A special Marvin Gaye Mixtape Monday after the jump
Marvin Gaye has been dead for over 20 years (26 to be exact) and his legacy has been that of a great pop musician, a man who helped define what Motown was and who later would be famously known for not letting Motown define him. At times he has been called a genius, at others he’s been called a tortured soul. Nevertheless, his impact on pop music has been prolific, and his image has been as shape-shifting as David Bowie and groups like The Beatles. He refused to be pigen-holed in one genre, and his creativity as an individual artist never wavered. Born a true son of a preacher man, Marvin got his roots in the gospel that dominated the segregated southern churches and it was there where his voice, blessed with a three octave range, would take shape. But his talent as a vocalist was not well known when he first came to Motown, rather he was a back-up drummer and songwriter. His drumming can actually be heard on the Motown hits “Please Mr. Postman” and “Dancing in the Street”, a song he co-wrote . However Marvin was driven to succeed and make a name for himself, he loved the image of a crooner. His big break would come when he wrote “Stubborn Kind of Fellow”, originally as a jazz-lounge kind of tune. After showing it to Barry Gordy, the head of Motown Records, he would be told for his song to be released, he would have to conform to the Motown sound format. Not wanting to give up his chance at stardom, Marvin consented and his first hit was born. People loved his vocal intensity and ability, suave and bubbling with emotion when he needed to be. Marvin Gaye was on his way to the top.
Motown was a label that prominently featured boy and girl groups, artists like The Supremes and The Vandellas, The Temptations and The Four Tops, Marvin Gaye was in a small group of artists that were purely themselves. Motown wanted Marvin to cross-over, so he would bring them both his audience, as well as win over the audience of those that loved the groups. It was only a matter of time before Motown started pairing Marvin up with female vocalists† After limited success with Mary Wells and Kim Weston, the latter producing the only remembered hit of his early pairings, “It Takes Two”. Finally Motown found a match with Tammi Terrell, and their first album, United would produce instant classics, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” “Your Precious Love” “If This World Were Mine” “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” and “Two Can Have a Party”. Marvin Gaye seemed on top of his game, as well as the world, but his happiness would not last.
While performing a live concert, Marvin Gaye would find himself holding a passed out Tammi Terrell in his arms, and after rushing to the hospital, they would find out she had a malignant brain tumor. Marvin Gaye was already a man characterized as sensitive and moody, and though he would record and release “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, he would retreat within himself, brooding over Tammi Terrell’s declining health and his unhappiness with not having full creative power for his albums and image. He temporarily quit the music business, and an unsuccessful tryout for the Detroit Lions would bring him the roots of what would be one of the most enduring songs in Gaye’s legacy.
“What’s Going On” a politically conscious song that had been brought to Gaye’s attention, would be given Marvin’s full creative attention, from the arrangement with its legendary bass-line, to the conceptualized workings of the lyrics to mirror the escalating social conflict with the Vietnam war. Both the arrangement and the lyrics were felt to be too political and too unfamiliar with the popular music that Motown preferred to churn out. This time Gaye stood his ground, he believed in his song even if it didn’t meet popular demand. When Barry Gordy finally allowed its release it became the fastest selling single of its time at Motown. Fueled by this success, Gordy pressured Gaye to make it into a full album. What’s Going On became an immediate hit, lauded by critics and proved to be a breakthrough for Motown artists, What’s Going On became more than just a concept-album, it became a precedent for Motown artists to look for their own creative freedom, most notably Stevie Wonder and later, Michael Jackson. “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” were two other socially concious songs that were released on the album focused on social concerns of the poverty of the black ghetto and the environment. In the aftermath of his greatest success with his newfound creative freedom, Gaye would go onto record the much more bedroom conscious Let’s Get It On.
Let’s Get It On would be a smash hit fueled by its contemporary arrangements and the smash hit single that was the title song. Motown had been struggling in the new decade, trying to incorporate its arrangements and songwriting into the new styles that their audience was starting to listen to. Marvin Gaye drew from Philly soul and funk in creating the instrumental bedrocks to his compositions and none were more prominent than “Let’s Get It On” and “Come Get To This”. Both of these songs were expressions of his personal life as well, frustrated with his lackluster marriage with Anna Gordy, he had found a new love in a 16 year old, and as the legend goes, the passion found in his vocal delivery is fueled by the fact she was present in the studio. Although seemingly cemented in the bedroom, Marvin was going for more of allegory, as David Ritz, Marvin’s biographer would later write.
If the most profound soul songs are prayers in secular dress, Marvin’s prayer is to reconcile the ecstasy of his early religious epiphany with a sexual epiphany. The hope for such a reconciliation, the search for sexual healing, is what drives his art … The paradox is this: The sexiest of Marvin Gaye’s work is also his most spiritual. That’s the paradox of Marvin himself. In his struggle to wed body and soul, in his exploration of sexual passion, he expresses the most human of hungers—the hunger for God. In those songs of loss and lament—the sense of separation is heartbreaking. On one level, the separation is between man and woman. On a deeper level, the separation is between man and God
This artistic interpretation would be lost on most however, listeners would often attribute it as a paen to sex and making love, and Gaye would further explore this style of sound on I Want You, with its hit single “All The Way Around” being almost an amalgamation of the former album’s “Let’s Get It On” and “Come Get To This”. However his marriage, already straining from the affair Marvin had been having with Janis Hunter, had fallen apart.
