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Archive for April, 2009

The period immediately following Love Twins (the duets project that featured Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross), was marked by a return to innovation and excellence by Gaye. His rich output of stellar 70’s recordings continued with the release of the first of two live sets through Motown. Then in 1976, my favorite studio project of Gaye’s career, I Want You, dropped. It was a jazzy, groovy, funky concept record that described the arc of a relationship between a man and a woman. The record occupied the unexplored territory between jazz and soul and was a collaborative effort between the writer and rare groove specialist Leon Ware, Gaye, and Soul City resident, co-producer Ed Townsend. It featured the rich, intricate, multi-layered background vocal arrangements that distinguished much of Ware’s work.

The iconic Ernie Barnes album artwork is the most widely viewed cover of Marvin’s career. It captures the heat of the moment at the Sugar Shack, a colorfully imagined club that depicts the rhythmic swaying of black bodies putting it down hard to the beat of a band fronted by Big Daddy Rucker, underneath a sign that promised, fried fish dinners, and a future appearance by Marvin Gaye. The portrait is a tribute to the long forgotten “chitlin circuit.” The Norman Lear hit sitcom “Good Times” featured the picture in its opening sequence for the length of its entire run.

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ESTHER ROLLE & JOHN AMOS STARS OF THE RUNAWAY HIT “GOOD TIMES”

To observe the twentieth anniversary of Marvin’s death, Professor Michael Eric Dyson wrote Mercy, Mercy, Me: The Art, Love and Demons of Marvin Gaye, an insightful look into the artist’s life and music. Over a Sunday brunch at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, Dyson and I spoke at length about the book. We talked about my impressions of I Want You and specifically about my thoughts regarding the most interesting track on the album, “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again:” “With the opening, with the congas and the strings; it’s like the sun is rising. It’s a very cinematic approach to the whole thing. It shows a thing Quincy Jones called ‘ear candy.’ The voicings and the arrangements convey not only mood but time, place and image. He’s talking about ‘dreamed of you this morning.’ It’s crazy. The other thing about Marvin and the song is, no matter what he was doing, how many risks he would take, he was a radical traditionalist and always held onto his doo-wop upbringing. Those background harmonies … no matter how increasingly percussive he got, how funky, the background vocals were always steeped in that tradition.”

The song and the album proved to be widely influential, and was a tribute to Janis Hunter Gaye, Marvin’s then-mistress and eventual second wife. As the song fades, he wails without inhibition that he wants to give her “some head.” I can imagine that a young Prince listened to I Want You both backwards and forwards before he released his Warner Brothers debut For You two short years later. D’Angelo interpolates one of the background vocal lines from “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again” on both his cameo on Meth’s” Break Ups To Make Up,” and his duet with Raphael Saadiq, “Be Here.” Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite references the I Want You record by enlisting the talents of guitarist Wah Wah Watson and Ware, two of the key elements to the success of, I Want You.

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After I Want You, Marvin released a double album that contained three sides of live recording and one side of a single studio session that became the biggest selling single of his career, “Got To Give It Up.” Marvin was reportedly less than thrilled with the emergence of the disco market and set out to make a dance record that would prove how easy it was to record one. He overshot the mark. At the time of it’s release, “Got To Give It Up” was the biggest selling record in Motown’s history.

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The triumphant high that Marvin must have felt as a result of having released “Got To Give It Up” didn’t last long. His marriage to Motown founder Berry Gordy’s sister ended, the IRS was after him for back taxes, and he was in the grips of drug addiction. The presiding judge in his divorce proceeding decreed that the profits from his next album would be awarded to his ex-wife. In response to the judge’s wishes, he recorded the dark, brooding masterpiece “Here My Dear.” The record was about the breakup of his marriage, and contained the biting, “When Did You Stop Loving Me When Did I Stop Loving You,” “Anger,” and the ironic “Anna’s Song.”

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Marvin began recording material for one more album that he felt was never finished. Gordy seized the tapes, mixed, mastered, and released the project against Marvin’s wishes. The damage was irreparable, and Marvin would never record for Motown again. He would end the 70’s on a down note and leave the country to live in Ostend, Belgium only to re-emerge and come back again with the release of “Sexual Healing,” the Grammy-winning Best R&B Male Vocal of ’82. It was the only Grammy he would ever win in his lifetime.

The music that Marvin Gaye left us with serves to remind that one can be both spiritual and sensual, sophisticated and accessible, erotic and romantic, opposed to restrictive authority and aligned with power. He was celebrated in his lifetime but not quite appreciated for his true genius. He was without a doubt one of the most creative figures that soul music has ever produced. I have begun a movement to have a US stamp named in his honor. I’ve posted a link on the blog roll to the right that you can click on to, and join the cause. I hope you will. It’s about time he received some recognition as a national resource.

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Shouts to Leon Ware, Michael Eric Dyson, Candi Bond-McKeever, Larkin Arnold, Philip Johnson RIP Cedric Stuart Harrison and Ed Townsend

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1984

Correction: Although CHIC has been nominated for induction into the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame several times, they have yet to be successfully inducted.

