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


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 ...

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
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)
From the Publisher
Praise for Ready for a Brand New Beat
“Historians and music lovers alike will be grateful for Mr. Kurlansky’s thorough appreciation of this iconic song.” —The Wall Street Journal
“Mr. Kurlansky has come up with a book that will make you hum its theme song.” —The New York Times
“A fun and informative read about a cool song.” —The Cleveland Plain Dealer
“Comprehensive…effective…a strong case for why ‘Dancing in the Street’ would be widely interpreted as a call to action.” —The New Yorker
Praise for Mark Kurlansky

"Every once in a while a writer of particular skill takes a fresh, seemingly improbable idea and turns out a book of pure delight." — David McCullough

“Fascinating stuff . . . [Kurlansky] has a keen eye for odd facts and natural detail.” —The Wall Street Journal

“Kurlansky continues to prove himself remarkably adept at taking a most unlikely candidate and telling its tale with epic grandeur.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Brilliant… Journalistic skills might be part of a writer’s survival kit, but they infrequently prove to be the foundation for literary success, as they have here. …. Kurlansky has a wonderful ear for the syntax and rhythm of the vernacular… For all the seriousness of Kurlansky’s cultural entanglements, it is nevertheless a delight to experience his sophisticated sense of play and, at times, his outright wicked sense of humor.” —The New York Times Book Review

Library Journal
As written by Marvin Gaye, record producer William "Mickey" Stevenson, Motown songwriter Ivy Jo Hunter, and others and recorded by Martha and the Vandellas, "Dancing in the Street" had an infectiousness that really did make you want to dance. (I can sing every word.) But upon its release in July 1964, with Mississippi Freedom Summer, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and the Civil Rights Act in the forefront and escalation of the Vietnam War in the offing, it took on deeper meaning and became a true American icon. So argues Kurlansky, who can give real dimension to things like cod and salt and also wrote 1968: The Year That Rocked the World.
Kirkus Reviews
Fascinating but flawed, the latest from Kurlansky (Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man, 2012 etc.) suggests that not only was the Martha and the Vandellas' hit the anthem for a time of profound change, but a call to arms for rioting militants in its "invitation across the nation." The author is on solid ground when he keeps a tight focus on Motown, Berry Gordy and the hit machine the mogul established in Detroit along the lines of the city's automobile industry: "A bare frame of a street singer could go through the Motown plant and come out a Cadillac of a performer." He shows how Gordy got rich, his artists got famous, and his studio musicians and some of his songwriters got shafted. He explains how Motown's changes reflected a changing America, as dreams of integration shattered with the King assassination, the rise of Black Power and the rioting in the streets. "It was also suggested that the popularity of the song ‘Dancing in the Street' had encouraged people to take to the streets," writes Kurlansky in an oddly passive construction that proceeds to cite a "rumor" that the hit was banned from the airwaves. Plainly, change was in the air, and to overload this one hit with too much revolutionary significance in a 1964 that also gave the world "The Times They Are A-Changin" and "A Change Is Gonna Come" blurs cause and effect. And then there are all the nit-picky errors: that "(Michael) Bolton achieved stardom in the 1980s with his hard rock band Black Jack [sic]," that the sophisticated, debonair Chuck Berry was "a wild-looking black man…who hopped around the stage madly," that Elvis Presley's "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" was "swing." Perhaps the book's biggest howler lies in the understatement that "many people were affected by the King murder." An ambitious thematic arc, but the devil's in the details.
The Barnes & Noble Review

In 1967, after a turbulent summer of violent uprisings in Detroit, Newark, and other cities across America, singer Martha Reeves went on tour in Britain. At a stop in London, a reporter confronted the Motown star about the urban riots, demanding to know whether her hit "Dancing in the Street" was a call to arms. Reeves, who always insisted that her signature song was nothing more than "a party song," burst into tears.

Mark Kurlansky, best known for micro-histories including Salt and Cod, now turns his attention to Reeves's iconic song, written by Marvin Gaye, Mickey Stevenson, and Ivy Jo Hunter and recorded by Martha and the Vandellas in 1964. The book, Ready for a Brand New Beat, is crammed with intriguing material, even if its subtitle, How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem for a Changing America, promises more than the author ultimately delivers.

One problem is that Kurlansky takes too long to get to "Dancing in the Street," padding the book with overly detailed background on everything from Elvis to Beatlemania to Detroit's influx of black families from the South. Another is that by the time the author finally does arrive at the song's 1964 release and its continued popularity during the tumultuous years that followed, he has little more to bolster his case than recollections (albeit fascinating) by '60s radicals like Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chair H. Rap Brown, writer/activist Amiri Baraka, and Weatherman Mark Rudd, all of whom saw the song as having a hidden meaning promoting revolution and recalled its being played during riots and rallies. (Kurlansky's awkward way of spelling out that meaning is to ask a series of labored questions: "And did not 'calling out around the world' mean a call for revolution, and didn't the song include a list of cities, each with important black communities that were likely to have 'disorders'? What did it mean to be calling out to these cities for people to go dancing in the street now that summer's here and the time is right?")

