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