There are few singers that remain really popular long after their passing. Usually after an initial flurry of reissues and media attention, they become the property of hardcore fans and few others. Marvin Gaye is different, different for one simple reason: he had an immense talent, not just as a singer but also as a songwriter that set him on a higher plane, as well as a social conscience that advocated change. He proved that black music did not have to be stereotypical, and influenced artists includingÂ not just every black singer from R. Kelly to Michael Jackson, but also The Rolling Stones.
"Back in the early Birds days we played a lot of Motown stuff - “ Need Your Lovin' (Want You Back) (Marvin Gaye) and Needle In A Haystack (Velvelettes)." Ron Wood
When you have written what Rolling Stone magazine described as "the fourth greatest song of all time", there is a good deal of pressure on you as an artist, at every level. Marvin Gaye was one that succumbed to the pressure, both in private and in public. Yet his legacy of great music is a jewel in the crown of the Motown label and something that no modern "soul singer", either black or white, can escape from. Before his tragic death at the hands of his father, Marvin Gaye created some of the most iconic albums of the 1970s. Before that, as he was finding his way as a Motown recording artist, he unwittingly influenced both Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones.
Early in his career, Motown were uncertain just how to position Marvin Gaye. Was he a smooth crooning type artist? Or another in their stable of wonderful singers, who could perform soul and R&B along with the best of them. On That Stubborn Kinda Fellow, it's the more soulful side. It includes Marvin's composition, 'Hitch Hike' that The Stones covered on their Out Of Our Heads album. His influence on the Stones did not stop there. Marvin's song 'Can I Get A Witness', released in September 1963, was recorded for their debut album.
By the end of the 1960s, having recorded some of the greatest duets in the history of Motown and soul music, with Kim Weston and in particular Tammi Terrell, Marvin was searching for a new creative outlet for his socially aware music. His new direction and newfound social consciousness, is best heard on the hit, 'Abraham Martin & John' which Gaye made his own, despite the original being recorded by rock and roll survivor Dion (of the Belmonts fame).
From 1970 Marvin was heading in a very different musical direction, creating some of the most iconic albums ever recorded by a black singer. Starting with What's Going On through Trouble Man, Let's Get It On and I Want You, they represent the peak of his career.
That fourth greatest song of all time in case you were wondering? 'What's Going On'.
"As an artist you want to record songs you feel strongly about. But, in my case, I don't think commercially." Marvin Gaye
One of the most gifted, visionary, and enduring talents ever launched into orbit by the Motown hit machine, Marvin Gaye blazed the trail for the continued evolution of popular black music. Moving from lean, powerful R&B, to stylish, sophisticated soul, to finally arrive at an intensely political and personal form of artistic self-expression, his work not only redefined soul music as a creative force, but also expanded its impact as an agent for social change.
Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. (in the style of his hero Sam Cooke, he added the "e" to his surname as an adult) was born April 2, 1939, in Washington, D.C. The second of three children born to the Reverend Marvin Gay Sr., he began singing in church at the age of three, quickly becoming a soloist in the choir. Gaye later took up piano and drums and music became his escape from the nightmarish realities of his home life - throughout his childhood his father beat him on an almost daily basis.
After graduating from high school, Gaye enlisted in the U.S. Air Force; upon his discharge, he returned to Washington and began singing in a number of street-corner doo wop groups, eventually joining The Rainbows, a top local attraction. With the help of mentor Bo Diddley, The Rainbows cut 'Wyatt Earp', a single for the OKeh label that brought them to the attention of singer Harvey Fuqua, who in 1958 recruited the group to become the latest edition of his backing ensemble, The Moonglows. After relocating to Chicago, The Moonglows recorded a series of singles for Chess, including 1959's 'Mama Loocie'. While touring the Midwest, the group performed in Detroit, where Gaye's graceful tenor and three-octave vocal range, won the interest of fledgling impresario Berry Gordy, Jr. who signed him to the Motown label in 1961.
