By the late 1960s, Marvin Gaye had deservedly earned the title of "The Prince of Motown" for his many hits and that definitive and gorgeously silky smooth singing voice of his. As the hugely influential label's best-selling male star, Marvin Gaye had also scored Motown's biggest-selling hit, "I Heard It through the Grapevine" by 1968. He also maintained a successful parallel career singing duets with several of Motown's leading ladies, namely Tammi Terrell.
Following Terrell's collapse in his arms onstage during the summer of 1967 for an undiagnosed brain tumor, Marvin Gaye began a spiritual and emotional decline of his own. Problems with his wife, the IRS and Terrell's eventual death in March 1970 brought him to a point where he felt he wanted to express himself his own way. No doubt inspired by the inventive Norman Whitfield, who was chiefly responsible for "I Heard it through the Grapevine" and many, many other classics that transcended Motown's rather restrictive limitations, Marvin Gaye felt it was no longer enough to bring out the best in other producers and musical associates. He wanted to bring out the best in himself.
But this wasn't the way at the Motown machine. Singers were fronts for corporate music and, like so many other artists elsewhere – especially those of the African American variety – he was not allowed to have any sort of artistic control. Marvin Gaye refused to be reigned in by that and while his obstinacy rightfully furthered the cause of black artists gaining control of their own musical artistry, it did nothing but cause him problems with the Motown brass and namely Motown's chief and Marvin Gaye's brother-in-law, Berry Gordy, Jr. almost until the very end of his life. It probably even hurt his own career as much as the new direction he sought in music furthered the financial fortunes of Motown and, later, other labels as well.
As rampant racism, the Vietnam War, protest in the streets and police brutality seemed to bring America to its knees in 1970, Marvin Gaye brought forth all his talents to simply state – or ask? - "What's Going On." As Ben Edmonds says in his beautiful notes to the Deluxe Edition CD release of <em>What's Going On</em>, "Its relaxed yet forceful groove was closer to jazz than anything in the Motown canon, but it wasn't really jazz either. Usually the Funk Brothers [the studio musicians who played without credit – until this album – on nearly every Motown recording ever made] didn't have the slightest idea for whom a song was intended or even what it was called. These supremely gifted musicians often looked down their noses at the pop music they were hired to churn out. Not this day. When bassist James Jamerson got home from work, he told his wife he'd just cut a classic."
Marvin Gaye had been inspired and fashioned an inspiring ode that did indeed become a classic, almost immediately. But Berry Gordy, Jr. hated it and refused to release it. Too political. Too weird. And not a hit. Marvin Gaye refused to record anything more for Motown unless "What's Going On" was released. Finally in January 1971, it was released and not only did it become a number 2 pop hit, it even outsold the hugely popular "I Heard it through the Grapevine." Motown demanded an album to follow it up with and this launched Marvin Gaye into the most artistically satisfying stage of his career.
What he was doing was searching the wellspring of his soul to create music he felt. Rather than singing words that were put in front of him, he was singing what came from within him. Lyrically, it might not even make sense. But it was him and there was a poetic beauty about it all. It was the same spontaneous composition that fuels so much of jazz. Marvin Gaye learned how to use technology to make his voice do multiple things at once. If you listen to any of the music from this period (1970-1980), a study of Marvin Gaye's voicings would read like a treatise on a jazz group. Marvin Gaye heard something that no one before him had ever heard: precisely how to turn a crooner into a choir. A jazz choir.
Much of the jazz sensibility Marvin Gaye was exercising in his perfect and profitable voice extended to the musical instrumentation supporting those songs. The Funk Brothers must have loved playing for this guy. Marvin Gaye was not looking for pet licks, riff-based programmatics, familiar/topical sounds or chock-a-block, cookie-cutter rhythms. He was hearing an extension of what he was trying to express. That it yielded hit after hit of hitherto unheard musical magic is miraculous enough. But that it is, like Miles Davis, seeking to express a sound that has never been heard before is a testament to the man's musical genius – a genius that was probably sublimated to that "Love Man" voice as the unfortunately crowned "Prince of Motown."
