I regret that I mostly missed Marvin Gaye while Marvin Gaye was happening. When I was a teenager I was into What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, but being a teenager, much of the meaning of these songs flew right past me. I was probably distracted by Deep Purple.

Mainstream radio of that era didn’t help. Mainstream radio of our era still doesn’t help. In the Oldies format, Gaye’s presence is limited to a few songs from those two albums from 1971 and ’73. Nothing else exists. Thanks to the Internet, I constantly find songs and even entire bands that I missed when I was growing up or even from 10 years ago. OK, 10 years ago I was still growing up.

Enough editorializing. If I had to carve a Mt. Rushmore of black music of the ’70s, the first two figures I’d choose would be Gaye and Stevie Wonder. (The other two might be Diana Ross and George Clinton.) Today, rather than try to sum up Gaye’s career in a blog post (that would be like trying to dust Mt. Rushmore over the weekend), I’m going to give you my 1970s buyer’s guide.

What’s Going On (1971)
How likely was it that Marvin Gaye would record What’s Going On after spending the ’60s crooning like a sexier Nat King Cole? About as likely as Nat King Cole waking up one day and recording Highway 61 Revisited.

Gaye spent the last three years of the ’60s wondering what he should do with his life and his art. His favorite duet partner had died (more on that in a moment), his brother had returned from Vietnam haunted by his experiences, and of course there was the continuing everyday uproar of protests, riots, assassinations, and instances of police brutality – pretty much everything we have today. Gaye became so tired of singing and writing the same old stuff that he even considered playing football as a new career.

Instead, Gaye recorded a song, “What’s Going On.” Motown was sure it would flop. “What’s Going On” broke out of the soul charts and hit #2 on the main Billboard chart. “What’s Going On” consistently ranks fourth on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

Here’s the top five from the 2011 Rolling Stone list:

1 Bob Dylan, “Like a Rolling Stone”
2 The Rolling Stones, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”
3 John Lennon, “Imagine”
4 Marvin Gaye, “What’s Going On”
5 Arthea Franklin, “Respect”

Gaye used “What’s Going On” as a lever to pry complete creative control out of Motown. Then he went into the studio and in 10 days recorded this album. He had to fight the label to get them to release it. He had to fight them to keep the ? out of the title. But the result was a milestone of 20th-century popular music (Rolling Stone ranks it sixth on their list of the 500 Greatest Albums) and the first Motown album that wasn’t made up of a couple of hits and a stack of unrelated filler.

The Rolling Stone top six, as of 2012:

1 The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
2 The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds
3 The Beatles, Revolver
4 Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited
5 The Beatles, Rubber Soul
6 Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On

What astonishes me about this disc is that there are only three songs of the nine that reward repeated plays: the title, “Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” The other six are too earnest, or too religious, or too earnest and religious, or too experimental – jazz meets folk meets Sunday-morning hyms.

These six songs follow the general theme of social commentary. They’re played and sung with enormous feeling and talent. But as you might expect from something recorded this quickly, they’re all over the map. A couple of tracks seem like Gaye making notes to himself.

And yet that doesn’t matter because the holy trio is so so SO good. I have never grown tired of a single note in the three of them. (Though I will say that Motown did a fantastic job in condensing them for radio play; the 45 versions are better. Motown really was Hitsville USA.) “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” is one of the most mesmerizing songs I know; it rises around you like a tide on a planet with a bigger moon.

If I had to choose the best pop album of the ’70s, my top two candidates would be this one and Born to Run.

Trouble Man (1972)

Diana & Marvin (1973)
I’m not into duets, possibly because Hall & Oates poisoned that well when I was young. Or maybe it was Donny & Marie. Diana Ross is the best singer Marvin Gaye was ever paired with, and they sing like they’re running the tollbooth outside of heaven, but most of this stuff sounds like soft rock. The best-known track is the first, “You Are Everything.” The closest to that ’60s soul sound are “Just Say, Just Say” and “Stop, Look, Listen (to Your Heart).” “My Mistake Was to Love You” is a dead ringer for “Reach Out (I’ll Be There)”!

If you enjoy duets, I suggest you fall back to 1967 and Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s United, which features two Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson classics, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Your Precious Love.”

Let’s Get It On (1973)
What’s Going On was political. Let’s Get It On is personal. This album is all about seduction. Like What’s Going On, it has three immortal songs: the title, “Please Don’t Stay (Once You Go Away),” and “You Sure Love to Ball.” It also has a throwback to the 1960s: “Come Get to This.” I wish I could come get to a decade like this!

In 1973 this was Marvin Gaye’s world and we just lived in it.

Marvin Gaye Live (1974)
Live At the London Palladium is better so move right along, please.

I Want You (1976)
If Let’s Get It On is about seduction, I Want You is about already being seduced. Oooh la la! You want to start smooching as soon as the needle hits the vinyl, the laser hits the disc, the download arrives on your device, or [insert any mechanical or electrical process designed for the transmission and/or reproduction of audio performances not yet invented].

Allmusic.com calls I Want You a “smooth, intricately produced make-out platter.” Allmusic and I don’t always get along, but this is one description I can get behind.

The highlights are “I Want You,” “After the Dance,” and, of course, “Feel All My Love Inside.” The penis (practical applications thereof) is an immortal topic in popular music, at least for men. But I want you to listen to “Feel All My Love Inside”:

Keep right on kissing me
When I’m kissing you
I know you know
What this is leading to
You know real soon, baby
I’ll be stroking you in and out
Up and down, all around
I love to hear you make those sounds

Then try AC/DC’s “Let Me Put My Love Into You”:

Don’t you struggle
Don’t you fight
Don’t you worry
’Cause it’s your turn tonight

Then I want you to tell me who was the adult male and who were the 5’2” idiots in lederhosen. (There are three clues in that sentence.)

You can tell where Gaye’s marriage was going because the inspiration for this album was his girlfriend, not his wife.

Live At the London Palladium (1977)
I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a performer having so much fun on a live album, or a performer who was so appreciative of his audience. Before bringing on guest singer Florence Lyles for some duets, Gaye speaks about the singers he’d worked with, Diana Ross and his partners from the ’60s: Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Tammi Terrell. Terrell was his favorite and he toured extensively with her until one night in 1967 when she collapsed onstage. It was the first strike by the brain tumor that killed her in 1970 when she was 24.

On this live recording the audience applauds all of these names, but they must’ve jumped to their feet when they heard Tammi Terrell. Gaye was obviously moved by the crowd’s reaction.

Live At the London Palladium includes a bonus track from the studio, “Got to Give It Up,” which is almost 12 minutes long and is its own party.

Here, My Dear (1978)
By this time, Marvin and Anna Gordy Gaye had divorced. One of the terms of the divorce was that Anna was to receive a substantial portion of the advance from Marvin’s next record, plus a cut of the royalties.

I think most men in this position would’ve thrown something together just to get out and get away. Spend a few days recording covers. Throw in songs you wrote years ago that never really gelled. Maybe write something bitter and vengeful.

Gaye wasn’t planning to put much effort into this project, but then he found a voice he hadn’t known he had, and he began to speak and sing about his marriage and how it fell apart. The result, Here, My Dear, stands almost by itself in the world of pop music. There are plenty of pop songs about breaking up. How many albums are devoted to broken-up marriages?

(The only other specimen I can think of is Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights from 1982, and that comparison doesn’t entirely work because the Thompsons wrote all the songs while their marriage was still good.)

Gaye doesn’t spare himself on Here, My Dear, through I wonder if he understood all the havoc he’d caused. Yet I don’t believe many musicians have it in them to write something like “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You?” Gaye’s bitterness surfaces in “Anger” and “Is That Enough?”, and yet “Anna’s Song” shows that he still loves his now former wife.

The album closes with his meditation on his love for the woman who became his next wife. Along the way he finds time to slip into his party groove on “Time to Get It Together” and “Funky Space Reincarnation.” That last one is a 500-word journey into free association and the Kingdom of Prince.

Shoot Out the Lights is a harrowing listen. Here, My Dear is a beautiful listen. But in 1978, nobody wanted an album about divorce. I know I wouldn’t have bought it. Here, My Dear has since been rehabilitated, and in 2012 it appeared at 462 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums. (No, I’m not listing the top 461.) I love it. Divorce never sounded this good.

It seems fitting that Gaye’s next hit (and, sadly, his last) was “Sexual Healing” in 1982.

That’s my look at Marvin Gaye in the ’70s. His life began and ended in violence (all of it inflicted by his father). He was a complicated man, unlike Shaft but a lot like the rest of us men. Rest in peace. Eternal thanks.

 

Comments
  1. Wm Seabrook says:

    In the mid-80s I went to work one day and a friend said “Do you know what happened to Marvin Gaye?” and I replied “I heard it on the grapevine.”

    • Run-DMSteve says:

      Mr. Seabrook’s many bon mots include this gem: “A couple of years ago, Melody and I saw Gerry Marsden at the Sunderland Empire; there were far more pacemakers in the audience than on stage!”

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