While first working at Motown as a session drummer and playing on early hits by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles, he met Gordy's sister Anna and married her in late 1961. Upon mounting a solo career, Gaye struggled to find his voice and early singles failed. Finally, his fourth effort, 'Stubborn Kind of Fellow' became a minor hit in 1962 and his next two singles - the 1963 dance efforts 'Hitch Hike' and 'Can I Get a Witness', both reached the Top 30. With 1963's 'Pride and Joy', Gaye scored his first Top Ten smash, but often found his role as a hitmaker stifling - his desire to become a crooner of lush romantic ballads, ran in direct opposition to Motown's all-important emphasis on chart success and the ongoing battle between his artistic ambitions and the label's demands for commercial product, continued throughout Gaye's long tenure with the company.
With 1964's Together, a collection of duets with Mary Wells, Gaye scored his first charting album; the duo also notched a number of hit singles together, including 'Once Upon a Time' and 'What's the Matter With You, Baby?'. As a solo performer, Gaye continued to enjoy great success, scoring three superb Top Ten hits in 1965; 'Ain't That Peculiar', 'I'll Be Doggone'Â and 'How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)'. In total, he scored some 39 Top 40 singles for Motown, many of which he also wrote and arranged. With Kim Weston, the second of his crucial vocal partners, he also established himself as one of the era's dominant duet singers, with the stunning 'It Takes Two'.
However, Gaye's greatest duets were to be with Tammi Terrell, with whom he scored a series of massive hits, penned by the team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, including 1967's 'Ain't No Mountain High Enough' and 'Your Precious Love', followed by 1968's 'Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing' and 'You're All I Need to Get By'. The team's success was tragically cut short in 1967 when, during a concert appearance in Virginia, Terrell collapsed into Gaye's arms on-stage, the first evidence of a brain tumor that abruptly ended her performing career and finally killed her on March 16, 1970. Her illness and eventual loss, left Gaye deeply shaken, marring the chart-topping 1968 success of 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine', his biggest hit and arguably the pinnacle of the Motown sound.
At the same time, Gaye was forced to cope with a number of other personal problems, not the least of which, was his crumbling marriage. He also found the material he recorded for Motown to be increasingly irrelevant, in the face of the tremendous social changes sweeping the nation, and after scoring a pair of 1969 Top Ten hits with 'Too Busy Thinking About My Baby' and 'That's the Way Love Is', he spent the majority of 1970 in seclusion, resurfacing early the next year with the self-produced What's Going On, a landmark effort heralding a dramatic shift in both content and style, that would forever alter the face of black music. A highly percussive album, which incorporated jazz and classical elements, to forge a remarkably sophisticated and fluid soul sound, What's Going On was a conceptual masterpiece that brought Gaye's deeply held spiritual beliefs to the fore. Exploring issues ranging from poverty and discrimination, to the environment, drug abuse, and political corruption; chief among the record's concerns was the conflict in Vietnam, as Gaye structured the songs around the point of view of his brother Frankie, himself a soldier recently returned from combat.
The ambitions and complexity of What's Going On baffled Berry Gordy, who initially refused to release the LP; he finally relented, although he maintained that he never understood the record's full scope. Gaye was vindicated, when the majestic title track reached the No.2 spot in 1971 and both of the follow-ups; 'Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)'Â and 'Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)', also reached the Top Ten. The album's success guaranteed, Gaye's continued artistic control over his work helped loosen the reins for other Motown artists, most notably Stevie Wonder, to also take command of their own destinies. Consequently, in 1972, Gaye changed directions again, agreeing to score the blaxploitation thriller Trouble Man. The resulting soundtrack was primarily an instrumental effort, showcasing his increasing interest in jazz, although a vocal turn on the moody, minimalist title track scored another Top Ten smash.
