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Meaning

"Dancing in the Street" is a quintessential Motown song. With its driving beat, blaring horns, and sassy melody echoed by slick-dancing back-ups, the song typified the homegrown sound that put Detroit's Motown on the musical map. The brainchild of Berry Gordy, Jr., Motown and its stable of stars and string of hits was the pride of Detroit, a musical mecca for America's black performers, and an inspiration for a generation of black entrepreneurs. 

Motown was also a finely tuned machine. What else would you expect from the city that put America on wheels, from the place where Henry Ford harnessed the power of mass production for the manufacture of the Model T? In fact, Motown founder Gordy had set out to do for R&B what Ford had done for the car (Suzanne E. Smith, Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit, 14). Realizing that there was a mass market (in other words, a white market) for "black" music if it were appropriately packaged, he brought the assembly line to the studio. He kept a crew of writers (including the Motown trinity, Eddie Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Brian Holland) busy churning out tunes. He backed up his artists with in-house musicians.

 Perhaps most importantly, he personally manned the quality control station at the end of the Motown line. Songs that didn't meet his specs were sent back for re-tooling. Songs and performers that he particularly liked were funneled through a hit-proven marketing mill, which included a spot on Ed Sullivan, an appearance on the Tonight Show or Hollywood Palace, and a ride on a New Year's Day float.

Martha Reeves started out at Motown as a cog in the machine. Born in Alabama in 1941, but raised in Detroit, music was a part of her life from early on. In high school, she sang in her school choir. As a senior, she was selected to perform as the soprano soloist in a performance of Handel's Messiah. It wasn't just any high school choir concert: it took place at Detroit's Ford Auditorium, and there were four thousand people in the audience (Smith 159).

Martha sang with several girl-groups as time went on, including The Del-Phis, The Sabre-Ettes, The Fascinations, and The Vels, before landing a position at Motown. Motown bigshot William "Mickey" Stevenson heard her singing at a nightclub during a period when she was working days at a dry clearner (Smith 161). She now had an in at Motown, but she spent a lot of time in the beginning doing secretarial work.   

Fortunately, she didn't remain a glorified secretary for long. Company executives knew she had a big voice, so they used her and two of her friends, Rosalind Ashford and Annette Beard, to sing back-up vocals for Marvin Gaye. But her bigger break came when Motown queen Mary Wells didn't show up for a recording session. Execs asked Reeves to fill in, and she fit the part. That demo led to a contract for the newly christened Martha and the Vandellas and a string of 1963 hits: "Come and Get these Memories," "Heat Wave," and "Quicksand."

Martha and the slightly re-shuffled Vandellas (Betty Kelly replaced Annette Beard, who got married and left the group), scored their biggest hit in 1964 with their single "Dancing in the Street." The song climbed to #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 and reached the #4 spot in Britain.   

This infectious song was a typical Motown production. Written by in-house writers and producers Mickey Stevenson, Marvin Gaye, and Ivy Jo Hunter, the song was first offered to Kim Westin, Gaye's sometime duet partner. But she turned down the song, leaving it to another artist in the Motown family. The simple melody was backed by the Motown horns of the Funk Brothers, and Hunter strengthened the song's characteristically driving Motown beat with a wicked tire iron.

In other ways, though, the song was not a typical Motown hit. As racial and class tensions climbed, it soon took on a life of its own.

Motown Czar Gordy was determined not to antagonize his mainstream market (in other words, the white listeners). He rejected songs that were too influenced by rhythm and blues, and songs that conjured up images that might seem too urban. "Dancing in the Street" made it onto the shelves because it passed Gordy's taste test. Writer-producer Stevenson even said that he and Gaye were inspired by the sight of black and white kids playing in the fire hydrants unleashed on the hot city streets. The performances preserved on video show that the Motown marketing machine gave the song its typical mass-market job treatment. Martha and the girls did their inimitable thing in front of dancing kids—virtually all of them white. You can watch one of those performances here.