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My old friends, RUN/DMC, were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame on Saturday night along with CHIC and Bobby Womack. Rev. Run, Daryl Mac, and I spent many hours together during the early stages of their career. Most memorable were the many recording sessions they invited me to be a part of. Especially the ones that were included in their historic Raising Hell project, the commercially successful rock/rap fusion album of ’86 that broke the door down for The Beasties, NWA, LL, Rick Rubin, Run’s brother Russell Simmons, and their Hall Of Fame inductor, EMINEM. The awesome power of the hip hop industry was crystallized in those sessions, and the suburbs were finally given a generation’s sound of rebellion.

I learned how to make records by listening, watching, and commenting on those sessions. The production team of Simmons and Rubin was innovative beyond belief, but their bohemian hipster tendencies were anchored by the street sensibilities of Run and the late Jam Master Jay. To see the vocals laid and the tracks built for “Peter Piper,” “Perfection,” “Rising Hell,” “You Be Illin’,” “It’s Tricky” and other jawns was impressive beyond description. Those five guys- Russell, Rick, Run, Daryl, and Jay- gave me a first hand view of history and included me in a world and an extended family that impacted most of the popular culture that followed. I am forever grateful. R.I.P. Jam Master Jay

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ROCK & ROLL HALL OF FAMERS

The disco/funk/pop production duo of Nile Rodgers and the late Bernard Edwards came out of the torrid world of New York’s session players of the 70’s. They were unsuccessful in their early attempts to form rock bands and out of frustration, formed the disco/funk band CHIC, the most influential band of its era. The clean, sparse sound of the band churned out a string of hit singles and albums, but their influence extended far beyond that. The most important record they released as a group was, “Good Times,” 1979’s anthemic club destroyer. The Sugar Hill Gang used the groove as the basis of the game changing “Rapper’s Delight,” thus making CHIC the link between the disco and hip hop eras.

The band’s lineup included Rodgers on guitars, Edwards on bass, the late Tony Thompson on drums, vocalists Alfa Anderson, Lucy Martin, and Norma Jean Wright with occasional help from Fonzi Thornton and a young Luther Vandross. In the fall of ’77, CHIC hit the charts with seriousness by releasing the band’s first single, “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah).” They smashed.

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As either a production team or as solo producers, Rodgers and Edwards changed the face of pop music in the 70’s and 80’s. Madonna, David Bowie, Diana Ross, Sister Sledge, Debbie Harry, Duran Duran, The Power Station, and Carly Simon all became collaborators and clients. Titles like “Like A Virgin,” “Let’s Dance,” “Upside Down,” “We Are Family,” “The Greatest Dancer,” and “Some Like It Hot,” were crafted by the two as individual producers or as a duo. In the 90’s their music was sampled by Diddy, Will Smith and countless others. Congratulations to CHIC on an induction that was long overdue.

My Knicks played the Toronto Raptors yesterday and dashed any hopes of a Raptors appearance in the upcoming NBA playoffs. The undermanned and frequently overmatched Knickerbockers have been reduced to playing out the string, and relegated to the role of spoilers. On the bright side, they compete most nights and play a style that’s easy on the eye. Holdovers from the previous regime David Lee, Nate Robinson, and Wilson Chandler are maturing into solid NBA performers with big upsides. Despite some positive indicators, the Knick fan mantra of the past decade must now be invoked, “wait ’til next year.”

There have been many solid editions of the team since the golden era of the early 70’s. Most of them built around a couple of inside players: Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakely. Oak did dirt, and Pat put in Hall Of Fame calibre work at both ends. They led a raucous defense based group of brawlers to the finals in ’94. Five years later, an injured Ewing watched hopelessly from the sideline as Latrell Sprewell, Alan Houston, and Larry Johnson almost upset the apple cart with a late spring run for all of the marbles in ’99.

The last Knick team that gave us a bang for our buck before the Ewing era was the ’84 squad. They featured a team with some talented guys: a former rookie of the year at center named Bill Cartwright; Louis Orr, a gangling beanpole of a forward; a backcourt made up of two NY area products, Rory Sparrow and Ray Williams; and the most unstoppable scoring threat to ever wear a Knick uniform, Brooklyn-born Bernard King.

The spring thaw was made extra hot that year because the first round of the playoffs was a classic match up with the Detroit Pistons. King and the Knicks eliminated the Pistons en route to a meeting with the eventual NBA champion, Boston Celtics, in the Eastern Conference Finals. With dislocated middle fingers on both hands, he shred the Celtic front court for 43 a game while pushing them to the seventh game of the series. Later today, the Naismith Hall Of Fame will announce it’s class of inductees for ’09. The head of the class, Michael Jordan, will reportedly be joined by David Robinson, John Stockton, and Rutgers women’s coach, C. Vivian Stringer, the leader of the so called “nappy headed hoes” of two seasons ago. King is a finalist for induction. I hope the doors of the hall open for a great Knick!

