Marvin Gaye was Motown’s most successful male solo artist of the ‘60s, a decade during which the label was all about hit singles (their headquarters was called “Hitsville U.S.A.” for a reason). He’s been endlessly anthologized, and the 2 cd sets Anthology (now unfortunately deleted) and The Very Best Of Marvin Gaye (which replaced the superior Anthology) are good starting points, but those willing to dig deeper should look to The Master 1961-1984, a superlative 4-cd box set that effectively replaced a previous botched box set attempt (avoid The Marvin Gaye Collection). Gaye got his start backing mentor Harvey Fuqua in the new Moonglows, and he actually served as a drummer (most notably for friend Smokey Robinson) on some Motown sessions. Marvin was determined to be a solo star, however, and a fortuitous marriage to label boss Berry Gordy’s sister Anna (17 years his senior) helped him get his foot in the door. What Gaye really wanted was to be a crooner in the Frank Sinatra/Nat “King” Cole mold, but he never had much early success in that style, too mannered and studied were his performances.
Those failings aside, it didn't take Marvin long before success came his way, beginning with the gritty “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow,” which saw him backed by Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, as did "Pride and Joy" and "Hitch Hike." The Master 1961-1984 includes these songs and ALL of Gaye's other hits among its 89 songs, thereby saving you from trying to obtain the patchy albums that preceded 1971's What's Going On, after which he became an album rather than singles oriented artist. Among the other well-known '60s songs are "Can I Get A Witness," "Baby Don't You Do It" (later memorably covered by The Band), "How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You" (later a sunny pop hit for James Taylor), "I'll Be Doggone," "Ain't That Peculiar," and of course his classic cover of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" (it was previously a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips, while CCR would turn in their epic version soon afterwards), which Dave Marsh slated as the greatest single ever in his book The Heart of Rock & Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made. These songs showed Marvin to be a major solo voice within the Motown assembly line, but equally important were his legendary duets with the likes of Mary Wells ("Once Upon A Time"), Kim Weston ("It Takes Two"), and especially Tammi Terrell (“Your Precious Love,” “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” “You’re All I Need To Get By”), with whom he shared a very special chemistry (this box set contains no less than 9 of their collaborations together).
On the downside, as is often the case with box sets, this one can be called overly generous in that a lot of these early cuts seem largely interchangeable, plus some of these sweet tales of puppy love seem rather quaint or silly today. That said, catchy, cute numbers like "Little Darling (I Need You)" and "Your Unchanging Love" still boast considerable charms. However, as an artist who has always thrived on conflict, Marvin is generally better when either pleading for his unfaithful lover not to leave him or when acting as the studly heartbreaker himself. Beyond the obvious hits are many other not-so-obvious inclusions, including over a dozen previously unreleased cuts, most of which are on the first two discs. Among the lesser-known gems are "What Do You Want With Him," a smooth, sensitively rendered ballad, while sad and lonely ballads like "You're The One For Me" and "Lonely Lover" are moodier and show more depth than most of Motown's churn 'em out crowd pleasers. "Without You (My World Is Lonely)," "You," and "This Love Starved Heart Of Mine (It's Killing Me)" possess a remarkable intensity reminiscent of The Four Tops, and during this era writer/producers like Holland-Dozier-Holland, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, Smokey Robinson, Norman Whitfield/Barrett Strong, and Gaye himself (usually in collaboration) ensured that Gaye's career was an artistic success even before breaking from the label's factory mindset and achieving his greatest successes.
Although they contain superior music, discs 3 and 4 are actually less useful than discs 1 and 2 since they cover from What's Going On through Midnight Love. Most of the songs excerpted from the self-contained albums of that period (chronicled in the subsequent reviews) are better heard in their proper context, but really, songs such as "What's Going On," "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” "Trouble Man," "Let's Get It On," "Distant Lover (live)," "Got to Give It Up, Pt. 1," "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You?," “A Funky Space Reincarnation,” and "Sexual Healing" sound great in any context.
