There are a lot, a lot, of books out there about Motown records, Berry Gordy and the many wonderful artists that were signed to the label in its Detroit heyday, which makes it all the more impressive that there aren’t any books like Suzanne Smith’s Dancing in the Street: Motown and the Cultural Politics of Detroit.
The book opens in July ‘67 with Martha Reeves & the Vandellas performing at Detroit’s Fox Theater and being informed about the riots during the song that gave this book its name. We’re told that Reeves advised her loyal fans to get home safely, and then she and her crew left town.
That’s a smart way to start the book, because it immediately places one of Motown’s most well-known songs into context with what was going on around it politically and socially. We hear about the impact Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and the Black Panther Party had on the mindset of Motown musicians, particularly Marvin Gaye who pushed Gordy to allow him to release a “message” record, What’s Going On?.
The book isn’t always an easy read, but it’s really not supposed to be. Still, Smith’s research is exhaustive and the subject matter is fascinating. Her most impressive feat is successfully making the reader hear songs heard a million times with a whole new set of ears.