The summer of 1964 was marked as much by rioting in the streets as by dancing in the street. President Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963 had already cut deeply into the optimism, hope and anticipation of the early 1960s, and the subsequent escalation of the Vietnam War and racial strife in the cities tore that quilt of dreams wide open during the following year. In the midst of this disappointment and conflict, however, music brought people of diverse backgrounds together in ways that had never occurred previously, and have seldom happened since.
Kurlansky captures the power of music to unite people, at least momentarily, in Ready for a Brand New Beat, the evocative tale of a song and its enduring impact on American culture. Much as he did in his earlier acclaimed books such as Salt and 1968, Kurlansky uses a small focal point as a way to illuminate larger trends in history. Along the way, he tells a rattling good story as he vividly recreates the birth of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ hit song “Dancing in the Street,” its immediate popularity and its long musical afterlife.
When Marvin Gaye, Ivy Jo Hunter and Mickey Stevenson wrote “Dancing in the Street,” Stevenson had his wife, Kim Weston, in mind as the singer; after they invited Reeves to come into the studio to sing the song, and she laid down an energetic, moving first take, the trio knew this was her song. When it was released in August 1964, it started a slow climb to the top of the Billboard charts.
At the end of this long, hot summer marked by urban riots and protests against the war, the song soon took on many meanings. For white audiences, “Dancing in the Street” was a good-time song, providing the soundtrack for their hedonistic spirit. For black audiences, however, “Dancing in the Street” was an anthem that celebrated freedom from the social injustices of segregation. By October, the song had reached the number two spot on the Top 100 chart, confirming its popularity among all audiences.
Much as it provided the musical backdrop to the summer and fall of 1964, “Dancing in the Street” continues to live in more than 35 cover versions by very diverse artists. Kim Weston finally recorded her own take in 1997, and artists including Joan Baez, the reggae group The Royals and the duo of Mick Jagger and David Bowie—who recorded what many have called the best cover ever made—have tried their musical hands at it. Yet because the song is so intimately connected to the events of 1964 in Detroit and in America, none of these covers has equaled the power of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ original.