Besides, there's plenty of great stuff here that isn’t available on any of those albums (the original versions of those albums anyway). For example, there's "Piece Of Clay," where Marvin addresses not so dear old dad along with some searing guitar, while the sparse, funky guitar on "Checking Out (Double Clutch)" is also something to behold. Both songs are reminders of what strong musicians Marvin was fortunate to work with (though they naturally gravitated to him due to his immense charm and talent), while with the lushly orchestrated twosome of "She Needs Me" and "Why Did I Choose You," Marvin gracefully nails the Sinatra/Cole style that had previously eluded him before he had the proper seasoning. Elsewhere, his sensitive, sexy rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" before the 1983 NBA All-Star game is justifiably legendary, his live trek though "Heard It Through The Grapevine" with Glady's Knight and the Pips is lots of fun, and "Lord's Prayer" provides a hauntingly unadorned spiritual.
This collection isn't perfect, and I'm sure you'll have your quibbles just as I have mine. For example, none of my three favorites from the original release of In Our Lifetime are included, and albums such as Trouble Man, I Want You, and Midnight Love are skimpily represented. Still, what is here is fantastic for the most part, and liner notes from David Ritz and tributes from fellow artists in the classy booklet provide added value to an already stellar package.
What’s Going On (Motown ’71) Rating: A+
After a commercially productive but artistically limited near-decade with Motown, Marvin released this beautifully conceived concept album, which the label didn't want to release since they didn't see its commercial potential. Marvin stood firm and stuck to his guns, however, ultimately breaking free from the Motown assembly line mentality and allowing Stevie Wonder to do the same soon afterwards on his own subsequent efforts, which also vividly documented black America with far reaching musical innovations. Motown need not have worried, for the album was a resounding success on all fronts, spawning three top 10 singles with all-time classic tracks such as “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” The immortal title track, an angry, confused call for solidarity, may well be the greatest song ever. The song has a loose atmosphere and provides lush, sumptuous music, but above all else (here and elsewhere) what really makes the song such a standout is Marvin's amazing vocals. With his then-pioneering usage of multi-tracked vocals, Gaye duets with his fine self throughout the album, expertly using each of his three registers (grittily deep, smooth right up the middle, creamy high-pitched falsetto), while the music on the album forms a symphonic suite of sumptuous soft soul. The album was inspired by his brother Frankie's awful experiences in Vietnam, and Marvin addresses him directly in "What's Happening Brother." However, Marvin's intimately personal messages have a universal appeal, whether pleading (on the superb “Save The Children” a genuinely fearful Marvin asks others to step up to save his/our children's future), preaching (he addresses Jesus and his hateful relationship with his father on "God Is Love," while on “Wholy Holy” Gaye pessimistically declares “Jesus left a long time ago” - Marvin was nothing if not a complex, contradictory man), or worrying about the environment (“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”). The album isn't perfect, as melodies are often repeated, song structures (which owe more to jazz than rock/pop) are loose and somewhat formless, and the lead-ins from one track to the next could be crisper (perhaps this was rectified on a subsequent reissue, as my copy is rather old). A song such as "Flyin' High (In The Friendly Sky)" (on which Marvin openly admits his drug dependency) just kind of floats right on by, though it does so in a lovely manner, while the majority of "Right On" (at 7:31 the album's longest song by far) is mostly about it's Latin flavored, head bobbin' groove. Sure, this song and the album itself can be a bit slow going at times, but it holds together incredibly well as seductive (if samey sounding) mood music, and the highs are so damn high, such as the haunting, powerful “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” Again using Latin-tinged percussion, this is a sparse, gritty urban drama on which the focus is again rightfully on Marvin's multi-tracked voice, which is subtle yet mesmerizing. Forget the album's innovations (non-pop song structures, a black man criticizing America - rare on record in 1971 - invoking Jesus by name - unheard of on a secular record in 1971 - forcing his record company to allow him complete artistic control - unheard of in 1971, etc.) and even its thought provoking, spiritual, socially conscious lyrics, what makes What's Going On one of the greatest soul albums of all-time is Marvin's vocal performance for the ages. Simply put, Gaye's voice has never sounded better (and that’s saying something given his already impressive resume as a hitmaker), as Marvin bravely attempts to make sense of society’s ills while hoping for a better future. This gorgeous, deeply moving record certainly did its part in making the world a better place.
