Motown Unreleased

Dancing in the Street: Our 25 Favorite Motown Songs

Detroit’s Motown Records will forever be important as a hit factory and an African American-owned label that achieved massive mainstream success and influence.

10. Martha & the Vandellas – “Dancing in the Street” (1964)

Written by Marvin Gaye, William “Mickey” Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter
Produced by William “Mickey” Stevenson
Reached #2 on the pop charts

It’s hard not to hear the premiere single from Motown’s Martha & the Vandellas and not think of bigger things. After all, the opening of the 1964 smash begins with the line “Calling out around the world”. Talk about your international invites. One of Hitsville USA’s first global anthems, the shout-out to party arms was originally disguised as a ballad. Composer William “Mickey” Stevenson tried to interest Marvin Gaye in the track by showing him an early, downbeat draft. The former Motown session drummer turned recording artist liked what he saw/heard, but thought it could be more “danceable”. With the help of some input from new songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter and some arrangement guidance from Vandellas’ mentors Holland-Dozier-Holland (talk about a talent-packed production team!), the eventual version was ready to record. With Martha Reeves on lead, it took only two takes to nail.

It’s all there from the moment you hear the deafening drum intro and opening brass band trill. The track chugs along like an express party train to your feet, toes tapping as fingers pop in perpetual motion. Echo enhanced the outsized scope of the song, but it’s the undeniable jingle of the ever-present Motown tambourine (a true label trademark) that suggests a kind of full-blown world fiesta. As Reeves intones the initial lines, her lower-register voice spouting out the sentiments, the rest of Motown’s sturdy house band (the infamous Funk Brothers) keep the groove locked in. At first, the song presents a standard early ’60s idea: “Summer’s here and the time is right / For dancing in the street.” Reeves is convincing, offering the new “beat” that will get you sweatin’ in the hot rays of a July sun.

By the chorus, she has us convinced that there’s no other choice but to join in and shake a tail feather — and Berry Gordy and the gang will be there to provide the soundtrack: “All we need is music, sweet music / There’ll be music everywhere / There’ll be swingin’, swayin’ and records playin’ / And dancin’ in the street.”

Later, as the litany of locations is peeled off, it’s interesting to note the lack of cities outside the US. Reeves name checks Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and, of course, the Motor City of Detroit. She even gets LA in. It’s only later, as the song fades out, that the singer starts broadening her horizons, though a vague reference to “across the ocean blue” hardly seems like the continental call out the lyrics suggest. All the while, the current crop of Vandellas (the names and numbers changed frequently) provides a melodious counterpoint.

Oddly enough, riots in 1964 (Harlem) and 1965 (the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts) found activists adopting the song as a symbol of group solidarity and philosophical empowerment. The call became one of action, and the suggestion that “every guy” should “grab a girl” was seen as an attempt at cultural unity. It’s only natural for a tune that started out small but grew into something far more significant — and sensational. Bill Gibron

9. Martha & the Vandellas – “Jimmy Mack” (1967)

Written by Holland-Dozier-Holland
Produced by Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier
Reached #10 on the pop charts

Martha and the Vandella’s “Jimmy Mack” has that street corner doo-wop feel. Perhaps it’s the handclaps that start off the song and continue nonstop that give the 45-rpm record that aura. Or maybe it’s the fact that there’s not a single note that’s hard to sing. Neither Martha Reeves nor any of the Vandellas ever has to stretch for a note. Or it could be the propulsive, insistent beat that just keeps things moving. Whatever the case, the song just begs to be sung along with.

Although the tune was recorded in 1964, Motown did not release “Jimmy Mack” until 1967, allegedly because of the Vietnam War. The lyrics, about a girl being wooed by another man while her loved one is away, were deemed inappropriate while soldiers were fighting abroad. However, the song was released during a time when more GIs were drafted and sent to ‘Nam because the war was less popular with the general public. The single received generous airplay on Armed Forces Radio as those stationed overseas could relate to the lyrics. “Jimmy Mack / When are you coming back?” was a question shared by both the soldiers and civilians.

“Jimmy Mack” was Martha and the Vandella’s last top ten pop hit and reached number one on Billboard’s R&B Singles chart. The song was written by Motown’s Holland-Dozier-Holland team, who wrote 25 number-one hits for the record company, including five consecutive number-one singles for the Supremes. While the legendary Funk Brothers provide instrumentation, the vocals are so prominent that the song could almost be sung a cappella without losing much of value. There’s a short sax solo, and the drums are important for helping keep the beat, but basically, the voices carry the tune.

This makes sense in terms of the song’s lyrical concerns. It’s about a boy trying to wear down a girl’s resistance to his advances through his sweet talk. You can tell his ploy is working by the strength of the plea she sings to her boyfriend. She’s “trying hard to be true”, but Jimmy Mack “better hurry back” because she “can’t hold out very much longer”. The urgency of her voice makes it clear. If Jimmy Mack doesn’t arrive soon, he will be replaced by another in her affections. The vocals convey the power of language. The song “Jimmy Mack” shows the persuasiveness of words simply by the way Martha and the Vandellas sing it. – Steven Horowitz

8. The Jackson 5 – “I Want You Back” (1969)

Written and produced by the Corporation (Berry Gordy, Freddie Perren, Deke Richards, and Alphonzo Mizell)
Reached #1 on the pop charts

“I Want You Back” was the first big pop hit for the Jackson 5. It hit number one. So did their next three singles, all within the span of less than a year. This song was the start of a rolling, building superstardom for the group and for Michael Jackson. In this song you can already hear him as a superstar, dynamic, but carrying no sense of all the twists and turns to come in his career and life. It all started here, as they say. Michael Jackson’s singing of the song is amazing for someone so young, but also for anyone. In the intersection of its youth and strength, his voice embodies the spirit of the song, which is a big, joyous, ecstatic feeling. The song is about regret, in a way, and does have a certain bittersweet quality, but whether from the youth of its characters or the protagonist’s giddy eagerness, it’s an excited determination that carries the day.

