This article is adapted from Mark Kurlansky’s Ready for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing in the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America, out now from Riverhead.
In Detroit, with the Beatles at their heels, Motown was still searching for the perfect sound for young America. Among the more recent Detroit people who had come to Motown looking for opportunities was Ivy Jo Hunter, a horn player. While Berry Gordy and Mickey Stevenson had been picking up talent in the local clubs, Hunter was away in the Army. When he returned to Detroit in the winter of 1963, he found work shoveling snow. He also sang R&B in local clubs. He occasionally helped out young groups and was overheard by Hank Cosby, a saxophone player at Motown, giving tips to one group. Cosby recognized that this small man with a fast and mischievous sense of humor had a deep understanding of music. Hunter’s response to the offer of a job at Motown was, “It pays better than shoveling snow.” That was about as high a praise for Motown pay as was ever heard.
Neither he nor Martha Reeves could exactly remember this, but they thought they had once gone out on a date. They had met at a rent party, a common practice in urban black communities where people would throw a party in their own home and charge admission for music and dancing or sometimes gambling. The goal was to earn enough money to pay the rent.
In 1964, just as that throbbing summer of discontent was getting started, back in the Motown bubble Hunter worked on a song with Stevenson and Marvin Gaye. Stevenson and Gaye had done many songs together, and Hunter would go on to do songs with Gaye, and songs with Stevenson, but this was the only song the three did together.
The exact evolution of the song is unclear. The one thing Stevenson and Hunter both agree on is that Gaye contributed the phrase “dancing in the street.” He, of course, did not invent the phrase. In past centuries it was a common expression connected with carnivals, especially in black culture. Dancing in the street was celebrating.
At Motown, songs were not written the way Rodgers and Hammerstein did, combining a composer and a lyricist. Everybody did a bit of everything. “Once you start writing,” said Stevenson, “it comes as a collaboration.” He could not give any specifics on who wrote what, but he did say, when asked about the meaning of the song, that it had come to him and Gaye when driving through the city on a hot summer day, watching kids of different races playing by fire hydrant water spouts. Gaye said to him, “Dancing in the street.” So to Stevenson it was a song about integration.
Hunter recalled that most of the song was written in the attic of the home of Stevenson and Kim Weston. “I was writing this melancholy song, and Marvin Gaye was listening and said, ‘That’s no melancholy song, that’s dancing in the street.’ ”
There are conflicting versions of how Martha Reeves came to sing this song. It is agreed that she just happened to be in the studio on the right day. It also seems to be true that Weston had been offered the song first. Guitarist Joe Messina recalled that “Kim Weston” was the artist name on the music he was handed for the session. The story that Weston did not want the song and that Gaye seized on Martha on a whim as a replacement is at best an exaggeration. When interviewed, Weston denied turning down the song and said that she wanted it. Furthermore, Reeves, in her autobiography, said that she initially did not like the song. Later in an interview, she backed off slightly from that, saying that it was just a momentary feeling. “I was not impressed. I don’t want to dance in the street. I want to dance on a big stage or a big elegant ballroom.”
Stevenson said that Weston, his wife, had been assigned the song. The track had already been made, and they needed a demo tape for Weston to study. This was the usual practice. The artist would spend two days studying the song with the tape before the recording session.
Stevenson said he had never intended it for Reeves. But she was extremely professional and reliable. Late one night, according to Stevenson, they wanted to make the demo tape for Weston, and Reeves was still there. Stevenson said that he and Gaye and Hunter were in the studio working on a demo tape on top of the finished music track. After hearing the track with Paul Riser’s arrangement, Gaye and Hunter were concerned that Weston’s usual heavier approach was not well-suited for the light feel of the song.
According to Stevenson, they had Reeves listen to the song twice. Then she sang it.
According to the oft-repeated legend, she tore through the song brilliantly, and then they had to tell her that they had made a mistake and failed to record it. So they did it again. This myth was destroyed in the fall of 2011 in her old Eastside family home, a two-story white-shingled, purple-trimmed house with a yard enclosed by a chain-link fence.