How we made Dancing in the Street

Martha Reeves: ‘Marvin Gaye saw me ogling him and said: “How about we try Martha on this song?” It became the Motown anthem’

Martha Reeves, singer

I was singing the blues at the Twenty Grand club in Detroit when a Motown A&R man called Mickey Stevenson came in and gave me his business card. It had the names of all their stars on it: the Miracles, Marvin Gaye, Mary Wells. I felt like I’d been discovered. But there was a problem: getting to Hitsville meant crossing Woodland Avenue, where all the gangs were. Someone could cut you or shoot you.

I got the bus anyway, expecting to find a four-storey building or something, but the record company was just Berry Gordy’s house with a hand-painted sign out front. I almost got the bus straight back home. Then I realised that there were 50 people all waiting to see Berry and the business card meant I could go to the front of the queue.

Watch Dancing in the Street by Martha and the Vandellas.

Mickey had been up all night trying to finish a song with Marvin Gaye. While I waited, I just started answering the phones – I’d gone expecting an audition, but ended up working there as a secretary. Then one day, there was some sort of union dispute and they needed someone to sing on a demo, so I offered. Berry liked my voice and Mickey said: “That’s Martha, my secretary.”

The next thing I knew, I was singing backup on Marvin’s Stubborn Kind of Fellow with my old girl band the Del-Phis, who became the Vandellas. A little later, Marvin saw me ogling him – he was such a good-looking man – and said: “How about we try this song on Martha?” The song was Dancing in the Street and it became the Motown anthem.

At first, I didn’t like it. But then I thought about my neighbourhood and how we’d stay up all night, dancing in the street. The vocal is the second take – when I first sang it, they didn’t have the tape running. The song caused me all kinds of trouble. It was the civil rights era and there’d been riots in Detroit, so the British press thought it was about rioting. How can “Every guy grab a girl” be about anything but dancing in the street?

The Rolling Stones referenced the lyrics in Street Fighting Man, but changed it to: “Summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street.” Mick Jagger should be ashamed of himself!

Ivy Jo Hunter, songwriter

In those days, you could rob a bank easier than you could get into the record business. I wanted to be a singer, but they needed writers. I started putting Dancing in the Street together on a little piano upstairs that anyone could use. I couldn’t really play, but had a bassline and found some chords to go with it.Afterwards, James Jamerson, the legendary Motown bassist, said he’d never had so much fun playing one note.

I’d wanted to write a melancholy song, but when Marvin heard it, he said: “That’s not a sad song. That sounds more like dancing in the street.” That became the title and half an hour later the song was finished. All the “Calling out around the world, are you ready for a brand new beat?” lyrics just flowed out. Mickey and Marvin put in the mentions of “Philiadelphia, PA, Baltimore and DC” – cities they’d visited on tours. I added: “And don’t forget the Motor City.”

We got the drumbeat by hitting a tambourine with a stick and routing the echo through the bathroom. Soon the rest of the industry were losing their minds trying to get that sound, with all their expensive equipment, but they never could.

I didn’t really like the finished record, but then I had no concept of what made a hit. When Mick Jagger and David Bowie covered it in 1985, I made more money in two years than I had made in the previous 20. I would have kissed their butts in the middle of Broadway.

Contributor

Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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