Martha and the Vandellas - Dancing in the Street

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  "Dancing in the Street" is a song written by Marvin Gaye, Willian "Mickey" Stevenson and Ivy Joe Hunter. It first became popular in 1964 when recorded by Martha and the Vandellas whose version reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and peaked at No. 4 in the UK Singles Chart. It is one of Motown's signature songs and is the group's premier signature song. A 1966 cover by the mamas and the Papas was a minor hit on the Hot 100 reaching No. 73. In 1982, the rock group Van Halen took their cover of "Dancing in the Street" to No. 38 on the Hot 100 chart and No. 15 in Canada on the RPM chart. A 1985 duet cover by David Bowie and Mick Jagger charted at No. 1 in the UK and reached No. 7 in the US. The song was also covered by The Kinks, The Everly Brothers, Grateful Dead and Black Oak Arkansas.

 

Martha and the Vandellas original version

Background

The original version of "Dancing in the Street" by Martha and the Vandellas was produced in 1964 by William "Mickey" Stevenson and released as a single on the Gordy Records label. The song was written by Stevenson, Ivy Joe Hunter, and Marvin Gaye. The song highlighted the concept of having a good time in whatever city the listener lived. The idea for dancing came to Stevenson from watching people on the streets of Detroit cool off in the summer in water from opened fire hydrants. They appeared to be dancing in the water. The song was conceived by Stevenson who was showing a rough draft of the lyrics to Gaye disguised as a ballad. When Gaye read the original lyrics, however, he said the song sounded more danceable. With Gaye and Stevenson collaborating, the duo composed the single with Kim Weston in mind to record the song. Weston passed on the song and when Martha Reeves came to Motown's Hitsville USA studios, the duo presented the song to Reeves.

Hearing Gaye's demo of it, Reeves asked if she could arrange her own vocals to fit the song's message. Reeves recounted that she initially regarded the song as too repetitive. Gaye and Stevenson agreed and including new Motown songwriter Ivy Joe Hunter adding in musical composition, the song was recorded in two takes. The song's writers made sure to include Detroit as one of the cities mentioned with the lyric: "Can't forget the Motor City".

 

Civil rights anthem

While produced as an innocent dance single (it became the precursor to the disco movement of the 1970s), the song took on a different meaning when riots in inner-city America led to many young black demonstrators citing the song as a civil rights anthem to social change which also led to some radio stations taking the song off its play list because certain black advocates such as H. Rap Brown began playing the song while organising demonstrations.

"Dancing in the Street" had two meanings. The first is the one Martha Reeves asserted to reporters in England. "The British press aggravated Reeves when someone put a microphone in her face and asked her if she was a militant leader. The British journalist wanted to know if Reeves agreed, as many people had claimed, that "Dancing in the Street" was a call to riot. To Reeves, the query was patently absurd. 'My Lord, it was a party song,' she remarked in retrospect" (Smith 221). While Berry Gordy had created the Black Forum label to preserve black thought and creative writing, he kept the Motown record label and the popular hits it produced from being too political. "Berry Gordy Jr. was extremely wary about affiliating his business with any organization of movement that might negatively influence his company's commercial success" (Smith 230).

"Motown records had a distinct role to play in the city's black community, and that community—as diverse as it was—articulated and promoted its own social, cultural, and political agendas. These local agendas, which reflected the unique concerns of African Americans living in the urban north, both responded to and reconfigured the national civil rights campaign" (Smith 227). The movement lent the song its secondary meaning and the song with its second meaning fanned the flames of unrest. This song (and others like it) and its associated political meanings did not exist in a vacuum. It was a partner with its social environment and they both played upon each other creating meaning that could not have been brought on by one or the other alone. The song therefore became a call to reject peace for the chance that unified unrest could bring about the freedom that suppressed minorities all across the United States so craved.

 

Reception

"Dancing in the Street" peaked at No. 2 on the US Billboard Hot 100 chart when it was originally released as the group's third album "Dance Party"'s first single in 1964, with "There He Is (at My Door)" included as a B-side. The song also reached the Top 5 on the UK Singles Chart peaking at No. 4 in a 1969 release after initially peaking at No. 28 on the chart and helped to revive the Vandellas' success in England.

On April 12, 2006, it was announced that Martha and the Vandellas' version of "Dancing in the Street" would be one of 50 sound recordings preserved by the Library of Congress to the National Recording Registry. Lead singer Martha Reeves said she was thrilled about the song's perseverance, saying "It's a song that just makes you want to get up and dance".

Billboard named the song #29 on their list of 100 Greatest Girl Group Songs of All Time.

 

Personnel

  • Lead vocals by Martha Reeves
  • Background vocals by Betty Kelly, Rosalind Ashford, William "Mickey" Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter
  • Instrumentation by The Funk Brothers
    • Marvin Gaye: drums
    • James Jamerson: bass guitar
    • Jack Ashford: percussion
    • Ivy Jo Hunter: percussion
    • Henry Cosby: saxophone
    • Thomas "Beans" Bowles: saxophone
    • Russ Conway: trumpet
    • Herbert Williams: trumpet
    • Paul Riser: trombone
    • George Bohannon: trombone
    • Robert White: guitar
    • Eddie "Chank" Willis: guitar
    • Joe Messina: guitar

 

Chart performance

 

 

 

Martha and the Vandellas - Dancing in the Street / There He Is (At My Door)

UK Stateside SS 345 (1964).

Record produced by William Stevenson.

The vinyl record attains a strong excellent grading, suggesting few plays.

Audio quality is very clear and strong throughout.

Both record centre labels are free from tears, stains or stickers.

The record comes with an original company paper sleeve.

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