Dancing In The Street: Martha & the Vandellas, Van Halen, David Bowie & Mick Jagger

Hello there! In this week’s blog we consider the song Dancing In the Street, a terrific Motown dance tune from the mid-60s. We will start with the original version by Martha and the Vandellas, and then discuss covers of that song by Van Halen, and by David Bowie & Mick Jagger.

Martha & the Vandellas and Dancing In the Street:

Singer Martha Reeves had initially been a member of a quartet with Annette Beard, Rosalind Ashford and Gloria Williams. Martha stopped by Motown Records for an audition; however she arrived on the wrong weekday.

Since there were no auditions that day, Reeves was hired as a secretary by producer Mickey Stevenson. But after impressive performances backing up some of the Motown groups, Martha and her mates were signed to a record contract by Berry Gordy.

However, Gloria Williams felt that the record business would be too stressful, so she left the group. The remaining three singers then took the name The Vandellas.

Below is a photo of Martha and the Vandellas from 1963. From L: Annette Beard; Rosalind Ashford; Martha Reeves.

Martha and the Vandellas had previously had a major hit, Heat Wave, in 1962. But not only was Dancing in the Street a major U.S. hit, it also made it to #4 on the U.K. pop charts. Suddenly, Martha Reeves was an international celebrity.

The song Dancing In The Street was originally written by Mickey Stevenson and Marvin Gaye. The inspiration for the song came from watching urban youths dance around in the summer, when fire hydrants were opened and water gushed out.

When Gaye and Stevenson first wrote the song they envisioned Kim Weston singing it. However, Weston passed on the song, so it was then run by Martha Reeves. Martha thought the song was promising but in need of some re-writing, so the lyrics were touched up by Ivy Jo Hunter.

This is a great dance song, with an insistently catchy melody and a terrific beat. The lyrics are quite simple: they assert that summer is an appropriate time to go out dancing.

Callin’ out around the world
Are you ready for a brand new beat?
Summer’s here and the time is right
For dancin’ in the street

Much of the remainder of the song is devoted to a list of cities where teenagers can be found dancing outdoors – Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, D.C., and of course “you can’t forget the Motor City.”

Now here are two versions of Martha and the Vandellas performing Dancing in the Street. The first is simply lip-synched – it is a pastiche of various different performances of the song, set to the audio of the record.

Isn’t that beat infectious? If you happen to be working while reading this, it’s hard to keep from dancing on your desk. Martha Reeves has a great voice for R&B. It is strong and vibrant, and she can really belt out the lyrics. Thus songs such as Heat Wave and Dancing in the Street were tailor-made for her.

The song was produced by Mickey Stevenson and is backed by the inimitable Motown house band, the Funk Brothers, including co-songwriters Marvin Gaye on drums and Ivy Jo Hunter on percussion. Dancing In the Street has to be one of the best dance songs of all time.

Now here is a live version, with Martha and the Vandellas appearing on the Ed Sullivan show from Dec. 5, 1965. Unfortunately, the video includes only about 90 seconds of the song.

There are a great many covers of Dancing in the Street. In addition to the ones discussed in this blog post, there are interesting covers by the Mamas and the Papas, and by the Grateful Dead.

The song Dancing In the Street became controversial in the late 60s, when a number of cities in the U.S. experienced riots following events such as Martin Luther King’s assassination. At that point, some people began to associate the phrase “dancing in the street” with the actions of people who were burning cars and looting stores in urban areas.

The fact that this Motown song became associated with destructive political acts must have driven Berry Gordy crazy. Gordy went to extraordinary lengths to keep Motown’s music as a-political as humanly possible. He put great pressure on his record company to steer clear of any political controversy.

Martha and the Vandellas remained one of Motown’s top groups through the 60s. However, things began to go sour in the 70s. First, Berry Gordy began devoting an enormous amount of time to promoting Diana Ross’ career. As a result, publicity and promotions for The Vandellas suffered, as they did for many of the old Motown acts.

When Berry Gordy moved Motown Records to L.A. in 1973, Martha Reeves negotiated out of her Motown contract in order to pursue a solo career. There was also considerable unhappiness within the group over the compensation they had received from Gordy, and two of Reeves’ mates in the Vandellas filed suit against Motown for royalties.

In the 70s, Martha Reeves struggled with dependence on alcohol, cocaine and prescription drugs. However, in 1977 she sobered up and became a born-again Christian.

At present, there are two groups still touring. Reeves’ original Vandellas mates Annette Beard-Helton and Rosalind Ashford-Holmes tour as “The Original Vandellas,” while Martha Reeves and her two sisters tour as “Martha and the Vandellas.” So, you could have dueling incarnations of “Vandellas” appearing in your town.

The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, becoming just the second girl group to be selected for this honor.

Van Halen and Dancing In The Street:

We discussed the band Van Halen in our segment on the Kinks’ song You Really Got Me. Here we will briefly review their career.

The band Van Halen have now been performing for over 40 years. They are one of the most influential heavy-metal groups of all time. Although they only ever had one #1 single, Jump, the group has sold over 80 million records, and they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.

