Martha and the Vandellas – “Dancing in the Street,” Pop #2
By Joel Francis
Poor, poor Kim Weston. Had she not passed on this song, she may be remembered for that being Marvin Gaye’s first duet partner. Instead, Martha Reeves got to place another jewel in her crown.
Funk Brother Benny Benjamin’s great drumming and the incessant, propulsive tambourine get the feet going before Marta Reeves opens her mouth. But once she does, Reeves embraces every syllable with her full voice, squeezing each note for maximum pleasure. The single was released at the end of July, 1964, but its not hard to imagine that even in the dead of winter, legions of listeners would heeded Reeves “invitation across the nation” and joined her in the streets.
The growing race riots throughout America soon cast the song in a different light. (Five years later, the Rolling Stones recast the number into the dark, political anthem “Street Fighting Man.”) It’s hard to erase the imprint that history has left on the number, but the heart of Reeves’ words is utopia: Whoever you are, whatever you wear, wherever you’re from, get outside, grab a guy (or gal) and dance. “All we need is music, sweet music.” If only life were this simple.
Like many of Motown’s signature songs, cover versions abound. The Kinks and The Who cut versions earlier in their career. Both fail to capture the joy in Reeves singing and translate the large soul arrangement to a rock quartet. Artists as diverse as Dusty Springfield, the Grateful Dead and the Carpenters also tackled the song.
Van Halen propelled the song back onto the charts nearly 20 years after the Vandellas’ hit. Eddie Van Halen’s post-disco keyboard part transforms the arrangement as Diamond Dave – never one to miss a party – celebrates the lyrics. The song is a high point on one of the group’s most puzzling albums. “Diver Down” contains not one, but two Kinks covers (which should provide a clue as to why they decided to do “Streets”), a polka featuring Alex and Eddie’s dad on clarinet, and closes with “Happy Trails.”
No discussion of “Dancing in the Street” would be complete without mentioning the horrific, oh-my-god-look-away cover performed by David Bowie and Mick Jagger. While the intent was noble – a charity single for Live Aid – the results were anything but. It didn’t help that the song was delivered at the nadir of these legendary careers. Bowie had just completed his dance-happy “Tonight” album and Jagger was in the middle of “She’s the Boss” and attempting to break up his legendary band. The production is sickeningly slick and the vocals sound tossed off. Never ones to be swayed by taste, the public sent the song to No. 7 on the U.S. chart (and clear to No. 1 elsewhere in the world).
The most intriguing version of “Dancing in the Streets” may not exist. I maintain a secret hope that somewhere there is a demo version of Marvin Gaye’s original performance. I have no idea if tape was rolling when Gaye, who co-wrote the song with Mickey Stevenson, presented the song to Reeves or if he attempted to cut a guide vocal, but I am optimistic an unmarked reel in the Motown archives will be unearthed and reveal this treasure. I got my hopes up a few years ago when the “Cellarful of Motown” rarities compilation was released, but so far nothing has surfaced. In the meantime, Martha and the Vandellas will more than suffice.