know it’d be with Mercury, but you just can’t lose sight of it.”
America will see plenty of Julie Roberts through the end of May, thanks to a CMT hourlong special, “In the Moment: Julie Roberts,” which premieres at 10 p.m. May 28. Cameras followed her around for months, capturing every step of the process – from recording the album to making radio appearances.
“They’ve been taping me since January, hundreds and hundreds of hours of me,” Roberts said. “They stopped (a few weeks ago) so they could do some editing so the first hour is ready on the 28th. They’re going to be there again for my release party.”
Depending on the ratings success of the special, more Roberts segments could follow.
“A lot of people say reality shows are fake,” she said. “Whether they are or aren’t, this one’s not going to be fake. The first two days of the five months they were with me, I got kind of weirded out by it, but then you really do forget about them. You don’t act. You live your life. They weren’t intrusive. They don’t talk to you; they’re just there. It’s real.
“You’ll see me on my first radio bus tour. You’ll see me with makeup on and makeup off. You’ll see the real Julie. You’ll also see things that people outside the industry don’t normally see, like making your first album, the photo shoots, first radio visits.”
Roberts says she didn’t have any “diva moments” during her time with the film crew, but she will see the finished product for the first time on May 28, just like viewers. “I wasn’t allowed to see it,” she said. “I don’t know what they’ll put in.”
There’s more in May. Roberts will make her third appearance at the Grand Ole Opry on May 29, and she’s scheduled to perform on ABC’s “Good Morning America” on Memorial Day (May 31).
“I’m trying not to think too much about it,” Roberts said, “but it’s so exciting now having my first record coming out. I’m nervous, but I’m very excited. I wanted to make an album that I believed in. I didn’t record any songs that I didn’t believe that you couldn’t feel the emotions, that I could relate to. When you heard it, I wanted you to know that I’ve lived it.”
THE FIRST RECORD I EVER BOUGHT: “Tiffany’s ‘I Think We’re Alone Now.’ Mama always had country records that I always listened to, but Tiffany is the first one I bought with my own money.”
THE FIRST CONCERT I EVER WENT TO: “Alison Krauss & Union Station. Alison was playing at a bluegrass festival in North Carolina. My family and I sat on a grass field to watch her play. I don’t remember the name of the festival, I just remember that she was amazing. After that show, I really began to love bluegrass music. Alison was very young; about 18 I think.”
THE WORST JOB I’VE EVER HAD: “I’ve always tried to make the most of every job and try to make them fun, but I must say that I do not want to scan groceries ever again. I did that for two years in South Carolina for Harris Teeter. I loved my customers, but not the job.”
ON THE WEB: www.julieroberts.com.
More updates: Joe Henry, Marcus King, Lily Kershaw, Poliça, Sarah Brightman, Jerry Leger, Simple Minds, Grateful Dead, etc