The long-simmering eroticism implicit in much of Gaye's work reached its boiling point with 1973's Let's Get It On, one of the most sexually charged albums ever recorded. A work of intense lust and longing, it became the most commercially successful effort of his career and the title cut became his second No.1 hit. Let's Get It On also marked another significant shift in Gaye's lyrical outlook, moving him from the political arena to a deeply personal, even insular stance, which continued to define his subsequent work. After teaming with Diana Ross for the 1973 duet collection Diana & Marvin, he returned to work on his next solo effort, I Want You; however, the record's completion was delayed by his 1975 divorce from Anna Gordy. The dissolution of his marriage threw Gaye into a tailspin and he spent much of the mid-'70s in divorce court. To combat Gaye's absence from the studio, Motown released the 1977 stopgap Live at the London Palladium, which spawned the single 'Got to Give It Up, Pt. 1', his final No.1 hit.
As a result of a 1976 court settlement, Gaye was ordered to make good on missed alimony payments by recording a new album, with the intention that all royalties earned from its sales would then be awarded to his ex-wife. The 1978 record, a two-LP set sardonically entitled Here, My Dear, bitterly explored the couple's relationship in such intimate detail, that Anna Gordy briefly considered suing Gaye for invasion of privacy. In the interim, he had remarried and begun work on another album,Lover Man, but scrapped the project when the 'Ego Tripping Out' lead single - a telling personal commentary, presented as a duet between the spiritual and sexual halves of his identity (later dubbed by biographer David Ritz as the singer's "divided soul") failed to chart. As his drug problems increased and his marriage to new wife Janis also began to fail, he relocated to Hawaii in an attempt to sort out his personal affairs.
In 1981, longstanding tax difficulties and renewed pressures from the IRS, forced Gaye to flee to Europe, where he began work on the ambitious In Our Lifetime, a deeply philosophical record that ultimately severed his longstanding relationship with Motown, after he claimed the label had remixed and edited the album without his consent. Additionally, Gaye stated that the finished artwork parodied his original intent and that even the title had been changed to drop an all-important question mark. Upon signing with Columbia in 1982, he battled stories of erratic behavior and a consuming addiction to cocaine, to emerge triumphant with Midnight Love, an assured comeback highlighted by the luminous Top Three hit 'Sexual Healing'. The record made Gaye a star yet again, and in 1983 he made peace with Berry Gordy by appearing on a television special celebrating Motown's silver anniversary. That same year, he also sang a soulful and idiosyncratic rendition of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' at the NBA All-Star Game; it instantly became one of the most controversial and legendary interpretations of the anthem ever performed. And it was to be his final public appearance.
Gaye's career resurgence brought with it an increased reliance on cocaine; finally, his personal demons forced him back to the U.S., where he moved in with his parents, in an attempt to regain control of his life. Tragically, the return home only exacerbated his spiral into depression. He and his father quarrelled bitterly and Gaye threatened suicide on a number of occasions. Finally, on the afternoon of April 1, 1984, one day before his 45th birthday, Gaye was shot and killed by Marvin Sr. in the aftermath of a heated argument. In the wake of his death, Motown and Columbia teamed up to issue two 1985 collections of outtakes, Dream of a Lifetime - a compilation of erotic funk workouts teamed with spiritual ballads, and the big band-inspired Romantically Yours. (Vulnerable, a collection of ballads that took over 12 years to complete, finally saw release in 1996). With Gaye's death, also came a critical re-evaluation of his work, which deemed What's Going On to be one of the landmark albums in pop history. His 1987 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, permanently enshrined him among the pantheon of musical greats.
What's Going On is not only Marvin Gaye's masterpiece, it's the most important and passionate record to come out of soul music, delivered by one of its finest voices, a man finally free to speak his mind and so move from R&B sex symbol to true recording artist. With What's Going On, Gaye meditated on what had happened to the American dream of the past -- as it related to urban decay, environmental woes, military turbulence, police brutality, unemployment, and poverty. These feelings had been bubbling up between 1967 and 1970, during which he felt increasingly caged by Motown's behind-the-times hit machine and restrained from expressing himself seriously through his music.