There is much that is fascinating and worthwhile in Marvin Gaye's music from this period aside from the hits and that beautiful voice. Here, now, is a voice that is an instrument of divinity, transcending Top 40 radio, and expressing what is soulful about soul, heartfelt about life and creative about so much jazz. Since I do not propose a survey of the hits and how successful or unsuccessful any of the music is, I will contain my commentary to the jazz elements I detect in the work – and the jazz coverage the music has received. It's what makes Marvin Gaye's music important to me and what makes it live beyond The Big Chill type nostalgia.
What's Going On (Tamla, 1971): From Eli Fontaine's introductory alto sax wail and the multiple vocal tracks on the title track, What's Going On announces itself as something new, different and most audibly as something very, very special. Marvin Gaye is playing keyboards and arranger David Van DePitte adds a lush string arrangement. The percussion is especially well thought-out and conceived (mostly by Marvin Gaye) like a big-band arrangement of old. The groove here is much more like jazz than most R&B, but more soulful than most of what passed for R&B at the time. All the musicians are credited here – for the first time ever on a Motown album – as well they should be since their contribution is significant to the music's success. Jazz players such as Grover Washington, Jr., Jay Anderson, Houston Person, Marc Copland, Charles Lloyd (!), George Gruntz and Carl Allen have covered "What's Going On" but Quincy Jones' marvelous 1971 cover from Smackwater Jack is most highly recommended. All of these renditions perfectly showcase the jazz genius Marvin Gaye brings to his music. The rest of the album was recorded some months later, but the result is so amazing as to stand as one of the finest albums recorded during the first half of the 1970s. "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" was another big hit from this album and has a particularly sad, blues-like vibe highlighted by the mournful bluesy sax solo (probably Wild Bill Moore) and a transcending bizarre choir that concludes the dirge-like groove.
The melodic "Mercy Mercy Me" has also fared particularly well in jazz with covers by Richard Evans, Leon Spencer, Reuben Wilson, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Chico Freeman and most notably Grover Washington, Jr. The gorgeous "Wholy Holy" is one of the album's secret pleasures and it too has been covered by Aretha Franklin, twice (!) in beautiful jazz renditions by Bill Cosby and once by Mavis Staples, coincidentally, on The Cosby Show. The urban groove of "Inner City Blues" contains one of the most important bass lines in all of music (surprisingly not in evidence on the earlier mix of the song included on the Deluxe Edition CD). It's probably one of the most astounding melodies on display here, with David Van DePitte's remarkable string accompaniment and, lest I neglect to mention elsewhere, some of Marvin Gaye's finest vocalisms. "Inner City Blues" has been covered in earnest by Sarah Vaughn, Phil Upchurch, Reuben Wilson, Gil Scott Heron, Herbie Mann, Larry Coryell, Carl Allen and, most notably (again) by Grover Washington, Jr. To this listener, the album's musical highlight is the great Latin jazz groove of "Right On," with its flute, sax, (probably MPG's own) piano and percussion features. "Right On" was covered particularly well by Javon Jackson with Dr. Lonnie Smith on the 2003 album Easy Does It. In 1997, smooth saxophonist Everett Harp covered the entire What's Going On album rather reverentially for the Blue Note label, an opportunity that should have probably been offered to Grover Washington, Jr., whose sax seems to sing with the same sensual magic of Marvin Gaye's voice.
Trouble Man (Tamla, 1972): This was the first – and, sadly, last - soundtrack to carry Marvin Gaye's name and, while it was attached to a forgettable Blaxploitation epic, directed by the estimable Ivan Dixon - the former Hogan's Heroes star who directed the great The Spook Who Sat By The Door the following year, with a score by Herbie Hancock - the music magnificently transcends the hardly-seen film. As a soundtrack, Trouble Man has remained in print longer and more memorably than almost every other score of its ilk other than those exceedingly popular ones by Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes. As Ben Edmonds says in his excellent liners to the 2001 Let's Get It On (Deluxe Edition) CD, "Largely instrumental and based around Marvin's piano and Moog synthesizer, [Trouble Man] demonstrated that the singer could master musical mood without the divine intervention of his voice." This film brought Marvin Gaye to Los Angeles for the first time and it seems to have inspired him immeasurably. It's hardly the worthy follow up to What's Going On that anyone was seeking. But it's so much more significant than almost any other Blaxploitation soundtrack ever issued. And it's a great record on its own. Maybe that's because it didn't resort to cheap chicanery. Everything Marvin Gaye does here feels soulful and heartfelt. MPG plays most of the lead keyboard instruments and Trevor Lawrence, who came up playing with Reuben Wilson, King Curtis, Mongo Santamaria and Chuck Rainey, provides most of the horn work on various saxes.