Van Halen is a quartet, whose major lineup consisted of brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen, plus Michael Anthony and David Lee Roth. The Van Halen brothers were born in Nijmegen, Netherlands but moved to California where they formed their band and became famous.

Below is a photo of Van Halen from the late 1970s. They appear to be discussing Hegelian philosophy in their dressing room between concerts. From L: bassist Michael Anthony, lead vocalist David Lee Roth, drummer Alex Van Halen and guitarist Eddie Van Halen.

David Lee Roth was born in my home town of Bloomington, Indiana. The son of a wealthy eye surgeon, Roth was raised in Bloomington but then moved to California in his teens. He met the Van Halen brothers while they were all students at Pasadena City College.

After adding bassist Michael Anthony, the group proceeded to gain an enthusiastic following at West Coast clubs. Their eponymous first album was released in 1978, became a best-seller and established the group as one of the world’s top heavy-metal bands.

For me, Van Halen’s music stands out from other superficially similar heavy-metal groups. One distinguishing feature is the exceptional virtuosity and creativity of Eddie Van Halen’s guitar work. Eddie pioneered a technique called “finger-tapping,” which allowed him to produce eye-popping runs and trills on his electric guitar. Many of Van Halen’s signature songs contain truly unique guitar solos.

A second hallmark of both Van Halen’s records and live shows was the band’s ability to produce both vocals and musical accompaniment, where all four musicians were totally in synch with one another.

I find Van Halen’s cover of Dancing in the Street to be extremely creative. Eddie Van Halen converts the Motown R&B classic into a heavy-metal pop extravaganza. The guitar work is extremely impressive – note the close-ups of Eddie’s “finger-tapping” in his guitar solo.

And David Lee Roth is his usual manic self. Roth’s high-energy showmanship was a staple of Van Halen shows. However, both his vocal and gymnastic theatrics were a good fit for this heavy-metal powerhouse.

I have to say that Roth’s apparent penchant for violence is disturbing. At one point he discussed his differences in temperament from Sammy Hagar. “Sammy is a friend that you’d like to split a beer with, while I’m the kind of guy you call if you’d like to split a friend with a beer [bottle].” Gee, thanks for the invitation, Dave – but I think I’ll take a rain check.

Once Van Halen became famous, they proved to be an extremely durable band. They stayed atop the Billboard charts for several years, released several gold-certified albums, sold a ton of records, and embarked on a number of top-grossing concert tours.

Despite their enduring fame, the band also experienced more strife and drama than most daytime TV soaps. Apparently there was significant tension between Roth, who was more interested in maintaining the band’s popularity, and Eddie who wanted to concentrate on experimental technical music.

In 1986, David Lee Roth was replaced by Sammy Hagar as the band’s lead singer. The re-shuffled group managed to remain at the top of the charts, and enjoyed a number of top-selling records with Hagar as their vocal frontman.

However, in 1996 Hagar left the band in an acrimonious split. At this point, Roth re-joined the group. But after a very brief reunion, Dave was again bounced from the band.

Van Halen has now continued for more than four decades. A brief and unsuccessful period with lead vocalist Gary Cherone was followed by further appearances with either Roth or Hagar on lead vocals. From time to time, Eddie Van Halen has been sidelined with drug or alcohol addiction issues.

Van Halen has been one of the giants of heavy metal. They have produced an impressive collection of pop hits, and Eddie Van Halen’s guitar work has been exceptionally creative. With either David Lee Roth or Sammy Hagar as lead vocalist, they produced quite a legacy.

David Bowie & Mick Jagger and Dancing In The Street:

Next we will feature a collaborative effort between David Bowie and Mick Jagger.

The Rolling Stones have been one of the favorite bands featured in our blog posts. We discussed their song Under My Thumb in an earlier post, and we also featured their covers of the songs It’s All Over Now, Sweet Little Sixteen and Ain’t Too Proud to Beg. So we will very briefly review Mick Jagger’s career.

As everyone knows, Mick Jagger is a singer-songwriter for the great British band the Rolling Stones. That group was formed when former high school classmates Mick Jagger and Keith Richards hooked up with young pop musician Brian Jones. The Stones began as leaders of a British blues revival movement.

However, as Jagger and Richards began to co-write songs and exert their leadership in the band, the Stones rapidly moved into rock music. For more than 50 years, they have been one of the greatest and most durable rock music groups of all time. They churned out hit after hit, and released one best-selling album after another.

Mick Jagger was the frontman for the Stones and, along with Keith Richards, a co-spokesman for the band. His terrific vocals defined the Stones’ unmistakeable, edgy sound. He is equally comfortable with hard rock and blues standards.

David Bowie was one of the greatest pop musicians of our time. Since he just passed away a few weeks ago, on Jan. 10 2016 from lung cancer, we will dedicate this blog post to Bowie.

Below is a photo of David Bowie performing the song “Rebel Rebel” at the show TopPop in Hilversum, Netherlands in Feb. 1974.

