"The goal of Motown was clear in the logo they printed on their record jackets: "The Sound of Young America". It was no longer about black and white. The lucrative market was teenagers and it was biracial. Berry Gordy understood that in this climate the music would have to change, too, and he would have to introduce "a brand new beat", a new sound. He was in search of the Motown sound. And it would have to be a sound that would work well on small transistor radios and car radios, their radios." -- pp. 85-86
If there was one thing Berry Gordy Jr. was not looking for it was controversy. As spring melted into summer in 1964 Motown records was well on its way to becoming the most successful independent record label in America. Gordy had perfected a formula for churning out bright, exciting pop tunes that appealed to teens of all races. On July 31, 1964 Motown released a pulsating new single by Martha and the Vandellas. It was supposed to be a party song. What Berry Gordy could not have possibly known was that "Dancing In the Street" would become the anthem for the young people who would take to the streets in the years that followed protesting everything from racial discrimination, our escalating involvement in Vietnam and police brutality. Mark Kurlansky recalls these breathtaking events in his irresistible new book "Ready For a Brand New Beat: How "Dancing In The Street" Became the Anthem For a Changing America". I must admit that I was a bit skeptical about the premise of the book but Kurlansky has managed to pull it off with a great deal of finesse. This is one of the most entertaining books I have read in quite some time.
In the opening chapter of "Ready For a Brand New Beat" Mark Kurlansky reprises the late `40s and early 1950's for his readers. In those days whites were listening to bland pop tunes on the radio while most Negroes were enjoying the blues and R&B on black-owned radio stations. To fully comprehend the tumultuous events of the 1960's it is extremely important to understand what went down before. I thought the author did a terrific job of getting his readers up to speed. One of the key factors in the development of rock and roll was the introduction of the transistor radios in the mid-1950s. These portable, affordable radios could fit in your pocket. Before long just about every kid in America would have one. Increasingly, white teenagers were being introduced to black music and they positively loved it. Berry Gordy was among the first to figure this out and his Motown Record Company would focus on delivering exciting new sounds to young people, both black and white. The formula worked like a charm for a few years but as Mark Kurlansky chronicles in his book events would soon spiral out of control. America would change in ways that Berry Gordy could not possibly have anticipated.
Just two days after "Dancing In the Street" was released, events took place that would eventually lead to the escalation of the war in Vietnam. In 1964, 17 year olds comprised the largest age group in America. These young people were still too young to vote but they quickly came to the realization that as soon as they turned 18 they could be drafted to fight in a war in Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, more than 700 college students travelled to the Deep South to help register black voters in what would come to be known at the Mississippi Freedom Summer. In just a matter of days three of these young people would turn up missing and eventually be found dead. Meanwhile, riots erupted in Harlem after a 15 year old African-American male was shot and killed by a white policeman. Similar outbursts would occur in Elizabeth, NJ, Chicago and in Jacksonville, FL. Then in February, 1965 the black human rights activist Malcolm X was gunned down in New York City. He was 39. Malcom X never bought into the civil rights movement and had urged every black person to own a gun. He firmly believed that "only violence or the threat of violence will get results." It would not be long before cries of "Black Power" would supplant the non-violent protests of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Tensions were mounting and the carefree existence that most of America's teenagers had known was quickly evaporating. Still, for the vast majority of American teenagers "Dancing In the Street" was nothing more than an up-tempo dance tune. But for those who were not content to remain silent, for those who took to the streets, "Dancing In The Street" took on an entirely new meaning. As the author recalls: "Unknown to Reeves, the theme song of these disruptions around the country, or "cross the nation," just like "Burn, baby, burn" in Watts was "Dancing In The Street". Strangely, the uprisings, too, often took on a party spirit." To this day, Martha Reeves insists that it was nothing but a party song.
All these years later and for a variety of reasons, "Dancing In The Street" remains one of the most popular tunes to emerge from the 1960's. The tune sounds as fresh and vibrant today as it did the day that it was recorded. To date, there have been some 35 cover versions. In "Ready For a Brand New Beat: How "Dancing In The Street" Became the Anthem For a Changing America" Mark Kurlansky has captured the essence of what was going on in America in the 1960's through the lens of one incredible song. Much to my surprise, he managed to pull it off in a coherent and very entertaining fashion. Whether you are 16 or 60, "Dancing In The Street" would make for some awesome summer reading. Highly recommended!
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