Nearly everything heard here is a highlight. But "Trouble Man," with a great Marvin Gaye vocal and an arrangement by the underrated Dale Oehler, and "Don't Mess with Mister T" (arranged by Jack Hayes and Leo Shuken) are exceptionally good; stunningly good in fact. "Trouble Man" was covered nicely (in all cases) by Leon Spencer, Ahmad Jamal, Janis Siegel, Pucho and his Latin Soul Brothers, Kyle Eastwood (with Joni Mitchell), Reuben Wilson, Dr. Lonnie Smith and, most memorably of all, of course, by Grover Washington, Jr. "Don't Mess With Mister T" became something of a theme song for saxophonist Stanley Turrentine, who recorded the song twice (definitively in 1973 and then again in 1995) and was also recorded by Jack McDuff, Regina Carter and The James Taylor Quartet. But the instrumentals "T Plays It Cool" (arranged by Jerry Long), "Cleo's Apartment" (arranged by Bob Ragland) and, best of all, the funky "T Stands for Trouble" (arranged by the great J.J. Johnson, who had also recently scored Cleopatra Jones) make Trouble Man worth every effort to hear, savor, respect and appreciate.
Let's Get It On (Tamla, 1973): After the huge success of What's Going On, Marvin Gaye found it difficult developing a satisfying follow-up. When an artistic triumph is a commercial success, that level of inspiration is expected to continue, though it rarely ever does. A single, "You're The Man," followed in 1972 and failed to even chart. Motown forced the singer to work with a stable of producers to little avail. But during this time he managed to satisfactorily score a film (Trouble Man) and complete an album of duets with Diana Ross. Gaye then sought out producer/songwriter Ed Townsend (Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole) to help him find the direction he was lacking. They scored a hit with "Let's Get It On" and followed it up with one of the most romantic albums of the day. "Let's Get It On" features a cadre of LA-based jazz players including pianist Joe Sample, bassist Wilton Felder, drummer Paul Humphrey, saxophonists Plas Johnson and Ernie Watts and Victor Feldman on vibes that inspire Marvin Gaye to one of his jazziest-ever performances. The now well-known song has always been considered the ultimate paean to lovemaking and the sensational groove that's laid down bears this out. But the song was actually conceived by Ed Townsend while he was in rehab as a way to "get on" with life. Apparently, Marvin Gaye reinvented the song on the spot as his future wife made her first appearance in his life the moment they recorded this song, which possibly explains the lyric jumble that hardly anyone notices. But, as Ed Townsend notes, "Marvin could sing the Lord's Prayer and it would have sexual overtures."
Surprisingly, "Let's Get It On" never received the amount of jazz attention Marvin Gaye's other songs from this period did. But it has been covered by the World Saxophone Quartet, Maceo Parker, John Tropea and, inevitably, a number of smooth jazzers like Euge Groove. The rest of the album, filled out with a reprise of the title track called "Keep Getting' It On," is a letdown to this listener. Still, it maintains enough of that romantic melodicism of the title song to attract many other fans and, accordingly, a number of warm jazz tributes. Bobbi Humphrey has covered the album's second hit single, "Come Get To This." "Distant Lover," the B-side to Marvin Gaye's 45 release of "Come Get To This," has been covered by David "Fathead" Newman and Ronnie Laws. "You Sure Love To Ball," one of the album's most intriguing melodies and its third single, was also covered by Fred Wesley and the J.B.'s. The 2001 Let's Get It On (Deluxe Edition) CD also contains many of the formerly unreleased production numbers waxed by Gaye in an effort to craft some sort of follow-up to What's Going On, including three songs produced by Marvin Gaye and David Van DePitte featuring Herbie Hancock, one of the songs from Marvin Gaye's sessions with the Mizell Brothers ("Where Are We Going," which ended up on Donald Byrd's classic Black Byrd album), the excellent "The World Is Rated X" from sessions with producer Hal Davis and four old-school numbers produced with Willie Hutch. Most remarkably, there are three tremendous instrumentals - "Running From Love – Version 1," "Mandota" and "Running From Love – Version 2" – that Marvin Gaye laid down with guitarist Ray Parker, Jr., bassist Michael Henderson (who was bassist with Miles Davis at the time) and drummer Hamilton Bohannon (of Bohannon fame) that make the expanded set ultimately worth the expense and the endeavor. There's probably a lot more of this stuff that hasn't been released. But you could say that about any of the other productions the Deluxe Edition includes. It's nice to hear just exactly how Marvin Gaye was experimenting between his two most famous albums.
