Ready for a Brand New Beat : How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem for a Changing America
by Mark Kurlansky

Overview - Can a song change a nation? In 1964, Marvin Gaye, record producer William "Mickey" Stevenson, and Motown songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter wrote "Dancing in the Street." The song was recorded at Motown's Hitsville USA Studio by Martha and the Vandellas, with lead singer Martha Reeves arranging her own vocals.  Read more...

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More About Ready for a Brand New Beat by Mark Kurlansky
Can a song change a nation? In 1964, Marvin Gaye, record producer William "Mickey" Stevenson, and Motown songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter wrote "Dancing in the Street." The song was recorded at Motown's Hitsville USA Studio by Martha and the Vandellas, with lead singer Martha Reeves arranging her own vocals. Released on July 31, the song was supposed to be an upbeat dance recording--a precursor to disco, and a song about the joyousness of dance. But events overtook it, and the song became one of the icons of American pop culture. The Beatles had landed in the U.S. in early 1964. By the summer, the sixties were in full swing. The summer of 1964 was the Mississippi Freedom Summer, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, the beginning of the Vietnam War, the passage of the Civil Rights Act, and the lead-up to a dramatic election. As the country grew more radicalized in those few months, "Dancing in the Street" gained currency as an activist anthem. The song took on new meanings, multiple meanings, for many different groups that were all changing as the country changed. Told by the writer who is legendary for finding the big story in unlikely places, "Ready for a Brand New Beat "chronicles that extraordinary summer of 1964 and showcases the momentous role that a simple song about dancing played in history.

  • ISBN-13: 9781594487224
  • ISBN-10: 1594487227
  • Publisher: Riverhead Books
  • Publish Date: July 2013
  • Page Count: 263

Related Categories

Books > History > United States - 20th Century
Books > Music > History & Criticism - General
Books > Social Science > Ethnic Studies - African American Studies - General

Publishers Weekly Reviews

Publishers Weekly® Reviews

  • Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
  • Review Date: 2013-06-03
  • Reviewer: Staff

In 1964, Motown, a little record label from Detroit, grew into a voice for a generation, releasing, according to Kurlansky, “60 singles, of which 70% hit the Top 100 chart and 19 were #1 hits.” Kurlansky (Salt) deftly chronicles the story of Martha Reeves and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street, ”a Motown song that made the transition from the early to late 1960s—from hope and idealism to urban riots and the escalation of war in Vietnam. In meticulous detail, he tells the story of the song itself: Ivy Jo Hunter, Mickey Stevenson, and Marvin Gaye wrote a new track that Stevenson had promised to his wife, Kim Weston. Released in August 1964, “Dancing in the Street” climbed up the Billboard charts to reach the #2 spot by October. The song’s lyrics had different meanings for different audiences—many white listeners heard it as a party song, while many black listeners embraced it as a song of liberation and revolution. Enduringly popular, “Dancing in the Street” has been covered at least 35 times, by musicians from the Grateful Dead and Van Halen to Ramsey Lewis and Laura Nyro, and its opening riffs inspired the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” (July)

BookPage Reviews

All we need is music, sweet music

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.

BAM Customer Reviews