Listen to Michael Jackson shouting as the song fades, “I want you back”, as one last exclamation point, embodying the song’s assertiveness. It isn’t just the singing that makes the song. There’s the melodic bassline, the guitar, the piano, the strings, the layered backing vocals, the drums, and the superb melody. As with the Jackson 5’s next two number-one hits, “ABC” and “The Love You Save”, the song is the genius of the Corporation, the songwriting team of Freddie Perren, Alphonso Mizell, Berry Gordy, and Deke Richards. The four wrote, produced, and arranged the song, which has a remarkable number of moving parts that gel together naturally and beautifully. The opening piano trill, with the band then kicking in at once, offers one of those “hell yes!” moments of positive recognition. You hear it and are immediately swept up. It’s one of Motown’s, and pop music’s, most reliable dance-floor fillers, the proverbial song to make even the dead shake their weary bones. – Dave Heaton

7. Thelma Houston – “Don’t Leave Me This Way” (1976)

Written by Kenneth Gamble, Leon Huff, and Cary Gilbert
Produced by Hal Davis
Reached #1 on the pop charts

When Thelma Houston took on a modern classic by Harold and the Blue Notes, she created one of the most enduring anthems of the disco era. A riveting fusion of Houston’s gospel-inflected voice and Gamble & Huff’s haunting melody, it topped the pop, R&B, and disco charts in early 1977. A year later, Houston became the first female artist at Motown to win a Grammy when she prevailed in the Best R&B Performance, Female category for “Don’t Leave Me This Way”. Three decades later, Houston’s timeless recording was among the first songs selected for induction into the Dance Music Hall of Fame.

Why are we still dancing to this song today? It’s all in the build-up and release of Hal Davis’ galloping production. Houston’s voice is announced by a flourish of harp, entering from a musical space embodied by a keyboard that seems to glow. The strings signify the song’s Philly soul origins. When the drumbeat kicks in, Houston’s voice opens up, but it’s tinged with ache and a somewhat erotic yearning. “I’ll surely miss / Your tender kiss / Don’t leave me this way”, she intones quietly before the background vocalists take the song into another stratosphere. “Ahhhhh, BABY!”, they shout. It’s arguably the defining moment of the song. In the chorus, Houston doesn’t beg her lover to stay; she commands him. After all, he started a fire in her soul and it’s burning out of control. All hell breaks loose once the tambourines turn up in the second half of the song, and Houston’s hair-raising ad-libs elevate the song to an even more intense plane of emotional release.

Over the years, the full impact of the song’s power has dulled somewhat because of its ubiquity on budget compilations, cheesy retrospectives of the 1970s, misguided remixes, and the unfair notion that Houston was a one-hit-wonder. Strip away those associations and try to listen with virgin ears. “Don’t Leave Me This Way” is an exquisite masterpiece, a stunning example of dance music as cathartic utility. Christian John Wikane

6. Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell – “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” (1967)

Written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson
Produced by Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol
Reached #1 on the pop charts

At its most basic level, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is a terribly catchy jingle with the classic Motown pop sound — the kind of song that, as Steve Harvey once eloquently put it, makes “your ass just lit up”. When it was released, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” became an instant hit. It was part of the continued success of Gaye and gave Terrell her first critical breakthrough. But “simple” songs are usually the ones with the most behind-the-scenes shockers, and this song was no exception.

The story of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” is almost apocryphal now. If you’ve seen footage of the duo performing the song together, their chemistry is undeniable. As Gaye and Terrell trade lines, the gut reaction is one of pure joy seeing two great singers really into the song and each other. But how many people know that Terrell was so overawed by the thought of singing with Gaye that her vocals were recorded earlier, and then Gaye’s were overdubbed? It’s almost impossible to catch this, except in the third verse when you can hear a couple of seconds of the overdub of Gaye’s vocals over Terrell’s.

From 1967 to 1969, Gaye recorded nearly a dozen duets with Terrell, who overcame her initial shyness about recording with him and settled well into the role. A romantic relationship between the two was always denied, although the song was written by an actual romantically involved couple, Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson. Lyrically, the song evokes powerful images of resilience and dependence, but its magic is in its broad appeal. Did Ashford and Simpson write the song for each other as a gesture of their love, or could it mean more? What about partners separated by distance? Recently broken-up lovers still caught up in their feelings towards each other? Best friends? Teammates? Or perhaps, as fitting the time, those separated by segregation?

That Terrell would collapse on stage into Gaye’s arms at a 1967 concert and die in 1970 at the age of 24 only added to the myth surrounding this song and made it a true coda to a promising career. Gaye was never the same either — he took a brief hiatus from music and tried his hand at professional sports, and when he did return to the charts, the message had changed from the whimsical to the political. Such was the power of one song. Shyam K. Sriram