I Want You (Tamla, 1976): Though this album undoubtedly has its fans, it is merely a conventional soul record enlivened mostly by Marvin Gaye's textual and contextual vocalisms. Informed more by a mellow sort of disco than any sense of jazz or the creative intervention that produced What's Going On, I Want You puts Leon Ware in charge and the effect is that of Marvin Gaye as an invited guest on his own record. Naturally, MPG shapes the words and the way they are sung into his own message. The result is nothing less than a sexual valentine to his beloved, Jan, who would become his second wife a year after this album's release. Personal and heartfelt though it may be, it just seems like hearing someone have sex: maybe great for them, not so great for you. The album's two most notable songs, "I Want You" (which appears in three iterations here) and the fairly silly "After the Dance" (which is heard as both an instrumental and vocal piece here), barely even register in any fair comparison to Marvin Gaye's best work. But both were released as singles.
Saxophonist Gato Barbieri covered "I Want You" twice – once in 1976 on Caliente and again in 1999 on Che Corazon – and he had the luxury of getting Marvin Gaye to provide him with a song of his very own, "Latin Reaction," which appeared on the Argentine saxophonist's 1978 album Ruby, Ruby. "I Want You" was also covered by Stanley Turrentine, former CTI singer Tamiko Jones, Dave McMurray, Manny Oquendo, John Tropea, Kirk Whalum and Jason Miles. "After the Dance" was also covered by Harold Vick, Fourplay (with El DeBarge) and the James Taylor Quartet. "I Wanna Be Where You Are," which first appeared on Michael Jackson's 1972 debut solo album, was also covered by Gary Bartz (in 1972), Charlie Brown (in 1972 – in an arrangement by Horace Ott), Leon Thomas (in 1973) and O'Donel Levy (in 1974) – all of which preceded Marvin Gaye's version of the tune. I haven't heard the Deluxe Edition of this record. But the basic tracks of the original hardly add up to enough to warrant the effort.
Live At The London Palladium (Tamla, 1977): This was my very first experience and exposure to the wonderful world of Marvin Gaye. I can still remember in the ninth grade, being at a school dance when "Got To Give It Up" came on. I'd never heard anything quite like it before. Chances are, no one else had either. I screamed with joy and danced my ass off to this brilliant little piece of funk. It's always made me so happy. Apparently Marvin Gaye had to fight with the Motown brass to produce a double-album live set. Motown only wanted a single record. But MPG, who was not only stage shy but terrified of flying, insisted on featuring the entire show, recorded in London, on record. That amounted to three sides of a double LP.
It's an incredibly spirited performance that finds Marvin Gaye giving Motown the coverage of his oldies they wanted. But there's no sign that he's coasting or slumming for the audience here. Aside from hypnotizing the audience into a sexed-up frenzy, MPG delivers every song from the heart and the soul of his very being. The great arrangements – particularly on the horns (some of the old songs get more of a contemporary disco treatment than is agreeable to the music) – really energize the singer. After it was all captured, Motown relented but MPG's engineer, Art Stewart, knew they still needed something to finish off the fourth side of the double set. Marvin had been "fooling around" with a song where he discovers how to overcome his fear of dancing. Stewart knew they had a number one hit on their hands and, while in London, forced MPG to do something in the studio with the song and get it laid down for the album.
