Ready For a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America

Reprinted by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Ready For a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America by Mark Kurlansky. Copyright ©2013 by Mark Kurlansky. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.


Calling Out Around the World

Detroit, July 1964

Summer’s here and everything is about to change. Although the United States is not yet in full-scale combat in Vietnam, there are some troops there, and on May 27 President Lyndon Johnson said to his close friend Senator Richard Russell of Georgia, then chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a conversation that he secretly recorded, “We’re in the quicksand up to our necks, and I just don’t know what the hell to do about it.”

Other invasions are in the works. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a vanguard of the civil rights movement, had begun what they called “the Mississippi Summer Project,” but it became famously known as “the Mississippi Freedom Summer.” SNCC had gathered hundreds of volunteers, mostly college students, black and white, on a college campus in Oxford, Ohio; trained them in the tactics of engaged nonviolence, which included such skills as how to act while someone is beating you; and were now sending them to penetrate the heart of segregation, rural Mississippi, and register black voters. In Mississippi villages, so-called klaverns of the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were reviving, and preparing to meet “the nigger-Communist invasion of Mississippi” with raw violence. Three volunteers for the Summer Project are missing, and President Johnson, under intense public pressure, has sent thousands of federal agents to Mississippi to look for their bodies. The grim hunt is occupying the front pages of most newspapers.

A group of academics, including Clark Kerr, president of the University of California at Berkeley, are off to travel to Russia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia for a series of discussions on the crumbling Soviet bloc. Kerr is not thinking about things crumbling at home as well, and in fact has said that the current college generation is “easy to handle.” After the summer he would return to student demonstrations on his campus that would alter his assessment.

This is an election year, and this summer there will be party conventions that will change the American political landscape. Even as the now almost-twenty-year-old nonviolent civil rights movement is having its most dramatic summer, another kind of black voice is emerging: At the same time that Martha Reeves is heading into her recording studio, in June 1964, in another week Malcolm X, a dissident voice with a growing following in Detroit and other cities, will declare, “We want freedom by any means necessary.”

Another invasion, the British Invasion, is already under way. In February, four Liverpudlians rushed through America on a one-week, three-city tour. They appeared on Ed Sullivan’s popular television variety show. It was the biggest coup for the tight-shouldered host in a suit since he had brought on Elvis Presley in September 1956. With songs such as “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—songs that seem adolescent when compared to the heart-wrenching rhythm & blues from Detroit—they seem to have won over huge numbers of teenagers. More and more teenage boys are showing up with dark, collarless sport jackets that make them look like waiters, their hair seemingly trimmed with a salad bowl over their head, in a style weirdly reminiscent of Moe from the Three Stooges.

The four were to return for a far bigger tour that summer, but before they landed in August, another group, the Rolling Stones, arrived for a tour in June. More and more British groups are coming, and a country that only a few years before had so few rock concerts that young people went to American rock ’n’ roll movies instead is now starting to dominate American music.

Black-owned Motown, in Detroit, would be one of the few companies to withstand the Anglophile encroachment and produce top American hits. But Motown’s success, with a bunch of untried black kids from inner-city Detroit, had been as improbable as that of the Beatles in Liverpool. Since the birth of rock ’n’ roll in the 1950s, popular music has been a field that offers enormous stardom, and it is seemingly and excitingly unpredictable whom the young public will choose. A man in ringlets and mascara calling himself Little Richard; a wild-looking black man named Chuck Berry, who hopped around the stage madly; an even wilder Texas redneck named Jerry Lee Lewis, who could play the piano with his feet—who could say who the next star would be, or the next big hit?

America is about to change, but for very different reasons, so is the life of Martha Reeves. Living with her mother and father and ten siblings in the two-story wooden Eastside house that her father had bought with earnings from his job with the city water company, Martha will soon turn twenty-three years old. It has been only three years since she gave up her job with a dry cleaner. She has now had three Top 40 hits with her group, the Vandellas. In fact, she is a famous R&B singer not only in the black world but on the white charts as well, reaching number 4. People who know popular music know who Martha Reeves is. She is one of the top recording stars of the now very hot Motown studios.

But to her this is still new and strange. Growing up, she knew that she was a good singer and a gifted musician. Her family told her so, and so did her teachers. But being famous was never something she had seen in her future. A few years later, black Detroit high school kids would dream of going to Motown and becoming famous, but when Martha was in high school, such things did not happen.

Now, despite her fame and her three hit records, she is taking the bus across Woodward Avenue to that warm family-like studio that felt like her second home, the little place that has made her famous.