Trouble Man (Motown '72) Rating: B+
"Blaxploitation" soundtracks were all the rage in the early '70s, so Marvin joined the likes of Isaac Hayes (Shaft) and Curtis Mayfield (Superfly) in the blaxploitation sweepstakes. The move to score a (now forgotten) movie made sense, as it allowed Marvin to keep working while offering a reprieve from the pressure of delivering a true follow up to his landmark What's Going On album, on which he finally established himself as a major artist rather than just a singer. One of only two albums (the other being In Our Lifetime) that Marvin self-composed and produced (Marvin generally needed the prodding of a collaborator to jump start his muse), Trouble Man further demonstrates Marvin's musical gifts, as the album is mostly instrumental. Although he sings a line or two or croons worldless voice-as-instrument incantations elsewhere, the only full vocal song is the title track, which became a much-quoted ("there's only three things that's for sure: taxes, death, and trouble") hit single, though overall the album unsurprisingly sold considerably less than What's Going On. Still, this somewhat forgotten album deserves to be better spoken of (reviews are usually mixed), because even though it's something of a dated period piece and it lacks standout individual songs, the album delivers surprisingly enjoyable if not always substantial mood music. Most of the songs - which again form a loosely linked suite, a la What's Going On - feature Marvin's piano and/or keyboards along with Trevor Lawrence's sultry saxophone (the album's secret weapon). Marvin also indulges his newfound love of the Moog synthesizer, while (infrequent) wah wah guitar, slowly percolating percussion, and lush orchestrations also enhance the jazzy, often funky music, which has a noirish, late night quality. Many of the songs are (too) short, and sometimes the linkages (to the movie and from song to song) seem forced, but by and large the album actually meshes together fairly seamlessly. That said, aside from the title track there's no song here that's even as substantial as "What's Happening Brother" let alone "What's Going On," and certainly one could question Marvin's decision to minimize his greatest attribute (his voice). Still, for all its flaws I must say that I generally enjoy the majority of this album a good deal, certainly more than I expected to given its less than exemplary reputation (I believe that a rethink is in order), as Trouble Man delivers undeniably classy and sophisticated background music. That said, this was mere background music from a supposed major artist, so a more serious work would be expected from Mr. Gaye the next time around.
Let’s Get It On (Motown ’73) Rating: A
With help this time from collaborator and co-produer Ed Townsend (who co-writes half the songs), Let's Get It On, the proper follow up to What’s Going On, was as close as music can come to sex, and it became his biggest hit to date. Embellishing his hedonistic thoughts with lush (some would say “schmaltzy”) strings, sinuous sax, right-on rhythms, and some prominent backing vocals from The Originals (a semi-successful Motown band Marvin sometimes mentored), Gaye’s wondrous voice dances around eight supremely soulful and sexy songs. Quite simply, if this record doesn’t get you in the mood, you probably should check your pulse. Despite naive lines like "we're all sensitive people," the title track is one of Marvin's all time classics, with alternately gritty and sensuous vocals (the falsetto at 2:18 is pure magic) about, well, you know... and let's not forget the glorious guitar, which also oozes sex appeal, becoming a template for many future songs of this type, few of which ever equaled the primal appeal of this one. In case you didn't get the point, "Keep Gettin' It On" less successfully reprises the music and the message, but the album doesn't merely deliver promiscuous declarations of lust. Marvin wants to get it on only with that someone with whom he shares special feelings (let's ignore his adulterous history of womanizing for the time being), and stellar songs such as "Come Get To This" and "Distant Lover" are completely grounded, as a wounded, sexually frustrated Gaye misses the missus. Actually, he was having severe marital troubles at the time, which are obvious with but one listen to "Just To Keep You Satisfied," a slow, pained ballad. Elsewhere, Marvin begs for her to stay on "Please Stay (Once You Go Away)", which has a nice melody and more funky sex guitar, while no such pleading is necessary on "You Sure Love To Ball," a song so graphic (yet gorgeous, with Marvin's barely audible voice again yielding a seductive power) that it almost makes me blush. Like its more famous and certainly more substantial predecessor (not least because it has three outstanding singles to this album's one), Let’s Get It On is a great sounding "mood" record, ultra mellow but rarely boring (how could that voice be boring?), and though it rarely wavers from its similar sounding tone throughout, this often serves to enhance the rich mood created by Marvin's one-track mind. In fact, the album’s frank exploration of sex (with a rarely remarked upon dosage of spirituality as well) was as influential in its way as the social messages and political stances of What’s Going On. Eerily prophetic: "If I Should Die Tonight," which includes the line "if I should die before my time," accompanied by lush strings and delivered via creamy vocals that could melt butter.