Finally, late in 1970, Gaye decided to record a song that the Four Tops' Obie Benson had brought him, "What's Going On." When Berry Gordy decided not to issue the single, deeming it uncommercial, Gaye refused to record any more material until he relented. Confirmed by its tremendous commercial success in January 1971, he recorded the rest of the album over ten days in March, and Motown released it in late May. Besides cementing Marvin Gaye as one of the most important artists in pop music, What's Going On was far and away the best full-length to issue from the singles-dominated Motown factory, and arguably the best soul album of all time.
Conceived as a statement from the viewpoint of a Vietnam veteran (Gaye's brother Frankie had returned from a three-year hitch in 1967), What's Going On isn't just the question of a baffled soldier returning home to a strange place, but a promise that listeners would be informed by what they heard (that missing question mark in the title certainly wasn't a typo). Instead of releasing listeners from their troubles, as so many of his singles had in the past, Gaye used the album to reflect on the climate of the early '70s, rife with civil unrest, drug abuse, abandoned children, and the spectre of riots in the near past.
Alternately depressed and hopeful, angry and jubilant, Gaye saved the most sublime, deeply inspired performances of his career for "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," and "Save the Children." The songs and performances, however, furnished only half of a revolution; little could've been accomplished with the Motown sound of previous Marvin Gaye hits like "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" and "Hitch Hike" or even "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." What's Going On, as he conceived and produced it, was like no other record heard before it: languid, dark, and jazzy, a series of relaxed grooves with a heavy bottom, filled by thick basslines along with bongos, conga, and other percussion. Fortunately, this aesthetic fit in perfectly with the style of longtime Motown session men like bassist James Jamerson and guitarist Joe Messina. When the Funk Brothers were, for once, allowed the opportunity to work in relaxed, open proceedings, they produced the best work of their careers (and indeed, they recognized its importance before any of the Motown executives).
Bob Babbitt's playing on "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" functions as the low-end foundation but also its melodic hook, while an improvisatory jam by Eli Fountain on alto sax furnished the album's opening flourish. (Much credit goes to Gaye himself for seizing on these often tossed-off lines as precious; indeed, he spent more time down in the Snakepit than he did in the control room.) Just as he'd hoped it would be, What's Going On was Marvin Gaye's masterwork, the most perfect expression of an artist's hope, anger, and concern ever recorded.
Words - John Bush.
Pre-dating the voyeuristic tendencies of reality television by 20 years, Here, My Dear is the sound of divorce on record -- exposed in all of its tender-nerve glory for the world to consume. During the amazing success of I Want You and his stellar Live at the London Palladium album, Marvin Gaye was served with divorce papers from his then-wife Anna Gordy Gaye (sister of Motown Records founder Berry Gordy). One of the conditions of the settlement was that Gordy Gaye would receive an extensive percentage of royalties as well as a portion of the advance for his next album. Initially, Gaye was contemplating giving less than his best effort, as he wouldn't stand to receive any money, but then reconsidered at the last moment. The result is a two-disc-long confessional on the deterioration of their marriage; starting from the opening notes of the title track, Gaye viciously cuts with every lyric deeper into an explanation of why the relationship died the way it did.
Gaye uses the album, right down to its packaging, to exorcise his personal demons with subtle visual digs and less-than-subtle lyrical attacks. The inner sleeve had a pseudo-board-game-like illustration entitled "Judgment," in which a man's hand passes a record to a woman's. One side of the sleeve has Gaye's music and recording equipment, while the other side of the board included jewelry and other luxurious amenities. Musically the album retains the high standards Gaye set in the early '70s, but you can hear the agonizing strain of recent events in his voice, to the point where even several vocal overdubs can't save his delivery. Stripped to its bare essence, Here, My Dear is no less than brilliantly unsettling and a perfect cauterization to a decade filled with personal turmoil.