As far as she knows, the studio has no new song lined up for her at the moment. She is between records, so she is going there to get instructions that will improve her act. On this particular day Martha is going to the studio to see Maxine Powell, a tiny woman who had a finishing school and advises Martha and other Motown singers on their public demeanor. She always respectfully calls her “Miss Powell.” Sometimes she goes there for music instruction from Maurice King, an old pro from the big band days, whom she always calls “Mr. King.” Even though her twenty-third birthday is in a few weeks, in some ways she is still a kid going to school.

She takes the westbound bus on Grand Boulevard. She is not thinking about Vietnam or Mississippi. The conflict she thinks about every time she takes the bus past the country houses and busy factories of Detroit is an ongoing gang war between the Eastside and the Westside. An Eastsider like herself could get beaten up just for crossing Woodward Avenue if she wasn’t on the bus.

She gets off the bus deep in the enemy Westside territory and walks into a house about the size of her own, with a hand-painted blue wooden sign on the front that says Hitsville U.S.A. She is in Motown.

She hears that Marvin Gaye is in Studio A recording a song called “Dancing in the Street.” She doesn’t think much of the song, or at least the title.

But the song was written by Mickey Stevenson, the director of Artists and Repertory, the division responsible for developing talent. Stevenson had brought her into Motown as his secretary, and among his coauthors of the song is Marvin Gaye. Martha had begun her Motown career singing backup for Gaye and developed enormous admiration for him and always wanted to hear his recording sessions. Many people did. In fact, at twenty-two Martha still has what appears to be a teenage crush on Gaye. Gaye was a sexy, enigmatic man who crooned, played several instruments, wrote songs, and wandered the little Hitsville house wearing a hat and sunglasses and smoking a corncob pipe. Almost a half century later, in her seventies, she will still get misty-eyed speaking about him, and drives through Detroit listening to his recordings. “I followed him around,” Martha confessed.

On this June day, Martha steps down into Studio A—a not very large room with white padded walls and a wooden floor, with a piano resting on one side of the room and four microphones hanging by their cables from the ceiling—and it is empty. The track has already been recorded, and Marvin is at the control console in the glass booth at one end of Studio A, listening to his take and singing over it. Martha immediately changes her view of the song when she hears the bouncy brass introduction. This song has a special sound. And she is hooked from the first line: “Calling out around the world.”

This is good. There is a sense of a call going out. Marvin is singing it in his romantic way. “When Marvin sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,’ it was romantic,” Martha said many years later.

Mickey Stevenson, another tall, handsome man, is in the control room with Marvin and their small, quick-witted coauthor, Ivy Jo Hunter. Seated at the controls is Lawrence Horn, the sound engineer. According to Martha, and this is one of her most cherished memories, suddenly Gaye looks down in the studio and then turns to Mickey Stevenson, who is producing the record, and says, “Hey, man, try this on Martha.”

Martha at this point has decided it is a good song but a song for a male voice, which in fact it never was intended to be. But she doesn’t argue with Marvin Gaye. She puts on the headphones and stands in front of a hanging microphone as a music track unlike anything she has ever heard erupts into her ears. Normally a demo tape was made and taken home and studied for a week or two before the recording session. That was what Gaye was trying to make. But Martha just sings it, as she would later say, the way she felt it. It reminds her of summers in Detroit. Someone would put a record player on the porch and everyone would go out in the street and dance.

When she is done, Ivy Jo Hunter has bad news for her. The take is great but they have failed to put the recorder on, and she will have to redo it. And so for the second time she sings “Dancing in the Street.” This time it is a bit edgier because she is irritated. She doesn’t like to redo takes. Her mother always said, “Put your best foot forward so you don’t have to do it again.” And that is the way Martha likes to work.

But when she finishes the second take she looks up at the control booth window and the men are congratulating each other as though something special has just happened. It happened in less than ten minutes. The take, like many recordings in those days of 45 rpm single records, is only two minutes and thirty-six seconds because that is the length that radio stations like to play. There is no talk of revising or altering anything. Rosalind Ashford and Betty Kelly, the two other Vandellas, are called in to sing the backup. Ivy Jo Hunter sings along with them to show them how it should go.

In June 1964 the social, political, and cultural upheaval that would be known as “the sixties” was about to explode, and Martha Reeves, knowing little about such things, has just sung its anthem.

Photo (partial) by © Sylvia Plachy

Mark Kurlansky is the New York Times–bestselling author of 24 books, including Cod, Salt, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, The Big Oyster, The Last Fish Tale, The Food of a Younger Land, The Eastern Stars, and Edible Stories. He lives in New York City.