Kurlansky alludes more than once to rumors that radio stations banned the song, fearing its potential to incite rioting, but he acknowledges that "no one has come up with a concrete example of a radio station outlawing it." By the time he reaches his final chapter, an assessment of the song's current cultural standing, he seems almost desperate to seal its historical status when he follows a paragraph about President Obama hailing "Dancing in the Street" as "the sound track of the civil rights era" with an even more thorough description of an obscure American Idol contestant performing it on the singing competition because she believed it to be "an anthem for the civil rights movement." Let's not even get into that chapter's strange profusion of quotations from Michael Bolton.

Despite these shortcomings, there is much in Ready for a Brand New Beat that makes the book worthy and engaging reading. The author provides a brisk summary of Motown's rich history, doing an excellent job of capturing the heady atmosphere at the two-story house in Detroit where so much classic R&B — music that helped racially integrate America's listening audience — was recorded. One of the most remarkable elements of that history is what Mary Wilson of the Supremes dubbed "the Motown bubble," the way many Motown artists studiously ignored the political events roiling the country. (Reeves recently claimed that she had never even heard of SNCC, the organization at the heart of much of the civil rights movement.) Motown founder Berry Gordy, less interested in politics than in his bottom line, saw himself advancing the cause not by marching and demonstrating but by making black music mainstream.

Marvin Gaye was increasingly disgusted with the Motown bubble: "With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?" he later wrote in his autobiography. When he first brought his classic protest song "What's Going On" to Gordy, the Motown boss called it "the worst thing I ever heard in my life" and discouraged Gaye from releasing it. "If you're gonna do something different, at least make it commercial," he sniped. Co- writers Stevenson and Hunter insist to this day that "Dancing in the Street" had no hidden agenda. Kurlansky, of course, could not interview the song's third writer, Gaye, who was killed by his father in 1984, but the author speculates that the late singer would have been politicized enough by 1964 to have intended a deeper meaning to "Dancing in the Street."

Reeves was eventually — and callously — dumped by Motown when Gordy fled the Motor City in 1972 and moved the company to Los Angeles. She still lives in Detroit — that is, when she's not out on tour performing her most enduring hit. "I never get tired of singing 'Dancing in the Street,' " she told Kurlansky. "Every time you sing it, it is different. Different musicians, different crowd, a different happy. It makes me happy to sing it." Amiri Baraka, who goes so far as to tell Kurlansky that he believes "Dancing in the Street," with its future tense ("There'll be dancing..."), "prophesied the rebellion," cherishes his understanding of the song as much as Reeves does hers. Told by Kurlansky that all the living principals involved with its creation denied his interpretation, Baraka replied, "It doesn't matter to me what they meant."

Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York,, Details, andSpin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Reviewer: Barbara Spindel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781594487224
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 7/11/2013
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,536,301
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Mark Kurlansky

Mark Kurlansky is the New York Times–bestselling author of twenty-four books, including Cod, Salt, 1968: The Year That Rocked the World, The Big Oyster, The Last Fish Tale, The Food of a Younger Land, The Eastern Stars, and Edible Stories. He lives in New York City.


Blessed with extraordinary narrative skills, journalist and bestselling author Mark Kurlansky is one of a burgeoning breed of writers who has turned a variety of eclectic, offbeat topics into engaging nonfiction blockbusters.

Kurlansky worked throughout the 1970s and '80s as a foreign correspondent in Europe and Mexico. He spent seven years covering the Caribbean for the Chicago Tribune and transformed the experience into his first book. Published in 1992, A Continent of Islands was described by Kirkus Reviews as "[a] penetrating analysis of the social, political, sexual, and cultural worlds that exist behind the four-color Caribbean travel posters."

Since then, Kurlansky has produced a steady stream of bestselling nonfiction, much of it inspired by his longstanding interest in food and food history. (He has worked as a chef and a pastry maker and has written award-winning articles for several culinary magazines.) Among his most popular food-centric titles are the James Beard Award winner Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World (1997), Salt: A World History (2002), and The Big Oyster: History on the Half Shell (2006). All three were adapted into illustrated children's books.

In 2004, Kurlansky cast his net wider with 1968: The Year that Rocked the World, an ambitious, colorful narrative history that sought to link political and cultural revolutions around the world to a single watershed year. While the book itself received mixed reviews, Kurlanski's storytelling skill was universally praised. In 2006, he published the scholarly, provocative critique Nonviolence: Twenty-five Lessons From the History of a Dangerous Idea. It received the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.

Despite occasional forays into fiction (the 2000 short story collection The White Man in the Tree and the 2005 novel Boogaloo on 2nd Avenue), Kurlansky's bailiwick remains the sorts of freewheeling colorful, and compulsively readable micro-histories that 21st-century readers cannot get enough of.

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    1. Hometown:
      New York, NY
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 7, 1948
    2. Place of Birth:
      Hartford, CT
    1. Education:
      Butler University, B.A. in Theater, 1970

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