In addition to Marvin Gaye's commanding falsetto voicings, "Got To Give It Up" features the great MPG playing several keyboard parts (including a brilliant theramin-like sounding synthesizer), grapefruit juice bottle (!) and, most remarkably, the brilliantly funky RMI bass part. The 11-minute groove also features Jack Ashford on tambourine and "hotel sheet" (hahaha), Johnny McGhee on guitars, (son) Frankie Gaye and (wife-to-be) Jan Hunter on background vocals, Frankie Beverly (!) on milk bottle and spoon (hahaha) and Fernando Harkness delivering a JB's worthy sax solo. It all adds up to a clever piece of disco funk that has a great jazz groove as its genesis – particularly in the employment of MPG's many overlaid vocal parts. This brilliant performance did end up becoming a number one smash hit, to everyone's surprise except its producer, Art Stewart. Marvin Gaye was clearly "on," and probably listening to a bunch of James Brown and P-Funk when he conceived this dance classic. But they too had both listened to enough Marvin Gaye to produce their finer moments. "Got to Give It Up" is not only a surprise disco classic with a lot more going on than the usual disco trappings, but probably one of the most notable and memorable songs of the 1970s.
Here, My Dear (Tamla, 1978): Perhaps one of Marvin Gaye's most personal albums, Here, My Dear was fashioned as a divorce settlement and "up yours" card to his wife, Anna. By this time, Marvin Gaye had already been living with his girlfriend, Jan, and their two children for a number of years. As Anna was also Motown founder/president Berry Gordy, Jr.'s sister, it's no wonder the album received little promotional support and was a miserable commercial failure. Still, it's intriguing that Motown ok'ed the expensive double-album format and the specially-commissioned cover portrait. But the album really is much more romantic and regretful than this write-off description allows. Marvin Gaye poured much of the effort and emotion of What's Going On into Here, My Dear and ended up with an enchantingly sublime musical statement that isn't nearly as intensely bitter or as unapproachably personal as all the hype would have you believe.
The album overflows with great and musical material, but most which is little known by Marvin Gaye fans and jazz listeners alike. The two funkiest tracks, "A Funky Space Reincarnation" and "Anger," were issued as singles – no doubt to capitalize on the success of "Got To Give It Up." But it was all for naught as the former barely charted and the latter, astoundingly, didn't chart at all. Curiously, "Anger" has found its niche among industrial bands such as Kill Switch…Klick and Mark Stewart, but not among jazz, soul or R&B folks who could surely dig in on its groove. There's also the hypnotic funk jazz of "Is That Enough" ("can't get enough of that funky stuff" indeed), certainly hit-worthy and nearly in the same league of some of MPG's great work (just dig those brilliantly unusual woodwind highlights used in the arrangement!). The melodic and soulful "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You" was not – surprisingly – issued as a single, but garnered some of the only jazz covers this album ever received, namely by Mongo Santamaria, Amanda Sedgwick (with Philip Harper) and Jeff Parker.
The 2007 two-disc CD set Here, My Dear Expanded Edition provides a number of great extras including the 12" only instrumental version of "A Funky Space Reincarnation" (recorded in 1979, after the LP's release, by removing Marvin Gaye's vocal and overdubbing guitarist Mike McGloiry of Switch and saxophonist Daniel LeMelle from Rick James' Stone City Band) and a number of alternate mixes of album tracks done up for this release by "guests" such as "Anger (Alternate Extended Mix)" by Marcus Miller, "Is That Enough? (Instrumental) alternate version" by Montez Payton, "A Funky Space Reincarnation (Alternate Extended Mix)" by John Morales and Paul Simpson and "You Can Leave, But It's Going To Cost You (Alternate Extended Mix)" by John Rhone.
There is much more musical invention on display here and it's truly amazing that not only fans but jazz musicians too haven't discovered it all. Here, My Dear truly ranks among Marvin Gaye's very best work.
[Note: I did not have access to the 1981 album In Our Lifetime or the preferable Love Man Special Edition CD to write about…but, in all probability the music should be included in this analysis.]