Looking back at the Knick run of 1984 is bittersweet because I was in mourning. Earlier that spring music lovers were struck by tragedy. Marvin Gaye was murdered by his father in cold blood. As I’m writing this, I’m locked into Marvin Gaye’s unbelievably joyous reinterpretation of the J-5’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” the rare and unreleased pop soul jam from the reissue package of my favorite Gaye project, I Want You.

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MY FAVORITE

When Michael and his brothers sang it, it was a top 40 example of preteen longing. In the hands of the master, it became a tribute to his children and Janis, the second wife whose love made him turn his back on the Motown dream factory. It’s got me and I can’t get out of it’s insistent groove. The combination of strings, sax, bass, piano, percolating percussion combined with his subtle lead and backing vocals remind any who may have forgotten that Marvin was a potent studio craftsman with unique and mighty gifts.

The decade of the 70’s was Gaye’s most creative period. It was the time when he seized the means of production from the oppressive cookie cutter casting of The Sound Of Young America, exerted his independence, and decided for himself what he’d sing. But first he had to reinvent himself.

Marvin’s then brother-in-law, Motown honcho Berry Gordy, had a vision that steered the genius into a somewhat limited role as the male co-star of a trio of romantic duets. Gaye made the most of it by blazing a series of infectious pop love songs with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Tammi Terrell. Marvin and Tammi clicked and scored the biggest with “You’re All I Need To Get By,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing.” Mixed up in there were a few hit solo efforts that had a harder R & B edge: “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow,” “Hitchhike,” “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby,” and a dark menacing smash about gossip, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.”

Tragedy would rear its head when Tammi Terrell died unexpectedly. Her collapse during a performance led to a period of introspection, and Gaye came out of it with an unwillingness to do what he’d done before. He got political with it and released the landmark “What’s Going On.” Nothing has ever been quite the same since.

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MARVIN AND HIS ROMANTIC CO-STAR TAMMI TERRELL

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THE LANDMARK

“What’s Going On” got the decade off to an auspicious beginning. The socially conscious direction of the record initially caused Gordy to balk at releasing it. In his opinion, no one wanted to hear a bunch of songs about societal ills. He miscalculated slightly. The release of the album boldly announced the maturity of soul music and ushered in an era of artists who had something to say. Earth Wind & Fire, War, The Isley Brothers, The O’Jays, Kool & The Gang, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott-Heron, James Brown, Donny Hathaway, Gaye’s protege, Stevie Wonder, and others were all emboldened by the success of “What’s Going On.” The most socially relevant period that soul produced began as a result of Marvin Gaye’s depression.

Commercial success in the music business always results in one thing: the freedom to do it your way. With this hard earned freedom, Marvin turned away from the external and began to look inside. With the film Trouble Man providing the vehicle, Gaye crafted a moody, jazzy, symphonically funky score and used the title track to bemoan his recurring difficulty with the IRS by wailing that the only three things he knew for sure were “taxes, death and trouble.” He completed the line with the bluesy assurance: “this I know baaabay.”

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TROUBLE MAN

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THE SMASH

He followed up the success of Trouble Man with the erotic collection Let’s Get It On, a smash that lit up bedrooms, eight track players, house parties and barbecues with the hot grooves of the come on. Co-produced by Soul City resident, the late Ed Townsend, and featuring “Come Get To This,” “You Sure Love To Ball,” the title track and the classic, “Distant Lover,” it became the most successful album of Marvin’s career. There have been countless conceptions inspired by this album.

While on a roll that his previous three releases granted him, Marvin was pulled off track a bit by one of Gordy’s ideas. He was teamed with label mate and fellow superstar Diana Ross on the uneven Love Twins, a collection of duets that was reportedly recorded without the two icons setting foot in the studio at the same time. In the interest of keeping my collection tight, I copped one and enjoyed the covers of Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Knock My Love,” and the Stylisitics’ “Stop Look and Listen.” Ironically almost 30 years later, I was involved in a hit use of a sample from “Stop Look and Listen” when I was the head of Urban A & R for ARTISTdirect Recordings. While using the sample, the mixed race O-Town hip hop duo Smilz and Southstar blazed the pop charts for me with their hit “Tell Me.”

Next came a live record captured at the Oakland Alameda Coliseum that revisited “Distant Lover” from Let’s Get It On and “Jan,” a tribute to Janis Gaye, the woman that would inspire Marvin to divorce Berry Gordy’s sister and break ties with the Motown company forever.

to be continued…..

Shouts to Michael Ray Richardson, Hugh Scott, Ann Carli, Nelson George, Heidi Smith, Sugar Dice, Tony Rome, Bill Adler, Dr. Jeckyl, Cory Robbins, Manny Bella, Rod Hui, Steve Ett, Davey DMX, Larry Smith, The Hollis Crew, Hurricane, Puppet, The Roxy Crew, The Zulu Nation, Chuck Chillout, Laurie & John Harding, and Sareenah R.I.P. Harvey Fuqua, Bernard Edwards, JMJ, and Luther

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