My Playlist: Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye was one of the greatest soul and R&B artists, in my opinion. He became first known in the ’60s as part of the Motown sound. Gaye performed some of the Detroit record company’s biggest hits during that period, such as Pride And Joy, I’ll Be Doggone and I Heard It Through The Grapevine.

Starting from the early ’70s, Gaye started producing or co-producing his albums and, together with Stevie Wonder, became one of the first Motown stars to emancipate themselves artistically from the company. Among his ’70s releases were two concept albums, What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On.

In March 1982, Gaye left Motown and signed with CBS Records. In October that year, he released Midnight Love, his last studio record to appear prior his death. It included  Sexual Healing, which became one of his biggest hits, for which he won two Grammy Awards in 1983. On April 1, 1984, Gaye was shot to death by his father Marvin Gaye Sr. after a physical fight between the two men. He was only 44 years old.

Let’s Get It On with some music of Gaye’s great music.

Stubborn Kind Of Fellow was among the first Motown tunes I heard and remains one of my favorites. The song was co-written by Gaye, producer William “Mickey” Stevenson and George Gordy, the brother of Motown founder Barry Gordy. It was included on Gaye’s second studio album That Stubborn Kind Of Fellow from December 1962 and became his first hit single, reaching the top 10 of the Billboard R&B Chart.

In addition to solo releases, Gaye also recorded various duet albums. One was Take Two with Kim Weston, which appeared in August 1966. I’ve always liked the upbeat opener of that record It Takes Two, a co-write by Stevenson and Sylvia Moy.

Ain’t No Mountain High Enough is from another duet record, United, with Tammi Terrrell, released in August 1967. The tune, which was co-written by Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, peaked at no. 19 on the Billboard Pop Charts. In 1970, the track topped the Billboard Hot 100 when Diana Ross released it,  giving the former Supremes front woman her first no. 1 solo hit.

Another Gaye ’60s classic is I Heard It Through The Grapevine, the title track of his eighth studio album from August 1968, which originally was titled In The Groove. Co-written by Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield, the tune had first been released by Gladys Knight & The Pips in 1967. The above extended live performance looks like it was captured during the ’70s.

If I would have to choose only one tune from Gaye, it would probably be What’s Going On. The singing is just off the charts! Co-written by him, Renaldo Benson and Al Cleveland, this gem is the title track of Gaye’s 11th studio release from May 1971. The concept album was the first record he produced.

Let’s Get It On, the title track of Gaye’s 13th studio album from August 1973, is another of his ’70s classics. He wrote it together with the record’s co-producer Ed Townsend. It became Gaye’s most successful single for Motown, topping both Billboard’s Hot 100 and Hot R&B charts. The above clip is an extended version from a 1981 show in The Netherlands. It nicely illustrates what a passionate performer Gaye was.

A great party song with a cool funky groove, Got To Give It Up is included on Live At The London Palladium, a double album Gaye released in March 1977. The tune was written by Art Stewart, who also produced the record.

The last song I want to highlight in this post is Sexual Healing, Gaye’s first single after he had left Motown. Co-written by him, Odell Brown and David Ritz, the sensual tune with a smooth groove is from Midnight Love, Gaye’s final studio album from October 1982. Above is the track’s official video clip. Sexual Healing topped Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and climbed to no. 3 on the Hot 100. It is also on Rolling Stone’s list of 500 Greatest Songs Of All Time at no. 233.

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube

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What I’ve Been Listening to: Marvin Gaye/What’s Going On

Marvin Gaye’s seminal 1971 album transformed him from Motown’s most successful pop artist to a social singer.

The clip of Marvin Gaye performing What’s Going On, which I posted on the blog last night, reminded me of his seminal record from 1971. The concept album, which pushed the envelope at the time with lyrics that remain eerily relevant to this day, is one of my favorite records from one of my favorite soul artists. Not only was it broadly acclaimed, it also became Gaye’s and Motown’s most successful record at the time, selling more than two million copies by the end of 1972.