London singer-songwriter David Jones, who took the stage name David Bowie in order to avoid confusion with the Monkees’ singer Davy Jones, burst on the pop scene in 1969 with his stunningly original single Space Oddity (“ground control to Major Tom”).

In 1972, Bowie re-surfaced as the glam-rock character Ziggy Stardust. Ziggy featured flaming red hair together with flamboyant rainbow-hued gender-bending costumes, such as is shown in the photo below from a 1973 tour.

Portraying his alter ego Ziggy Stardust, Bowie and his band the Spiders From Mars rapidly gained notoriety for their highly theatrical live performances. Apparently Bowie/Ziggy was quite mesmerizing on stage, and he developed a cult following as a result.

However, in 1974 Bowie drastically changed direction. He moved to the U.S., ditched Ziggy, and changed his musical style to something he termed “plastic soul.” In 1976, Bowie trotted out a new persona, the Thin White Duke, named after the title track of his new album, which yet again signified a new musical direction for Bowie.

Bowie’s career contained many of these abrupt changes in style. In nearly every case, he emerged as a leader in a new musical genre. Bowie often changed band members and producers at the same time. A restless, probing artist, he was constantly pushing the envelope in the areas of pop music, performing style, and fashion.

In 1985, good buddies Mick Jagger and David Bowie decided to produce a cover of Dancing In the Street as their contribution to that year’s Live Aid charity. The original idea was that the pair would perform the song live, but with each performer at a different venue – Bowie in London’s Wembley Stadium and Jagger from Washington, D.C.’s JFK Stadium.

However, that idea eventually had to be discarded as they could not overcome the technical difficulties associated with the few-second time delay in satellite links between the two venues. They then decided to produce a music video which would be shown at the Live Aid concerts. In June 1985,
Bowie was recording … at Abbey Road Studios, and so Jagger arranged to fly in to record the track there. A rough mix of the track was completed in just four hours, at which point the pair went straight out to London Docklands to film a video with director David Mallet.

The song and video involve both Bowie and Jagger hamming it up, and generally having a good time. Their effort was sufficiently popular that Bowie and Jagger released a single of this song, with all proceeds going to charity. And here is that music video.

This particular version of Dancing in the Street is really enjoyable. Bowie and Jagger indulge in some can-you-top-this campiness, and Bowie appears to be dressed in pajamas. The record was very successful, hitting #1 on the UK pop charts and reaching #7 in the US Billboard pop lists.

David and Mick then reprised their duet at London’s Prince’s Trust charity benefit concert in 1986. The photo below shows Bowie and Jagger in their live appearance at that event.

Here is the video of Bowie and Jagger singing Dancing in the Street at the 1986 Prince’s Trust bash.

Again, the boys are having great fun with this song. Apparently their performance was not announced beforehand, so it was a surprise treat for the audience.

By the way, the Prince’s Trust events featured members of the British Royal Family in the audience. However, they also became extremely popular benefits for British Invasion ‘royalty.’ Note that the MC of this event is Paul McCartney. You should also be able to catch brief glimpses of Elton John, Keith Richards and several other notables on stage.

Just a bit more about David Bowie’s life and career. We had previously mentioned how Bowie would create alternate personas at various points in his career. Those characters became deeply ingrained in his behavior, to the extent that it was difficult for him to separate his own personality from that of his alter ego.

This problem was exacerbated by Bowie’s serious issues with drug addiction, particularly to cocaine. A net result was that he suffered from paranoia and psychosis, before he was able to regain his sobriety in the 1980s.

One manifestation of his problems was Bowie’s fascination with Hitler and the Nazis. On more than one occasion, Bowie remarked in public how much more efficient Britain would be under a dictatorship. Furthermore, he was widely criticized over his extensive collection of Nazi memorabilia.

Bowie’s explanation for these public-relations disasters was that he was, quite literally, out of his mind at the time, as a result of the combined effects of his psychological and addiction issues.

David Bowie enjoyed a spectacular career in pop music. A great innovator, he constantly moved from one musical genre to another, blazing trails along the way and abruptly changing direction on several occasions.

Bowie was apparently incredibly charismatic onstage. I remain disappointed that I never caught him in live performance. It is not surprising that he was an extremely talented actor, as his live shows were notable for their creative theatrical elements.

David Bowie was a true cultural icon. He pushed way beyond the boundaries of current fashion, and he made a tremendous impact on pop music. His contributions to music, fashion and modern culture will be missed deeply.

Source Material:

Wikipedia, Dancing In The Street
Wikipedia, Martha and the Vandellas
Wikipedia, Van Halen
Wikipedia, Mick Jagger
Wikipedia, David Bowie

About Tim Londergan

Tim Londergan is professor emeritus of theoretical physics at Indiana University-Bloomington. He studies the properties of the quarks and gluons that form the internal structure of protons and neutrons. He also writes a blog "Tim's Cover Story" that compares covers of important songs in rock music history. He and his wife share their college-town life with two delightful cats, Lewis and Clark. His hobbies include tennis and ornithology, and he is a life-long fan of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.
This entry was posted in Heavy Metal, Pop Music, Rhythm and blues, Rock and roll and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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