There were legal papers and court proceedings, which led to the settlement that Gaye would give the proceeds of his next record to his newly divorced wife as alimony. The resulting record was Here, My Dear and it was a commercial failure. Many critics thought that in the light of his divorce that Gaye had purposefully written a bad album, so that it would be little benefit to his ex-wife. Although it was originally attributed to this affect, as time has passed Here, My Dear has undergone a renaissance of recognition by critics, praised as being “…the sound of divorce on record — exposed in all of its tender-nerve glory for the world to consume” (Allmusic) and “a fascinating, playable album. Its confessional ranges from naked poetry…to rank jive, because Gaye’s self-involvement is so open and unmediated, guileless even at its most insincere, it retains unusual documentary charm. And within the sweet, quiet, seductive, and slightly boring mood Gaye is at such pains to realize, his rhythmic undulations and whisper-to-a-scream timbral shifts can engross the mind, the body, and above all the ear.” (Robert Christgau). Songs like “I Met A Little Girl” were open and honest documentations of his relationship with his ex, “Sparrow” was an ode to solace with a nod to Catullus and “Falling in Love” was his new found love in Janis Hunter.
After the commercial panning of Here, My Dear Gaye would again become reclusive and fall off the map for 3 years, living in a small fishing town in Belgium. But Marvin was a soul who could not give up his true passion, music, and in the early 80’s he was back on the scene again, and his final album would be Midnight Love, which contained the hit single “Sexual Healing” fusing his legendary vocals with the new music of the time, it looked like Gaye was once again on the comeback trail.
However his relationship with his father had never been great, he had after all changed his name from Gay to Gaye not only to echo Sam Cooke, but to distance himself from his fathers name. His father, a deeply religious man, had taken offense to his often erotic themes that pervaded his later music and in 1984 during a heated argument, Marvin Gay Sr. drew a gun on his son and shot him. Marvin Gaye died at 44, a day before his 45 birthday.
His music will live on forever, from pop sensation to brooding musician, and here are a few of my favorite Marvin Gaye songs culled from his entire discography:
1. Pride and Joy
My first introduction to this song was actually from a documentary on The Beatles arriving in the US, wherein upon arriving at a NYC radio station, they requested this song, and man, they knew music.
2. Hitch Hike
An oft forgotten classic culled from his early days as a pop music machine.
3. Stubborn Kind of Fellow
His first hit and one that he fully wrote, what an intro. Legend has it that Phil Spector lost control of his vehicle out of excitement when he heard this song for the first time. Dynamic intro, great jazz flute solo and a solid Motown beat.
4. Little Darling I Need You
One of Marvin’s finest early vocal performances, begging his beloved to let him love her.
5. Baby Don’t You Do It
A very percussive backbeat leads the arrangement around Marvin’s croon.
6. You’re A Wonderful One
If that opening guitar lick and drum beat doesn’t put a smile on your face then I really can’t be sure you have any emotions at all
7. Ain’t That Peculiar
Listen to the bassline, ’nuff said.
8. Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
You could try and make the argument that the song is overplayed, try is the key word, there’s something timeless in this recording that makes it constantly replayable, whether its the arrangement with the drum stick fills, or the gosh darn earnest performance of the vocalists involved.
9. If I Could Build My Whole World Around You
Marvin Gaye’s vocal on this is so warm that you can almost feel the sun coming out of your speakers, the arrangement is bright and punchy, and the harmonies, like all of his duets with Tammi Terrell, are full of earnest and talent, a intoxicating combination.
10. Your Precious Love
Great melody, great vocal performance, great arrangement, great recording.
11. If This World Were Mine
One of the starkest, and most beautiful songs Gaye would ever write, period.
12. Two Can Have A Party
This was the only song that was “by the numbers” on the album, but their performances bring the song into another realm, this is happiness in the form of a 2:19 minute song.
13. I Heard It Through The Grapevine
More than the smoky organ, the sneaky drum beat, the snaky tambourine, the warning horns and strings, its Marvin’s dynamic vocal that makes this song one of Motown’s greatest and most enduring hits.
14. How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)
There’s Marvin Gaye’s version. There’s James Taylor’s version, Marvin’s is so far superior that they can’t be mentioned in the same sentence.
15. What’s Going On
The party intro, the grooving bassline, the pleading horns and haunting vocals, one of the best political songs of all time.
16. Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)
Only a man of Marvin Gaye’s talent could write a melody this good about the environment, without sounding like he’s trying too hard.
17. Come Get To This
Already a swinging groove and excellent melody, this song is made even better by his use of his own multi-tracked vocals as rhythm instruments.
18. Let’s Get It On
This song needs no introduction.
19. My Love Is Growing
A forgotten classic off of Let’s Get It On.
20. Try It, You’ll Like It
Another great track recorded during the Let’s Get It On sessions that only became available recently, and this cut is alot better than other artists songs that make their albums.
21. All The Way Around
More proof that Marvin Gaye was a great arranger and that his work as a drummer really gave him a good feeling for a groove.
22. Got To Give It Up (Part 1)
The impossible falsetto he maintains throughout the song is more than enough proof of just how talented a vocalist he was.
23. I Met A Little Girl
As a songwriter, Marvin Gaye was unabashed from writing about his emotions, and this open-hearted honest version of his relationship with his ex-wife is told with a veil so thin that only a few other artists would have had the guts to write it, and in pure Marvin Gaye fashion, the melody and arrangement are perfect.
24. Sexual Healing
This song in relevance to his death is almost to equivalent to listening to John Lennon’s “Across the Universe” in relevance to his, its incredibly moving, both are happy and seem to be on the up and up, and knowing that it won’t last is a devastating feeling.