In the summer of 1964, 22-year-old Martha Reeves took a bus from her home in Detroit's Eastside neighborhood, where she lived with her parents and 10 siblings, to a little house on Westside's Grand Boulevard with the big sign proclaiming "Hitsville, U.S.A."
It was the home of Berry Gordy's five-year-old Motown Records, for whom the singer and her group, The Vandellas, had already recorded three songs that had done well. The song she would record that day, in two takes, would do far better than well; it would change not just the singer's history, but that of American popular music.
"Dancing in the Street" had been written by Motown's director of artists and repertory, Mickey Stevenson, with help from Marvin Gaye and Ivy Jo Hunter, and had been promised to Stevenson's wife, singer Kim Weston. Martha had been called in to do the demo, not the finished product.
Ms. Reeves wasn't too enthusiastic about the song, but she did as Gaye, who was in the booth, told her. She put on the headphones, and, as Mark Kurlansky writes, "... a music track unlike anything she has ever heard erupts into her ears ... Martha just sings it, as she later recalls, 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."
However, the men in the booth made a rookie mistake: The take was great, but they forgot to turn on the recorder. "And so for the second time, she sings 'Dancing in the Street.' This time it is a bit edgier, because she is irritated ... 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. And in less than ten minutes ... there is no talk of revising or altering anything." Mr. Kurlansky writes, "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."
In the five decades since then, "Dancing in the Street" has taken on a life of its own. It didn't just have legs, it had four wheels, a motor (made in Motor City, of course), and a bottomless gas tank. In the years since, versions have been recorded - or, as the cool people say, "covered" - by the such disparate artists as Brenda Lee, the Everly Brothers, and Petula Clark in 1965, Ramsey Lewis two years later, Little Richard in 1971, Michael Bolton (1976), the Grateful Dead, Neil Diamond, and in a 1985 duet, David Bowie and Mick Jagger. Finally, in 1997, Kim Weston got her shot at it, and as recently as 2010, so did Sandrine. In 2006, the Library of Congress chose the Reeves-Vandellas original version as one of the 50 songs to be added to the National Recording Registry. Not bad for a little ol' R&B song.
Over the years, the catchy song (go to "YouTube" if you don't have a recording handy) has been appropriated, both rightly and wrongly, by the civil rights movement, urban rioters, political campaigns and in the movies "Cooley High" and "The Big Chill," in which it's served up as nostalgia. The song has a long and rather complex history, very little (if any) of which seems to have been missed by the author, Mr. Kurlansky, who made his task far more difficult by wedding it to his very interesting and well-told histories of the civil rights movement, American popular music and the culture that began to evolve back in the 1960s.
After just a few chapters, I got the feeling that Mr. Kurlansky, who has written some 23 books - 13 previous works of nonfiction, four fiction books, four books for juveniles, and one translation (of Emile Zola's "The Belly of Paris") - is a writer who has never met a fact he doesn't like. They spill out of this book like notes from Dizzy Gillespie's up-tilted trumpet, so many of them that they sometimes trip up the pace and flow of the story. They are nonetheless interesting.
In addition to all the accomplishments noted above, "Ready For a Brand New Beat" serves ably as a minibiography of Berry Gordy Jr., who was determined that Motown's music not fuel any rioting and made (mainly) himself rich by offering up music that whites could enjoy equally.
At times, Mr. Kurlansky uses music-insider terms that may be too much for some readers. However, he does know a good quote when he sees one, as when he quotes Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary fame: "['Dancing'] was played with such joy that you could hear that they liked and admired each other. It felt like they really cared about each other." Or the singer-songwriter Mr. Bolton: "I remember how the song made me feel when I first heard it. That was not much different than hearing it now. The enduring power is how it makes you feel. Uplifted."
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.
READY FOR A BRAND NEW BEAT: HOW 'DANCING IN THE STREET' BECAME THE ANTHEM FOR A CHANGING AMERICA
By Mark Kurlansky
Riverhead Books, $27.95, 263 pages
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