I Want You (Motown '76) Rating: B+
After a duets album with Dianna Ross (Diana & Marvin) and a tour (captured on Marvin Gaye Live!), Marvin’s self-destructive ways prevented him from moving forward. With nothing going on, Berry Gordy presented Marvin with a suite of music composed by Leon Ware and Arthur "T. Boy" Ross. Marvin was instantly attracted to the lush, symphonic music and agreed to collaborate, as the lyrics also fit Marvin’s mindset at the time. You see, Marvin’s first marriage to Anna Gordy was basically over but he had a new love; whereas Anna was 17 years older, new flame Janis Hunter was 17 years younger. Controversially, Marvin started a family with Janis before his divorce was finalized, and indeed Janis would become his second wife and lifelong obsession. And though their relationship would later also fall apart, for now things were good, and this album was basically a love letter to Janis. How can that be, you ask, if he didn’t even write the album? Well, he did chip in, as Ware explained to David Ritz in his excellent biography Divided Soul: The Life Of Marvin Gaye: “he took my material and turned it into his own thing by adding a few lyrics and phrases and, of course, working his vocal magic. That was a thrill to see - how he personalized everything.” Anyway, like Trouble Man this one is somewhat underrated, though like that album the only instantly memorable song here is the title track, on which an insecure Marvin (“I want you, but I want you to want me too”) makes his motives known. Also like Trouble Man, this album has something of a dated ‘70s sound and several songs are repeated, forming another linked suite of interrelated ideas. However, whereas Trouble Man was mostly instrumental, I Want You has Marvin’s vocal genius going for it, while percussive dance beats and electronic keyboards (perhaps influenced by Stevie Wonder?) are also more prominent. Perhaps the schmaltz factor is again too high (certainly the moaning women in the background is a cheesy lapse in good taste), but that could also be said about Let’s Get It On, which had the benefit of better songs and coming first as Marvin’s narrow bedroom vision is starting to seem one-dimensional at this point. Indeed, despite his reputation to some as “a black John Lennon,” What’s Going On is his only real social/political album statement, as his other albums were far more concerned with Marvin Gaye than anything/anyone else. Still, the music here is consistently rich and pleasurable; “Come Live With Me Angel” (by far the album’s longest song at 6:30) conveys Marvin’s idyllic vision of marital bliss, “After The Dance” is a mysterious, exotic instrumental, “All The Way Round” has a hot sax solo and impressive harmonies, and “After The Dance (Vocal)” (I told you some melodies/themes were repeated) is a slowly sinuous finale that thematically brings the album full circle (“I want you, and you want me”). It’s a consistent album whose parts all fit together, despite some seriously brief songs (“I Wanna Be Where You Are,” a 1:18 tribute to his kids, and “I Want You,” a reprise that runs all of 18 seconds) and awkwardly suggestive lyrics (“baby baby please let me do it to you”). Anyway, it’s no classic, but I Want You was another eminently listenable, consistently creative showcase for some talented composers and a truly terrific singer.
