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.”
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.
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