In moments such as this, I hesitate as to whether I should mourn the death or celebrate the birth. Today, I do both.
The story of Marvin Gaye has been rehashed and reconciled a million and one times since his death, twenty-eight years ago. Eventually, I’d imagine, we will see a feature film—Denzel Washington or Terrence Howard, perhaps. In this film, we will be inundated with the sounds of “Let’s Get It On,” “Pride & Joy,” and quite naturally, “What’s Going On.” And for that, I will be quite thankful. Today, however, is simply not that day.
Instead, I want to engage those sounds that did not quite find themselves in that greater historical narrative—that side of Marvin that was regretfully, but understandably overlooked. Because when you’re that good, some of your finest moments become lost in the shadow of grandiosity.
This, too, is Marvin Pentz Gaye.
You Are The Way You Are – Instrumental, from I Want You (1976)
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For me, this is where it all begins. There may be nothing more bittersweet than this elegant composition, with its sweeping chimes, sophisticated funk grandeur, and …complete absence of lead vocals. It seems as if everyone is present for the party, except Marvin, and this includes an extravagant horn display towards the song’s midpoint. Eventually, we are sheepishly teased with just a hint of Marvin through the background vocals layered towards the back end. I appreciate Leon Ware’s vocal effort on his own rerecording of the track, but I’m left asking myself, “what if?”
Nature Boy, from Tribute to the Great Nat “King” Cole (1965)
Whenever I hear this take on the popular eden ahbez standard, I feel as if Marvin had a point to prove. In many instances, his renditions of popular songs took on much of his own personality to such a degree that they essentially became something wholly new. These weren’t simply covers, but reclamation projects. But here he played the role of Nat King Cole. His performance was controlled, even a bit cautious. The vocal gymnastics take a backseat for one of the most mature moments in his career. Pitch perfect throughout; I would place this against any of the classic balladeers of yesteryears.
Right On, from What’s Going On (1971)
As an album, What’s Going On reads like a storybook. It’s a screenplay set to sound. And as such, it is consumed in a linear fashion, making “Right On” quite recognizable; at least, in the greater narrative. Despite this, we often look towards the titular single or “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), as the album’s focal point. And it’s not so much that I disagree, as much as I’d rather highlight the jazz-soul fusion that makes this the album’s most musically influential composition. The first half of the song is dominated by the playful styling of a lone flautist and the Latin sensibilities of the maracas. (Think: Donald Byrd’s “Flight Time.”) What begins as the soundtrack to a 70s party scene settles into something more subtle—the perfect transition for the album’s follow-up track, “Wholy Holy.”
Turn On Some Music, from Midnight Love (1982)
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I have to thank Erick Sermon for this one. At 24, I’m perpetually playing catch up and this is just another lesson taught to me by my favorite teacher—hip-hop. When Sermon released “Music” in 2001, I had to find the original. What I received was the super cool, laidback funk that was 80s Marvin. At this point, it wasn’t the subject matter that made his music sexual, but instead the erotic growl he had, more often than not, injected into his vocal performance. It was raw and carnal. “Sexual Healing” was the groove, but this is the foreplay.
She Needs Me, from Vulnerable (1997)
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The production surrounding Marvin Gaye throughout his career deserves as much adulation as the artist himself. It was innovative and eventually indicative of nearly every single era in which he participated. Above all, however, Marvin Gaye was a vocalist. And this is where he reminded us. It’s a subtle performance, placed atop minimalist instrumentation, allowing for his individual brilliance to be displayed in greater role. His part is not overwhelming, but within its casual approach remains pristine throughout. It’s simply a strong performance. Most overlooked? His ability to dub his own voice atop itself, creating perfect harmonies in which he plays every single part. This is the one-man show that puts most nearly all other ensembles to shame.
Symphony, from Dream of a Lifetime (1985)
Originally recorded during the Let’s Get It On sessions in 1973, this remastered version maintains much of the dreamlike ambience captured in the song’s original form. In this modern reincarnation, however, the record’s lush string arrangement is contradicted with a powerful drum pattern, reminiscent of contemporary Hip-Hop. Co-produced with the legendary Smokey Robinson, this is one of those rare moments when they get it right the second time.
Yesterday, from That’s the Way Love Is (1970)
This is what happens when Marvin gets his hands on a song. I’ve been a longtime Beatles fan and in its original form, the song is an acoustic masterpiece. There’s no denying this. But when Marvin does it, I’m not sure how to explain it exactly. It just becomes realer. Breakup isn’t something beautiful and rarely does it come without pain. And just like that the inherent soul of Marvin Gaye infuses into this ballad the proper dose of reality. His entire performance seems to follow no rhyme or reason, providing a vocal display that at every turn loses control. The emotion is no longer a contextual element of the music, but instead the two become one in the same. And that, my friends, is what we call soul music.
Fly Me To The Moon (In Other Words), from Romantically Yours (1985)
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It’s strange to hear Marvin Gaye like this. Vulnerability may not even capture it in whole. Consider the fact that we’re talking about a man who placed aspects of his tumultuous marriage onto wax, and you can understand the breadth of such a possibility. The backing instrumentation is what makes this record what it is—delicate. You almost don’t even want to turn the volume up too loud, in fear that the record might break. When juxtaposing this with Gaye’s inherent angst, you gain something incomprehensibly unique.
Stop, Look Listen (To Your Heart), from Diana & Marvin (1974)
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They could have retired this record the minute the Stylistics dropped it in 1971. The harmonies they laid down are absolutely crazy, adding yet another classic to the Philadelphia soul machine. In saying that, I expect reservation when taking in the Diana Ross-assisted cover released three years after the fact. Of all the records performed on the album, this was the most intriguing. The dynamic between the two isn’t as strong as Marvin’s other collaborations, which, in a way, creates a fun back-and-forth between two talented vocalists whenever they’re not harmonizing. Raising the tempo and giving free reign to the artists shifted what was originally a mellow cut into a spirited R&B record.
Sweet Lorraine, from A Tribute to the Great Nat “King” Cole (1965)
The summation of our entire discussion leads here. This particular record and the subsequent album in which it was housed, serves as a commentary for the delicate position between authentic artistic output and commercial necessity. There’s a reason that perhaps his greatest homage, is not included in the legend of Marvin Gaye. We should all be familiar with the way in which Gaye manipulated the idea of crooning into a soulful reinterpretation—parlaying a subtle ballad into a boisterous horn-driven mélange. This, unfortunately, is not the case. The people wanted more of the same, and yet, Marvin continued to push boundaries. For that, many of these records get lost in the shuffle. But as they say, if you don’t know, now you know.
This, too, is Marvin Gaye.
Naturally, I’ll be playing the hits along with everyone else because they are and will always be classics. But that does not negate the brilliance of those b-sides and hidden gems, missing from the standard rotation. If anything, it makes me appreciate his genius even more.
This, of course, is simply the beginning. Marvin Gaye has one of those catalogs that never stops providing classic material. However you choose to spend your day, make sure you do it with a little Marvin Gaye.
Written By: Paul Pennington