Here, My Dear (Motown ’78, ’94) Rating: A-
With serious I.R.S. issues and a pending divorce, Marvin had major financial issues despite his superstar status. So another tour yielded his best live album, Live at the London Palladium (1977), which also included the seminal 12-minute disco funk studio smash "Got To Give It Up," which became his last number one hit when released as an edited single. After that came by far the strangest album of Gaye's career, Here, My Dear, which received neither acclaim nor sales upon its release and was even kept out of print for quite some time. Time, however, has been kind to this unique concept album, and a distinct minority has belatedly recognized it as a peculiar masterpiece (for example, the critics at Mojo magazine selected it among the 100 greatest albums of all-time). It’s a one-of-a-kind effort from a tormented genius baring his soul, the result of an unusual divorce settlement with his first wife Anna whereby it was decided that she would get the proceeds from this album (the details of this arrangement are fully explained in biographer David Ritz’s illuminating liner notes), on which Gaye looks to close that chapter in his life by dissecting the stormy relationship (although, with a new lover with whom he already had two kids you could argue that he already had moved on). Needless to say, this is a decidedly uncommercial venture, with slowly sinuous grooves carrying long songs that lack standard structures. Doo-wop, disco, jazzy elements, and some funky moments are thrown into a rich musical mix, and melodic saxophones, trumpets, moody keyboards, and lush strings are also prominent components of a beautiful, singular sound. Of course, the often multi-tracked vocals of Marvin Gaye are the album’s greatest asset, and the scathing, brutally honest lyrics confusedly confesses his obvious heartbreak over the dissolution of his marriage. Though not much appreciated by Anna at first (she considered it mean-spirited and almost sued for “invasion-of-privacy,” though she later confessed “with the passage of time I’ve come to appreciate every form of Marvin’s music, even songs written in anger”), and for good reason, accusatory lyrics like “woman you have caused my tears to flow…do you cry about me?” and “if you ever loved me with all of your heart, you’d never take a million dollars to part” are leavened by occasional dosages of humor, and Marvin isn’t above pointing lyrical daggers at himself as he attempts to come to terms with what happened and his own past plentiful transgressions. Here, My Dear is an overly long (almost 80 minutes) mood piece that relies on bare emotion and beauty rather than excitement, and it certainly takes time to fully assimilate and appreciate the album’s strengths. Even then you might not be able to look past how self-serving, self-pitying, and wildly self-indulgent it is (remember, there are two sides to every such story), as perhaps the album is too personal (himself unsure of its merits, Marvin held on to the album for over a year before releasing it). Beginning with a dedication to Anna (even then Marvin can’t help himself, mentioning how she allegedly kept him from seeing their adopted son), the album traces what Paul Simon once referred to as “the arc of a love affair.” And though its primary question (“When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You?,” which appears three separate times) never gets resolved, this is a one-of-a-kind experience that’s a fascinating journey through the troubled mind of a tortured soul. For all its flaws, the album (whose allegorical cover is as interesting as its music - again, read Ritz’s liner notes) is a personal favorite of mine because it’s a vocal extravaganza (Marvin being one of my all-time favorite singers). That said, I really need to be in the mood for it, as this is the type of "chill out" album that requires uninterrupted listening (which is why I haven’t bothered differentiating between individual songs) and is best appreciated by cozying up to it all by ones lonesome. In the right setting, though, this incredibly intimate album just might become addictive, as you get to know the trials and tribulations of Marvin Gaye and Anna Gordy inside and out (admittedly from Marvin’s self-absorbed perspective). Again, nothing is really resolved, but it’s a captivating journey just the same, and there’s certainly no other album quite like it.
In Our Lifetime (Motown '81, '94) Rating: B
After the often-brilliant if meandering and misunderstood Hear, My Dear, Marvin disappeared for awhile, first literally living as a beach bum in Hawaii and then fleeing to Europe (and away from the I.R.S.) for several years. His second marriage already in tatters, Marvin worked on and then abandoned his Love Man album (Marvin explained: "who needed another record moanin' and bitchin' 'bout some woman?") before Motown released In Our Lifetime without Marvin's consent. Needless to say, Marvin was furious, vowing never to work with Motown again, as the impatient company (it had been three years since Marvin's last album - a long time back then - and four years since his last hit) among other things released "Far Cry" even though it was a far cry from being finished and forgot to include a question mark after the album's title (as in "is the world going to end in our lifetime?"). Indeed, for the first time in ages Marvin looked at the world around him (he really thought a nuclear disaster was forthcoming), but Janis and Jesus also still weigh heavily on his mind. Musically, in an attempt to keep up with the hot younger likes of Michael Jackson and Rick James, Marvin slicks up and modernizes his sound, which, like many '80s albums, ironically makes it sound dated today. His funkiest and most musically upbeat album to date, In Our Lifetime is rarely unpleasant to listen to, but few of its songs are likely to grab hold of you immediately, either. I'm still ambivalent about it even after many listens, appreciating Marvin's always confessional lyrics and of course his voice, but disappointed that the smooth, propulsive music isn't more memorable. Don't get me wrong, "Praise," "Love Party," and "Heavy Love Affair" deliver ear pleasing, danceable melodies, and there are other nice touches elsewhere (I like the guitar on "Love Me Now Or Love Me Later," for example), but there's a reason that this may be Marvin's most often overlooked album. Perhaps Marvin would've molded these songs into something more focused and substantial had Motown let him, but they didn't, and though this solid album is still worthwhile for big fans, it was his weakest effort since becoming an album oriented artist. Note: "Ego Tripping Out," a musically strong, lyrically amusing 7+ minute funk workout that was originally a flop single in 1979, leads off the improved reissued version of the album.
Midnight Love (Columbia ’82) Rating: B+
After another tour and a new multi-million dollar deal with Columbia helped Marvin pay off some crippling debts, Gaye recorded Midnight Love, his “comeback album” produced by former mentor Harvey Fuqua. The critics embraced the album after savaging his previous ones, and it’s easy to see why, for Marvin, obviously looking for a hit (and feeling obligated to deliver one for the company that had just saved his ass), aims to please, with a thoroughly commercialized pop sound and lighter lyrics aimed for the party crowd rather than those inclined towards quiet introspection. He got his big hit with “Sexual Healing,” whose effortless reggae groove and smoothly catchy love man vocals went to #1 r&b/#3 pop, winning 2 Grammy Awards in the process and propelling Midnight Love past 2 million in sales. It was no “What’s Going On” or even “Let’s Get It On,” but the song was a classic of its type, though it’s easily the best track on a lyrically limited (sex and Janis, mostly) and musically flawed album. On the upbeat front, "Midnight Lady" is a funky Rick James influenced freakout that Marvin admitted was somewhat contrived, while "Rockin' After Midnight" is another fun booty shaker, even if its lyrics are again obviously about Janis ("gonna be in love with you 'till the end of my days"), who he could never quite shake (he resumed relations with Anna as well towards the end of his life!). So is "'Til Tomorrow," which musically is Marvin on autopilot despite a nice sax solo, while the merely so-so "Turn On Some Music" sees Marvin bragging about his sexual prowess. "Third World Girl" is a touching tribute to Bob Marley, with a low-key, head bobbin' groove, while "Joy" exudes just that with some more agreeably funky pop. "My Love Is Waiting" begins by thanking contributors to the album (odd given that Marvin has been accused of not giving his collaborators proper credit in the past) and Jesus before settling into another pleasurably easy going groove, though like most of the songs here this one is likeable but doesn't leave a lasting impression. Repetitive and groove oriented, Midnight Love is a modestly pleasing album that heavily relies on propulsive dance beats, bright upbeat synths, and the all around instrumental prowess of Gordon Banks and Gaye himself. Though like In Our Lifetime few of the songs here are instantly memorable, and the synth and horn heavy sound is again overly slick and sanitized, this was a more easily graspable attempt at modernizing his sound. Alas, he would never get to build upon the success of Midnight Love. Rather than feeling reborn at his newfound good fortune, Marvin instead receded into his own world. He never could reconcile his hedonistic lifestyle with his strict religious principles, and the truth is that at the time of his death he was a miserable drug addict with a death wish. All too fittingly, the man with whom he always had such a terrible relationship (in part due to jealousy over Marvin’s extremely close relationship with his mother, who coddled him) delivered the final blow, as, after a violent domestic dispute, Marvin Gaye’s life tragically and shockingly ended April 1, 1984 with a shotgun blast at the hands of his father just before his 45th birthday.
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