“Dancing In The Street,” the Martha & the Vandellas song co-written by Marvin Gaye with Mickey Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter, is the perfect Motown dance record. It’s infectious, has great words, great musicians playing their socks off and, at two minutes and 38 seconds, it packs the perfect punch. It’s Gaye playing drums on the record, along with legendary Motown Funk Brother James Jamerson on bass.
“Dancing In The Street” demonstrates exactly what it is that makes Motown’s records so alluring. It starts with the label’s tried and trusted formula of an attention-grabbing first ten seconds. The introduction, with Martha singing “Calling out around the world,” is irresistible.
And call out she certainly did when this record burst out from our transistor radios in the summer of 1964, having been recorded on June 19. Four months later, on October 17, it made No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, staying there for two weeks and kept from the top only by Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy.” Every self-respecting British mod loved it, but not everyone else in the UK agreed as it only made No. 28 on the UK charts. The Martha & the Vandellas single was reissued in 1969 and on that occasion made the top five.
Motown founder Berry Gordy had a simple strategy. He wanted to make his records appeal to everyone, Black or white, which is how and why he came up with the slogan “The Sound of Young America.” While the Motown sound appeared to be simple, this was pop music of an incredibly sophisticated kind. Some have called it “assembly-line pop,” no doubt moved to do so through its connection to Detroit, the motor city, “Motown” itself. Yet Gordy and his small team managed to make each record sound like it had been handcrafted, which it had. “Hitsville,” Gordy’s confident name for the Motown HQ, very soon became a hit factory.
“Dancing In The Street” has been covered many times, memorably by Mick Jagger and David Bowie for the Live Aid movement of 1985. But in 1968, Jagger and Keith Richards had already “borrowed” a line from the song that they used in the Rolling Stones‘ “Street Fighting Man”: “‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy.” The Mamas and The Papas did a great version, and in the rock arena, Van Halen had a US top 40 hit with the song in 1982, after readings by the Grateful Dead and Black Oak Arkansas. Among the other covers of this Motown anthem are versions by Phil Collins, The Kinks, Neil Diamond, Petula Clark, the Walker Brothers and The Who. But as so often is the case, the original is the best.