Martha Reeves Was Never Supposed to Sing “Dancing in the Street”

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July 17 2013 7:30 AM

How Martha and the Vandellas Started “Dancing in the Street”

The backstory of a Motown song that defined a generation.

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Reeves was sentimental about the house where she had grown up, where she learned to sing at the kitchen sink, the oldest girl of 11 children, assigned to washing the dishes; the house where she used to play with the child Stevie Wonder to keep him out of everyone’s way at the studio. The house is full of posters of concerts and recordings from the 1960s and 1970s and shelves of scrapbooks. Reeves liked to go there to think and to talk. We were sitting on the lumpy old furniture in the living room and she was explaining about how they failed to tape the first take and how she had to do it again, and how this irritated her. As she spoke, she was playing the famous recording. I asked her which take she thought was better, and before she could answer, Hunter interrupted with a sly grin and said, “Look at me. I’m sitting in a studio with an artist you don’t want to upset. Do I say, ‘Do it again,’ or do I say, ‘The machine wasn’t on’?”

Reeves slapped her thigh with a look of shock on her face. Forty-seven years earlier she was tricked into redoing a recording and producing her best and most famous work. Not only that, but Hunter revealed another fact that she had never known. She had been “up for a release.” At Motown, artists were often the last to know things. “Up for a release” meant that either Gordy or Stevenson had put the word out to the approximately 15 songwriters that they wanted a new song for Martha and the Vandellas. Holland-Dozier-Holland would have had the option on them because they had written their last hit. But other songwriters could try to steal them away. “Dancing in the Street” was just the song to do that.

Reeves said, “I just sang it the way I felt it.” As she sang, she thought about being an Eastside teenager, on a porch, with one of the small portable record players that had become available in the 1950s, playing 45s while kids danced to the music out on the street.

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When she finished the second take, she looked up at the small and crowded control room, where Gaye, Stevenson, Hunter, and engineer Lawrence Horn were. Reeves said, “When I saw grown men up in the window slapping each other, I knew.”

That is not exactly how Stevenson remembered that moment in the booth. Reeves’ voice was just as he had observed at her first audition: “not great, but a unique sound.” It was neither sweet nor beautiful, but it had an undefeatable power that some would call sexy, others edgy, some even said political. Jon Landau called it “a straight, tough soul voice.” In the words of drummer Stephen Jordan, “Her voice was pleading and not super aggressive. It makes you feel good.” It had that element of the church music with which she had grown up. Whatever that force was, it had never been more evocative than on the recording they just made.

But Stevenson had a problem at home with Weston, to whom he had promised the song. He remembered:

“She finished the song. Ivy Jo looked at me. Marvin Gaye looked at me. And they both said at the same time, ‘What you going to do, William R.?’

I say, ‘What you mean?’

They say, ‘You know exactly what we mean.’

‘It do sound like a hit, don’t it?’

Hunter, who had a huge bush of hair, a giant head on a small body because he had vowed not to cut his hair until he had a hit, said, ‘Sound like it? I’m going to the fucking barbershop.’

Then Stevenson said, ‘Well, I got to take this into Kim.’

To which Gaye replied, ‘And do what? You are the A&R man. Your word is the best song goes on the best person. Isn’t that your word?’ ”

Stevenson had established a sacrosanct rule that the artist who had shown herself or himself to be the best singer for a song was the one who got it. He had always insisted that it didn’t matter whose toes got stepped on, including his own. If you could show that you were the best singer for the song, you got it. Now that moment had come.

According to Weston, the reckoning that Stevenson was dreading never happened. The next time she heard the song was when she heard Martha and the Vandellas singing it on the radio.

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Mark Kurlansky is the New York Times–best-selling author of 24 books, including Cod, Salt, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, The Big Oyster, The Last Fish Tale, The Food of a Younger Land, The Eastern Stars, and Edible Stories. He lives in New York City.