Why 'Dancing In The Street' Gets The People Going The Motown hit landed at a turning point in civil rights — and where Black Power movements flourished, the song followed. Scott Simon explores why, with a little help from singer Martha Reeves.
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Why 'Dancing In The Street' Gets The People Going

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Why 'Dancing In The Street' Gets The People Going

Why 'Dancing In The Street' Gets The People Going

Why 'Dancing In The Street' Gets The People Going

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/632661834/633366442" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From left: Betty Kelly, Rosalind Ashford and Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas perform circa mid-1964 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images hide caption

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Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

From left: Betty Kelly, Rosalind Ashford and Martha Reeves of Martha and the Vandellas perform circa mid-1964 at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York.

Don Paulsen/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

A few summers ago, I was in line at a Starbucks in the middle of the night, on the ground floor of a hospital on the north side of Chicago. My mother was in the intensive care unit upstairs. There were maybe a dozen people in line, of various ages and ethnicities, all with worn, worried faces under screaming yellow lights. I wondered what our different stories were; I don't think anyone is happy to be in a hospital in the middle of the night.

Music was on overhead. People began to tap their toes, bounce slightly at the knee, and hum along softly to some of the lines we knew so well:

Calling out around the world,
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer's here and the time is right
For dancing in the street
.

And then, everyone in line — including the elderly couple in front of me, who I would learn were there because their granddaughter had been clipped by a car, and the teenage barista standing behind the counter — seemed to light up at the same time. We all sang out: "They're dancing in Chicago."

Then we laughed, smiled and began to talk to each other about why we were there, how long it had been, and what we remembered and loved about this song. We were dancing in Chicago.

"Dancing in the Street" is a song that stirs our souls. Great anthems do. But no less than the great Martha Reeves, who gave it such a powerful voice, says it was first and last a dance song.

"The song is about love and feeling free enough to dance in the street," she told me in a conversation recorded for Weekend Edition Saturday. "You don't have to worry about cars hitting you. You don't have to worry about policemen coming and telling you you can't dance in the street."

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In 1964, Reeves was singing in clubs around Detroit and working as a secretary at Motown Records. One day, the 23-year-old saw the company's biggest star, Marvin Gaye, in a studio, working out a song he'd written with Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Joe Hunter.

Reeves says all she could say to Marvin Gaye upon hearing the song was, "Wow." Gaye did her one better. "He looked over and saw me in awe of him and said, 'Hey man' — and this is his exact words — 'Hey man, let's try this song on Martha.'"

Martha and the Vandellas, which then included Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard, recorded the song at Motown's studios on June 19, 1964. They got it on the second take — though Reeves believes her first one was even better.

"But the machine wasn't on," she says. "Didn't have the tape rolling. And then they said, 'Well, Martha, can you do it again?' And I didn't get angry, but I was so disappointed because I thought I had nailed it."

She must have nailed take two as well. "Dancing in the Streets" became a top seller in the United States and the U.K., competing with the rise of The Beatles to the top of pop charts around the world. It is now one of just 50 sound recordings preserved in the Library of Congress National Recording Registry.

1964 was also the year the Civil Rights Act was signed into law and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize. But racism and oppression persisted across the United States, too: That same summer, three civil rights workers and two black hitchhikers were abducted and murdered in Mississippi the by Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi.

Mark Kurlansky, author of the book Ready For a Brand New Beat: How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem for a Changing America, says that at the time, those campaigning for equal rights were split on strategy — between Dr. King's nonviolence, and the Black Power movements exemplified by Stokely Carmichael (aka Kwame Ture), the Black Panthers and Malcolm X's Black Muslims. It was on the latter side that "Dancing in the Street" began to show a new potential.

"1964 was the year when Malcolm X famously said, 'We will get our rights by any means necessary. It really was the year that the black liberation movement was under a shift from the civil rights movement to the Black Power movement," he says. "The people in the Black Power movement used this song for rallies because it got people worked up and got them going."

Mark Kurlansky also notes the litany of cities woven into the song: 'They're dancing in Chicago, down in New Orleans, up in New York City ... Philadelphia, PA, Baltimore and D.C. now," and ending with, "Can't forget the Motor City.' "Every city they list where they were dancing," he says, "was a city with a militant black neighborhood, and a city where, eventually riots, broke out."

Martha Reeves wants it to be known, "I had nothing to do with that. I just sang the song and in my heart, I was visualizing people actually dancing in the street. I wasn't singing, you know, doom and gloom when the sun go down, let's kill everybody and go steal their property, and break into stores and carry refrigerators home on your back."

But she also says the song reminds her of the trials she faced as a black teen in Detroit, before the modern civil rights movement began.

"We couldn't stand on street corners and sing," she recalls, "because there was a police unit called the Big Four. It was usually four big white men, and they had clubs and guns. And if they caught a group of black people standing on the corner singing doo-wop ... they would jump out of the car and attack you, arrest you, or run to your house, because they didn't want blacks gathering. So 'Dancing in the Street' is all of that to me."

Mark Kurlansky believes that "Dancing in the Street" has grown into an American anthem over six decades because its irresistible beat and engaging images let people find their own message in the song. He says that co-writer Mickey Stevenson "saw it as a song about integration: about how young black people and young white people could go out on the street and be together."

WDET, an NPR member station in Detroit, interviewed visitors from around the United States at "Hitsville, U.S.A." — the former Motown Records headquarters on Grand Boulevard, now the Motown Museum — to get their impressions on the song.

"If you listen to the lyrics, it's telling you that when things are rough, you dance in the streets," said Kenneth Atkins, a visitor from Houston. "You have to celebrate victory sometimes. And it makes you feel good. ... It gives you a positive energy." Vincent Thames from Connecticut said he believes the song "brings everyone together. It was saying, 'Shed your fears. Forget about the political thing and just enjoy life.' "

Several other artists have recorded "Dancing in the Street" over the years, including The Mamas and & the Papas and the Grateful Dead. Mick Jagger and David Bowie recorded a duet to benefit Live Aid in 1985, and began it by calling out to "Tokyo, South America, Australia, France, Germany, U.K., Africa." That's how far the song has traveled.

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Bowie and Jagger's version was a hit. But it's hard — no, impossible — to improve on Martha Reeves' original. What makes the song an anthem is the ring of authenticity from Motown's original studios in Detroit: a cry from the heart of summer in a big city, boiling with energy, turmoil and hope.

"I will admit that it's one of the greatest songs recorded at Motown," Reeves told us, "and I consider it the anthem of the Motown sound because it makes everybody dance whenever you hear it. Whenever I hear it, I have to almost get up and move."

So do most of us. Stop reading — and start dancing.

Digital editor Daoud Tyler-Ameen and radio producer Ned Wharton contributed to this story.