I Want You, while it was a Top Ten smash for Marvin Gaye in 1976, is not as generally well-known as its predecessors for a number of reasons. First, it marked a sharp change in direction, leaving his trademark Motown soul for lush, funky, light disco. Secondly, its subject matter is as close to explicit as pop records got in 1976. Third, Gaye hadn't recorded in nearly three years and critics were onto something else -- exactly what is now anybody's guess. From the amazing Ernie Barnes cover painting "Back to Sugar Shack" to the Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson string and horn arrangements to Leon Ware's exotic production that relied on keyboards as well as drums and basses as rhythm instruments, I Want You was a giant leap for Gaye.
The feel of the album was one of late-night parties in basements and small clubs, and the intimacy of the music evokes the image of people getting closer as every hour of a steamy night wears on. But the most astonishing things about I Want You are its intimacy (it was dedicated to and recorded in front of Gaye's future second wife, Jan), silky elegance, and seamless textures. Gaye worked with producer Leon Ware, who wrote all of the original songs on the album and worked with Gaye to revise them, thus lending Gaye a co-writing credit. The title track is a monster two-step groover with hand percussion playing counterpoint to the strings and horns layered in against a spare electric guitar solo, all before Gaye begins to sing on top of the funky backbeat. It's a party anthem to be sure, and one that evokes the vulnerability that a man in love displays when the object of his affection is in plain sight.
Art Stewart's engineering rounds off all the edges and makes Gaye's already sweet crooning instrument into the true grain in the voice of seductive need. "Feel All My Love Inside" and "I Want to Be Where You Are" are anthems to sensuality with strings creeping up under Gaye's voice as the guitars move through a series of chunky changes and drums punctuate his every syllable. In all, the original album is a suite to the bedroom, one in which a man tells his woman all of his sexual aspirations because of his love for her. The entire album has been referenced by everyone from Mary J. Blige to D'Angelo to Chico DeBarge and even Todd Rundgren, who performed the title track live regularly. By the time it is over, the listener should be a blissed-out container of amorous vibes. I Want You and its companion, Ware's Musical Massage, are the pre-eminent early disco concept albums. They are adult albums about intimacy, sensuality, and commitment, and decades later they still reverberate with class, sincerity, grace, intense focus, and astonishingly good taste. I Want You is as necessary as anything Gaye ever recorded.
Words - Thom Jurek.
After Marvin Gaye recorded tributes to Broadway and Nat King Cole in the previous two years, Motown fans may have had their suspicions raised by an LP titled Moods of Marvin Gaye. Yes, there are a few supper-club standards to be found here, but Gaye moves smoothly between good-time soul and adult pop. Most important are his first two R&B number ones, "I'll Be Doggone" and "Ain't That Particular," both from 1965 and both produced by Smokey Robinson.
Berry Gordy's right-hand man also helmed "Take This Heart of Mine" and "One More Heartache," another pair of big R&B scores, and just as good as the better-known hits. As for the copyrights not owned by Jobete, the chestnut "One for My Baby (And One More for the Road)" certainly didn't need another reading, but Gaye's take on Willie Nelson's after-hours classic "Night Life" was inspired. Marvin Gaye was improving with every record, gaining in character and strength of performance, and Moods of Marvin Gaye is a radically better record than its predecessors.
Words - John Bush.
After brilliantly surveying the social, political, and spiritual landscape with What's Going On, Marvin Gaye turned to more intimate matters with Let's Get It On, a record unparalleled in its sheer sensuality and carnal energy. Always a sexually charged performer, Gaye's passions reach their boiling point on tracks like the magnificent title hit (a number one smash) and "You Sure Love to Ball"; silky and shimmering, the music is seductive in the most literal sense, its fluid grooves so perfectly designed for romance as to border on parody.
With each performance laced with innuendo, each lyric a come-on, and each rhythm throbbing with lust, perhaps no other record has ever achieved the kind of sheer erotic force of Let's Get It On, and it remains the blueprint for all of the slow jams to follow decades later -- much copied, but never imitated.
Words - Jason Ankeny.
