Tuesday, November 1, 2016

SHG: Martha & the Vandellas: "Dancing in the Street"

Martha & the Vandellas: “Dancing in the Street” Entered the chart on: 9/5/64 Peaked on: 10/17/64 Weeks at #2: 2 Song at #1: “Doo Wah Diddy Diddy” by Manfred Mann

Is this really our first Motown hit? Seems like it but, no, the Miracles’ “Shop Around” already made an appearance here. Actually, though, it makes a lot of sense: everyone remembers Beatlemania, but the other thing that happened in 1964 was that Motown broke through. After Phil Spector set a new standard with pop music production with the Ronnettes’ “Be My Baby,” lots of folks took the ball and ran with it, including the explosion of performing, songwriting and producing talent at Motown. This song was co-written by someone you might know, future Second Hand Goods featured artist Marvin Gaye. I’ll let you figure out which song he’ll be appearing with*.

Martha Reeves may not have been a “face” like Mary Wells or Diana Ross, but I think she and her Vandellas are underrated. “Heat Wave” is one of my most beloved Motown hits and this one has had a long life as well. An amusing review over at RateYourMusic goes: “In case anybody was wondering how Bowie and Jagger did not get better reviews for their version of this song, you may not have heard the original. It is more than somewhat better.”

“More than somewhat better.” That’s an understatement!

Songs like this make me yearn for the days of real instruments on records. That horn section, oh my! And it sounds like there’s a baritone sax honking away in the background the whole time. There’s lots of background touches that are so nice on this one, the piano, the Vandellas’ backing harmonies, and so forth. Supposedly someone was banging a chain on the floor to amplify that monster beat. I can believe it!

But really, it’s Martha’s lead voice that makes this one so special. She has such a wonderful tone and it’s just a joy to listen to her, the way she she sings “Everywhere around the world” the second time gets me every time. So splendid, hardly anyone could touch her in her prime.

I think this might be the first time we get “mention as many localities in the major radio markets so we can be sure this gets airplay” kind of lyrics. Later on, this would come across as blatant pandering** (“The Heart of Rock & Roll” by Huey Lewis & the News, anyone?) but I’ll grade this on a curve due to the quality of everything else. And at least it’s not a dance craze record, just a song that celebrates the simple joy of dancing itself.

It’s songs like this that display the superiority of the Motown era to the Cameo-Parkway era, as if there were any doubt.

Rating: 5

*I know I keep acting like this is some kind of arcane knowledge of which I am the only wizened overseer, but it really isn’t. This information is out there for anyone to seek out.
**Not just “later on,” actually. Anyone else remember Tommy Facenda’s “High School U.S.A.”? “Hey, he mentioned my high school! I feel so special!”

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