Can a song change a nation? In 1964, Marvin Gaye, record producer William “Mickey” Stevenson, and Motown songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter wrote “Dancing in the Street.” The song was recorded at Motown’s Hitsville USA Studio by Martha and the Vandellas, with lead singer Martha Reeves arranging her own vocals. Released on July 31, the song was supposed to be an upbeat dance recording—a precursor to disco, and a song about the joyousness of dance. But events overtook it, and the song became one of the icons of American pop culture.
The Beatles had landed in the U.S. in early 1964. By the summer, the sixties were in full swing. The summer of 1964 was the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the beginning of the Vietnam War, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the lead-up to a dramatic election. As the country grew more radicalized in those few months, “Dancing in the Street” gained currency as an activist anthem. The song took on new meanings, multiple meanings, for many different groups that were all changing as the country changed.
Told by the writer who is legendary for finding the big story in unlikely places, Ready for a Brand New Beat chronicles that extraordinary summer of 1964 and showcases the momentous role that a simple song about dancing played in history.
In 1964, Motown, a little record label from Detroit, grew into a voice for a generation, releasing, according to Kurlansky, "60 singles, of which 70% hit the Top 100 chart and 19 were #1 hits." Kurlansky (Salt) deftly chronicles the story of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street, "a Motown song that made the transition from the early to late 1960s from hope and idealism to urban riots and the escalation of war in Vietnam. In meticulous detail, he tells the story of the song itself: Ivy Jo Hunter, Mickey Stevenson, and Marvin Gaye wrote a new track that Stevenson had promised to his wife, Kim Weston. Released in August 1964, "Dancing in the Street" climbed up the Billboard charts to reach the #2 spot by October. The song's lyrics had different meanings for different audiences many white listeners heard it as a party song, while many black listeners embraced it as a song of liberation and revolution. Enduringly popular, "Dancing in the Street" has been covered at least 35 times, by musicians from the Grateful Dead and Van Halen to Ramsey Lewis and Laura Nyro, and its opening riffs inspired the Rolling Stones' "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction."