New book explores how one Motown song embodied the spirit of revolution

Aug 26, 2013

“Dancing in the Street,” written by Mickey Stevenson, Ivy Jo Hunter and Marvin Gaye, and recorded in two takes, less than 10 minutes, by Martha Reeves. For many, that song is Motown.

Little did they know after slapping down Martha’s vocals in that studio in Hitsville on West Grand Boulevard, they had created a song that would come to represent a watershed moment in history--Motown’s history, Detroit’s history, and America’s history.

Writer Mark Kurlansky talks about the story of how this hit Motown song became the rallying point for these important moments in history in his newest book, “Ready For A Brand New Beat: How ‘Dancing in the Street’ Became the Anthem for a Changing America.”

“Barry Gordy built Motown by grabbing all of these talented kids out of high school . . . this was a day in which public high schools in poor urban neighborhoods had great music programs, most of which have been cut now,” said Kurlansky. “[Kids] would try to somehow get a foot in at Hitsville.”

Martha Reeves was one of those kids. One day in June 1964, she heard that Marvin Gaye was recording a new song called “Dancing in the Street.”

“She didn’t think much of the title,” Kurlansky said. “She told me she would have much rather done a song about dancing in an elegant ballroom.”

“Dancing in the Street” was originally written for Kim Weston, Mickey Stevenson’s wife, to sing. They were in the studio that day to make a demo tape for her. Reeves had been singing backup for Gaye, and was asked to sing for the demo.

“After she sang it, she just so nailed it that they just couldn’t imagine anybody else singing it,” said Kurlansky.

The summer of 1964 was a very significant time politically, socially, and culturally. America was still reeling after the assassination of JFK that previous November, the Civil Rights Act was passed, the U.S. was becoming more mired in Vietnam, the three young Freedom Riders were murdered in Mississippi, the first urban uprising of the summer blew up in Harlem, then about 3 weeks later, race riots in Paterson and Elizabeth, New Jersey, the Beatles hit America that February and came back that summer for a one-month tour, and the Warren Commission declared that Lee Harvey Oswald had acted alone.

“There were a lot of people who genuinely believed that this song was inspiring people to riot,” Kurlansky said. In the summer of 1967, there were 120 uprisings.

Reeves always insisted that the song was about having a good time at a street party, but that was not necessarily what the writers were thinking. Mickey Stevenson said that the song was about integration. Eventually, "Dancing in the Street" came to be associated with the struggle for black rights and, later, women’s right.

“It shows the importance of a song,” said Kurlansky. “Songs tell us all about who we are, where we came from, and what we aspire to be.”

-Michelle Nelson, Michigan Radio Newsroom

Listen to the full interview above.