TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Peaks at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the week ending Saturday, October 17, 1964.
SONGWRITERS: William “Mickey” Stevenson, Marvin Gaye, Ivy Jo Hunter.
PRODUCER: William “Mickey” Stevenson.
BACKSTORY: This is not only one of the most-played records in Motown’s seven decades of music history, from 1959 to today, but also one of its most familiar stories. Look, there was even an entire book based on it, entitled Ready For A Brand New Beat: How ‘Dancing In The Street’ Became The Anthem For A Changing America by Mark Kurlansky, published in 2014.
Three of the people most involved with making the record deserve to be featured here. First of all, there is co-writer and producer Mickey Stevenson, who recalled in his memoir (The A&R Man) that “Dancing In The Street” was originally intended for his wife, Kim Weston. After work was completed on the instrumental track, Mickey decided to have Martha Reeves – his secretary at the time – sing a demo vocal for Kim to hear the tune. “Now when Martha had finished singing that song,” Mickey wrote, “a complete silence fell over the control room. Marvin Gaye, Ivy Jo and I all looked at each other, in shock! We all heard and felt the same thing. Martha sung the song like a star.”
Marvin told his biographer David Ritz in Divided Soul that he didn’t want to be “one of the cats behind the scenes,” regardless of his backroom abilities. “I was determined to get out front,” he said. “I wound up working on tunes like ‘Dancing In The Street’ for Martha and the Vandellas. In those days, even if I did most of the writing and my partners might only contribute a word or a note, I’d share the credit with them equally. I didn’t have eyes to compose. I was afraid that my writing talent was so great, I’d get distracted from singing.” On the basis of this record, no one would question Marvin’s songwriting skills, but it surely was his singing which made him a superstar.
In her autobiography, written with Mark Bego, Martha Reeves recognized “Dancing In The Street” as “one of our crowning achievements.” When she first heard the song, Marvin was the vocalist, and she felt it wasn’t right for her key. “So they said, ‘OK, Martha, give it your treatment,’ and I came up with the melody.” She added, “I’ve always said that ‘Dancing In The Street’ is Mickey Stevenson’s greatest gift to me. Not only did he write it, but he produced it as well. Kim Weston always reminds me that the song was written in her attic because she was married to Mickey Stevenson at the time, and I always tease her that she let a good song get away – right out from under her own roof!”
And what record blocked “Dancing In The Street” from gaining its rightful place at the peak of the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1964? It was Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” which made Martha & the Vandellas runners-up for two consecutive weeks. Fortunately, Motown then dislodged the Manfreds with “Baby Love,” the Supremes’ second Number One. Still, that won’t have pleased Martha: she and her Vandellas never again came as close to the peak of the Hot 100.
REMAKES: Motown hits have captured the imagination of hundreds, if not thousands, of singers and musicians worldwide, but the number of remakes has rarely topped one hundred. “Dancing In The Street” is one such song. It has attracted solo guys (from Little Richard to George Clinton, Livingston Taylor to Neil Diamond, Gary Glitter to Phil Collins) and solo girls (from Brenda Lee to Cilla Black, Petula Clark to Linda Jones, Irma Thomas to Laura Nyro) – but most of all, it has attracted groups, from many music genres. To name just a few who have kept this “Street” dancing: the Everly Brothers, the Dovells, the Kinks, the Mamas & Papas, the Walker Brothers, the Who, the Grateful Dead, Black Oak Arkansas, the Flirtations, Van Halen, Human Nature, and Atomic Kitten. And that’s not even to mention two of the biggest stars of the past 60 years…
FOOTNOTE: David Bowie and Mick Jagger – not so much for glory, but for charity. It was Live Aid architect Bob Geldof who sought out these two British rock superstars, asking them to donate the profits of their version of “Dancing In The Street” to the African famine relief cause he was championing. The two recorded their vocals in four hours, by one account, while Bowie was working on the soundtrack of Absolute Beginners at London’s Abbey Road studios. “We banged it out in just two takes,” Jagger told Rolling Stone. “It was an interesting exercise in how you can do something without worrying too much.” He and Bowie then set to work on a video for the song, also taped in London, and this was screened twice during the transatlantic Live Aid event in 1985. For that charitable cause, the rewards came in earnest when “Dancing In The Street” reached the Billboard Top 10, Number One (for four weeks) in Britain, and chart heights in many other countries. Now that’s calling out around the world.