At this point, it’s no longer a brand-new beat. It’s a familiar beat, one that has woven itself into the fabric of American culture, staking out a permanent position on oldies FM, on your friend’s bar mitzvah playlist and at your cousin’s wedding reception.
Written by William “Mickey” Stevenson, Marvin Gaye and Ivy Jo Hunter and sung by Martha Reeves, “Dancing in the Street” is among the best-known tunes produced by the Detroit R&B label Motown. It was a hit, too: Released in 1964, it climbed all the way to No. 2 on the U.S. Billboard Pop Singles Chart. It never managed to snatch the No. 1 slot, which was held by Manfred Mann’s cover of “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” but it has certainly eclipsed that song in terms of cross-generational appeal. If you missed Martha and the Vandellas’ version, then you heard it a decade later, performed by Van Halen or the Grateful Dead, or as a duet between David Bowie and Mick Jagger.
If you’ve ever found yourself at an airport bookstore, looking for a way to demolish six hours of idle time, then you’re likely familiar with Kurlansky’s work. The author has carved out a niche in the nonfiction world by finding drama amid banal subject matter. His formula is most visible in the titles of his bestsellers, which pit kitchen-friendly objects against civilization as we know it: “Salt: A World History” or “Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.” They provided entertainment under the auspices of self-enrichment — Wikipedia before Wikipedia existed.
Unfortunately, there’s not much drama to “Dancing in the Street.” The story behind the song is not particularly eventful. Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. viewed his label as a hit factory, and in many ways the song was just one more tune that rolled off the conveyor belt. In July of 1964, Reeves showed up at Motown’s Hittsville studio and was coaxed by Gaye, Hunter and Stevenson to sing a demo version of their new song. The producers liked her version and decided to release it. The process did not involve much in the way of blood, sweat or tears.
In fact, the parties involved in creating the song prove formidable foes to Kurlansky’s thesis that “Dancing’ captures the early ’60s zeitgeist. In their opinion, it was just another song. Though Gordy supported the civil rights struggle, he sought to keep politics out of his label’s music. “He wanted to show white people that in the age of dangerous, angry black people, of black power, and ghetto rebellions, Motown blacks were neither angry nor dangerous,” Kurlansky writes.
Asked about the political events of the ’60s, Reeves insisted that she wasn’t involved. “I just want to be responsible for being a good singer.”
Stevenson was political, but according to Kurlansky, he believed that the song’s only message was that “all kinds of people could get along together.” Gaye, who died in 1984, came closest to backing Kurlansky’s view. He is quoted in a passage taken from David Ritz’s biography, “Divided Soul,” saying that the song “felt political.”
Kurlansky’s strongest argument comes from analyzing what separated the song from other Motown singles. “The new R&B of the mid-1960s was making the old Motown songs of requited or unrequited love, such as those by the Supremes or Smokey Robinson, seem slightly old-fashioned,” he writes. But “Dancing in the Street” was different because it was upbeat, positive and had lyrics that told a more general story. When it was played at a rally, it made sense.
A compelling case for “Dancing in the Street” as a generation-defining riff never quite emerges, though, and most of Kurlansky’s arguments could be applied to other songs, like Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” which addressed the times in a more direct manner.
Kurlansky spends much of “Ready for a Brand New Beat” explaining the cultural context of the mid-’60s music business, moving from the origins of rock-and-roll and the racial tensions that it exposed, to the civil rights struggle and the rise and decline of Motown. In this environment, the purchase of a record could hold additional meaning, and, in a small but significant way, it promoted change in society. Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street” was one of those records, but one of many.
Leitko is a freelance writer in the District.
READY FOR A BRAND NEW BEAT
How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America
By Mark Kurlansky
Riverhead. 263 pp. $27.95