In the very middle of 1964, a period when it seemed like America's radio waves had been captured by marauding British bands, Berry Gordy unleashed this juggernaut on Top 40 stations, yours, mine, and everyone else's.
There was much to love about this record. Martha Reeves was never among the top rank of Motown vocalists, but she knew how to put across a song. For this track, writer-producer Mickey Stevenson was joined, at least for label credit, by no less a luminary than Marvin Gaye himself, who was at the wheel, Stevenson riding shotgun, on a day when the city of Detroit would open up fire hydrants so kids could cool off. (You suggest something like that today and people will give you the side-eye from 90 to 270 degrees.) Stevenson later brought out a draft of the lyrics to this languid summer ballad; said Gaye, no, this is a dance number. Depending on whose history you read, the song was offered to either Mary Wells or Kim Weston, and was turned down.
I don't think, though, that Martha Reeves was given this song because no one else would take it; Marvin, in particular, knew what the Vandellas were capable of, since they'd sung on his "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" the previous year, and besides, everybody had loved "(Love Is Like a) Heat Wave," which followed. And Martha had some ideas of her own for the words. Ivy Jo Hunter, a piano player who would later surface as a writing partner for Mickey Stevenson, was brought in for some finishing touches. And once they had the track cut, everyone was delighted — except Hunter, who apparently wasn't convinced that Marvin Gaye was the best possible drummer for this song. So they knocked out one more take, this time with Hunter pounding a tire iron into the concrete floor on the downbeat. Now that's dedication.
Precisely how "Dancing in the Street" became a civil-rights anthem is perhaps best explained by osmosis: they heard that beat, and they wanted to move. At first, Reeves was puzzled by this phenomenon:
"We served as, basically, Freedom Riders," she says, referring to civil rights activists who challenged segregation in the South. "That was not our intent, because when we sat at lunch counters we weren't trying to protest. We were hungry people, trying to get some nourishment."
Which was an issue for entirely too many black entertainers in that day and age.
"It was rough, but people received our music everywhere we went. When we got back to Detroit after three months, we knew that our records would be in the charts, and they were."
But music does not exist in a vacuum, and during the long, hot summers to come, dancing gradually turned into marching in the street. And the lyrics provided, if not exactly marching orders, certainly marching locations: Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphis, Baltimore, Washington, and "Can't forget the Motor City!" If Berry Gordy was at all uncomfortable with this, he was wise enough not to say so.
Now here we are in 2017, a summer both long and hot, and there are marchers all across the nation and people wondering, as they did then, if this is the end of the grand American experiment. The 24-hour news cycle makes us roughly 576 times as anxious about things. Me, I'm turning off the TV and cranking up the tunes, and remembering a time when streets weren't so mean and kids could step off the curb and splash. Dance, even.
Oh, and Unexpected Percussionist Ivy Jo Hunter did it again, on the Vandellas' "Nowhere to Run"; nobody could ever second-guess Funk Brothers drummer Benny Benjamin, but Hunter turned up the tension to at least ten and a half, if not eleven, by dragging snow chains across the floor.
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Copyright © 2017 by Charles G. Hill