Yet the times conspired to unsettle the mass-market vision. When protest and violence broke out in urban communities in 1965, some people suggested that black kids had been called out to the streets by the suddenly too raucous and rowdy Reeves. When civil rights organizers, such as H. Rap Brown, adopted the song as an organizational tool, the suspicion that "Dancing in the Street" was more than a party song was confirmed in some listeners' minds. It's rumored that when the Watts riots hit Los Angeles in 1965, some LA radio stations pulled the song. Motown found itself in the uncomfortable position of having to defend its politics.

It wasn't long before unrest spread to the Motor City itself. In July 1967, Martha and the Vandellas were performing at Detroit's Fox Theater as the finale for a show called "Swinging Time Revue." While they were singing "Dancing in the Street," a stage manager off in the wings tried to get Reeves' attention. She eventually went over to see what he wanted, and he told her that people were rioting in the streets of Detroit. They stopped the show and sent everyone home, hoping that they would all have safe trips home through the chaos (Smith 1-2).

It wasn't quite the end for Martha and the Vandellas, but they would soon be left by the wayside. Their hit "I'm Ready for Love" reached #9 on the charts and "Jimmy Mack" climbed to #10 in 1967. But by then, the Motown mantle had been passed to a girl group that until 1964 had worked in Martha's shadow. Between 1961 and 1963, The Supremes released nothing that made the top 40. That all changed in 1964, when they recorded "Where Did Our Love Go." It reached #1 on the charts and was quickly followed by four other #1 hits: "Baby Love," "Come See About Me," "Stop! In the Name of Love," and "Back in My Arms Again."

Diana Ross, Mary Wilson, and Florence Ballard had become America's Motown sweethearts and, the way Reeves saw it, Motown chief Berry Gordy's sweethearts as well. She complained that The Supremes were being promoted at the expense of her own group and cited the delayed release of "Jimmy Mack" as evidence. Recorded in 1964, the song was held back until 1967. The studio explanation was that the song's lyrics threatened controversy—with American troops being sent to Vietnam, a song about a young girl who was trying "to be true" but didn't know how long she could hold out while "this boy keeps coming round" might offend popular tastes. But Reeves believed that the studio hesitated in fear that the song would crowd The Supremes on the charts—within the Motown machine, there was room for only one high-horsepower girl group.

Reeves' relationship with Gordy and Motown deteriorated over the next few years. Tensions among the Vandellas and the craziness that comes with touring and a life on the road also took its toll. By the time Motown—segueing from music to movies—announced that Diana Ross would play Billie Holiday in a film tracing the legendary blues singer's descent into alcohol and drugs, Martha Reeves had begun living the script. In 1969, she had to be institutionalized; she battled her demons until deep into the 1970s.

In 1972, Motown packed its bags and left Detroit for LA. Shortly after, Reeves packed her bags and moved to MCA Records. Over the next several years, she released five more albums, but none matched the success of her 1960s Motown releases. By the 1980s, she had all but retired.

But Reeves didn't leave Detroit and she didn't forget Motown. In 2005, she won election to the Detroit City Council and proposed that Motown be memorialized in a series of downtown statues—Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson. She also brought Berry Gordy back to Detroit. Well, sort of. She successfully campaigned to have West Grand Boulevard, the site of Motown's headquarters and studios, Hitsville, USA, renamed Berry Gordy, Jr. Boulevard.

But statues and a new street name could never recapture all that had been lost since 1964. "Dancing in the Street" was a professional summit that Reeves never climbed again. Many argue that Motown was never quite the same, either, after it swapped its Detroit roots for the glitz of Hollywood. In Detroit, the record company may have kept a tight rein on its artists, it may have catered too fearfully to white tastes, and it may have sacrificed individuals like Reeves to the needs of the machine. But in its glory days, that machine did sometimes crank out magic.
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