In the spring of 1970, Gaye was in a deep depression. Singer Tammi Terrell, his duet partner on songs like Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, Your Precious Love and Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing, had passed away from brain cancer at the age of 24. His marriage with Anna Gordy, an older sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy, was failing. And Gaye’s younger brother, Frances “Frankie” Gaye, had returned from Vietnam, sharing with Marvin the horrors of war he had seen firsthand.

Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

Then Obie Benson from The Four Tops handed Gaye a protest song, What’s Going On, after his band and Joan Baez had passed on it. The tune had been inspired by police brutality against young anti-war protesters in Berkeley, Calif., which Benson had witnessed during a tour with his band. Gaye liked the song and initially had in mind to record it with Motown quartet The Originals. But Benson insisted that Gaye sing the song himself. It would prove to be the channel Gaye needed to express what was going through his mind and plant the seed for an entire album.

When Berry Gordy heard the tune for the first time, he reportedly called it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” He was concerned the song was too political and would not sell. But Gaye didn’t take no for an answer and refused to record anything else for Motown unless Gordy would change his mind. With the support of Motown executive Harry Balk and company sales executive Barney Ales, the song was released without Gordy’s knowledge.

Marvin Gaye PBS Documentary

What’s Going On became an overnight sensation and Motown’s fastest-selling single at the time. Only during the first week, more than 100,000 copies were flying off the shelves. The song also climbed to no. 2 on the Billboard Pop Chart and hit no. 1 on the R&B Chart. A stunned Gordy told Gaye he could record whatever music he wanted, as long as he’d finish an album within 30 days. Gaye did not need any further prompting and returned to the studio.

In only 10 days, between March 1 and March 10, 1971, Gaye recorded eight additional tracks for what would become a concept album. Kicking off with the title track, most songs lead into the next and have a similar laid back groove that is in marked contrast to the lyrics. Gaye covered a broad range of “heavy” topics, such as social unrest (What’s Going On), disillusioned Vietnam war veterans (What’s Happening Brother) – a song about his brother Frankie; environmental degradation (Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)); and the bleak socioeconomic situation of inner-city America (Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)). The aforementioned songs are also the album’s musical highlights, in my opinion.

Marvin Gaye PBS Documentary 2

Reflecting on What’s Going On, Gaye told Rolling Stone, “In 1969 or 1970, I began to reevaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say. I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”

Gaye dedicated the album to Marvin Gaye Sr., his strict father and a baptist minister, who had introduced him to singing through church music but also abused him as a child. Throughout his life, Marvin would seek his father’s approval, but whatever he did wasn’t good enough. During an excellent PBS documentary Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On, Motown road manager Joe Schaffner explained: “Marvin went to buy his dad a Cadillac. He would send him all kinds of gifts…His father would accept them…But he would never come to grips and say, ‘thank you,’ or smile, or none of that!” Instead, he would tragically become the man who would shoot Marvin to death during a physical argument on April 1, 1984.

Photo of Marvin GAYE

What’s Going On was Gaye’s first record to hit the top 10 on the Billboard Top LPs. It climbed to no. 6 and stayed on the chart for almost one year. The album also became Motown’s and Gaye’s best-selling record until his 1973 release Let’s Get It On. The album was broadly hailed by music critics. It also received numerous accolades, including best album of all time, as voted by writers on British music weekly NME, and a no. 6 ranking on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It was also one of 50 recordings selected by the Library of Congress that same year to be added to the National Recording Registry.

As first reported by Variety in July 2016, another film documentary about Gaye and the making of What’s Going On was planned by Noah Media Group and Greenlight. Production was slated to begin later in the year. Marvin, What’s Going On? was to include contributions from Gaye’s ex-wife Janis Gaye and his children Nona, Marvin III and Frankie Gaye – the first time his family supported such a project. Since I haven’t seen any other reports, I assume the film has not appeared yet.

Here’s a nice collage clip of Mercy Mercy Me.

Sources: Wikipedia; “Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On” (PBS “American Masters” documentary, May 2008; Performing Songwriter Be Heard; Rolling Stone; Variety; YouTube