Marvin Gaye's In Our Lifetime came after 1978's confessional and meandering double album Here, My Dear. Although this better set does seem effortlessly conceived, it wasn't that simple. Gaye originally envisioned a "party" album and almost released one called Love Man. After some consideration, Gaye nixed the idea and aimed for an effort that would spotlight his religious concerns. Thankfully, In Our Lifetime splits the difference between the two mindsets. The first single from the aborted Love Man shows up here. "Ego Tripping Out" works as both a parody of the "love man" with a few autobiographical flourishes as he sings, "Got a sweet tooth/For the chick on the floor." Slowly but surely the religious matters do surface here. The buoyant "Praise" has a blithe riff inspired and/or lifted from Stevie Wonder and has Gaye getting his message across without being preachy.
Although no song is especially brilliant here, the level of Gaye's musical sense and his vocal prowess carry him throughout. The unfinished and non-Gaye-approved "Far Cry" has lyrics that are steam-of-conscious and are barely decipherable. The mesmerizing "Love Me Now or Love Me Later" has Gaye examining both good and evil with equal skill. The last track, the title song, has Gaye back in the party frame of mind and has great horn charts and a propulsive beat. In Our Lifetime is one of his finest later albums and captures him as his craft was maturing and becoming more multifaceted.
Words - Jason Elias.
The album-opening "Trouble Man" wields considerable weight, instantly establishing an engaging tone. From there Gaye moves toward an 11-minute medley of his '60s classics that comes across as almost a montage of nostalgia, evoking wistful memories of a more innocent and untainted Marvin. Following this medley, the album hits its fiery peak with versions of "Let's Get It On" and "What's Going On," his two biggest hits of the moment. Live! isn't quite as essential as 1977's Live at the London Palladium, lacking the scope and instrumentation of that double LP. Regardless, it's still a great snapshot of Gaye at a key point in his career -- the mid-'70s sabbatical from which he would never return quite the same.
This album features both Marvin and Kim duetting on a collection of tracks; including ‘It Takes Two’, their world wide smash. Kim Weston was the perfect female foil for Marvin - their voices were magic together. Other standout tracks are ‘What Good am I Without You’, and ‘Baby I Need Your Loving.’
In 1972, things were rapidly shifting in Marvin Gaye's world. He was coming off of one of his most wide-reaching hit albums with 1971's instant classic What's Going On, and his recording contract with Motown subsidiary Tamla was renewed for a cool million dollars and total creative control, making him one of the most successful R&B artists of his day. With Motown's offices migrating west from Detroit to Los Angeles, Gaye followed suit, beginning work on Trouble Man, both the score to a blaxploitation film of the same name and the soundtrack that would be his next album.
With minimal singing (Gaye sings through only the title track, adding fragmentary vocalizations minimally throughout the rest of the album), Gaye wrote, arranged, and conducted the entire soundtrack, working with both Motown players and a full orchestra over the course of its recording. It's been speculated by some that Trouble Man was a concerted effort to move away from the expectations of a carbon-copy follow-up to the almost immeasurably high standards of What's Going On, but it's best to look at the record as an entity unto itself rather than the next Marvin Gaye album in the chain.
By the early '70s, Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye were in completely different creative territories. Ross was settling down as a professional diva, while Gaye was pushing his art forward with What's Going On, Trouble Man, and Let's Get It On. What they shared, apart from a mutual admiration, was that they were two of the biggest artists on Motown and that their voices sounded terrific together. So it wasn't entirely surprising that the duo teamed up in 1973 for the Diana & Marvin album.
Although the album didn't produce any timeless classics, the results were still very good -- good enough for the record to be one of Ross' best efforts of the era. The highlights are the three singles ("You're a Special Part of Me," "My Mistake (Was to Love You)," "Don't Knock My Love"), but even the weaker tunes are redeemed by the duo's indelible chemistry, and that's the reason why it's worth a listen.
Words - Stephen Thomas Erlewine.