Reviewed on this page:
The Soulful Moods Of Marvin Gaye - Together - How Sweet It Is To
Be Loved By You -
Moods Of Marvin Gaye - United
- I Heard It Through The Grapevine - M.P.G. - Easy - What's Going On - Trouble
Man - Let's Get It On - I
Want You - Live At The London Palladium -
Here, My Dear - In
Our Lifetime - Midnight Love - Dream Of A Lifetime
At Motown since the dawn of the Sixties (the drummer on Little Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips Pt. 2"),
Marvin Gaye aspired to be a pop singer, another Nat King Cole.
Despite his white-friendly good looks and crooning tenor, things
didn't work out that way. He spent the first half of the decade
recording standards and showtunes ("My Funny Valentine") that
bombed, and more typical Motown R&B and soul hits ("Hitch Hike,"
"How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)"). After years of
inconsistency and indecision about his career, the company struck
gold when Marvin was paired with Tammi Terrell, and they recorded
a string of hits written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson,
including "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" and "You're All I Need To
Get By." In the tradition not only of Motown but of most of the
music business at the time, Marvin rarely wrote any of his own
material or played any instruments on his releases. His albums were
collections of singles plus whatever filler happened to be lying
around, largely failed single attempts.
Everything changed after the 1970 death of Terrell prompted deep
soul-searching on Marvin's part. The son of a preacher, he began to
wonder what positive contribution he could make to the world. He
came up with What's Goin' On, which didn't single-handedly
shatter the Motown studio system, but was a major development in
securing greater artistic freedom for other Motown artists like
Stevie Wonder. Largely self-written and produced and focused on
current events rather than romance, it was the first significant
concept album outside of guitar-based rock and roll. Originally
studio head Berry Gordy didn't want to release it at all; when it
sold millions of copies Gordy realized albums could be more than
collections of hit singles.
Gaye continued to write and produce concept albums for the next
decade, of varying quality, usually exploring the contradictions
and connections between his sexuality and his spirituality. After
a messy divorce from Anna Gordy (Berry's sister) which he exposed to public scrutiny on the double album Here, My Dear, Gaye left Motown,
had a huge hit with his Columbia debut ("Sexual Healing"), ran into
some more personal problems and finally was shot and killed by his
father during a domestic dispute. We've reviewed most of Gaye's discs, plus a 1995 tribute album.
The Soulful Moods Of Marvin Gaye (1961)
"Soulful" is an odd choice of words here, because on this collection of MOR standards Gaye's delivery is so smooth it's virtually soulless. Most of the album is standards, and he doesn't do them justice ("How Deep Is The Ocean," "My Funny Valentine"), while the band doesn't have much polish yet either - the arrangements are small-combo cocktail lounge. (It's amusing to hear Earl Van Dyke rip off Thelonious Monk's intro to "Round Midnight" on "The Masquerade Is Over," though.) The only tracks that sound at all like the Motown you're used to are the blues "Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide" and the uptempo "Never Let You Go." But even here, his nonstop Nat King Cole impersonation detracts from the fun. (DBW)
That Stubborn Kinda Fellow (1963)
Gritty R&B this time out. Besides "Stubborn Kinda Fellow," this also includes the early hits "Hitch Hike" (soon covered by both the Vandellas and the Rolling Stones) and "Pride And Joy." (DBW)
When I'm Alone I Cry (1964)
Another failed crossover move. (DBW)
Together (Gaye & Mary Wells: 1964)
Like Soulful Moods, this is a collection of jazzy standards (Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me") and show tunes (Irving Berlin's "The Late Late Show"), but with the addition of Mary Wells and the maturing of Motown's house band, it works like a charm. Both the band and the singers sound comfortable with the material, and both the standards ("(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons") and originals (Clarence Paul & William Stevenson's "What's The Matter With You Baby") are infectious fun in a slighty more sophisticated version of the standard Motown mold.
The other side of the coin is, since this sounds so much like a typical Motown record but didn't have any hit singles, you can live without it. Produced mostly by Stevenson, with some help from Paul. (DBW)
Hello Broadway (1964)
This is about as cheesy and whitebread as it gets: tunes include "People," "Hello Dolly" and "My Way." Aaaugh! (DBW)
A Tribute To The Late Great Nat King Cole (1965)
So what else is new? In fairness, I think this was Gaye's last foray into supper club music; it includes Cole's signature "Mona Lisa" and "Unforgettable" plus versions of "Ramblin' Rose" and "Nature Boy" (also recorded by such dissimilar acts as John Coltrane and Caetano Veloso). (DBW)
How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You (1965)
Another good but uneven classic Motown record, with four hit singles.
The title track here is one of Motown's most enduring tunes, Marvin's biggest selller before "Heard It Through The Grapevine" and later a hit for James Taylor; despite the finger-snapping, Smokey Robinson-style arrangement, it's actually an H-D-H composition, and Robinson only contributes one number ("Now That You've Won Me").
Actually, the record's a company-wide collaboration; there's also Norman Whitfield, Clarence Paul, Harvey Fuqua, Berry Gordy (the primitive "Try It Baby," a hit in mid-1964), and especially William Stevenson and H-D-H. Stevenson's "No Good Without You" is a cool, tightly arranged winner; H-D-H's "Baby Don't You Do It" sports a memorably insistent rhythm part, and although it wasn't as big a hit as their early-1964 contribution "You're A Wonderful One," both Stevie Wonder and the Band did cover it.
Gaye himself was slowly retreating from crossover pop music and learning to write, but he had a long way to go - "Stepping Closer To Your Heart" is good but quite corny, like much of the album not as hard-hitting and passionate as the label's best work. (JA)
Moods Of Marvin Gaye (1966)
Aside from Smokey's "Ain't That Peculiar," with an impassioned vocal and lean, mean arrangement, the hits here ("I'll Be Doggone" and "One More Heartache") aren't
very interesting, and the filler is even less interesting.
One bright spot is the accordion stylings on the Stevie Wonder-penned "You're The One For
Take Two (Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston: 1966)
The title is a reference to an earlier duet LP that was never released. (DBW)
United (Gaye & Terrell: 1967)
- A commercially solid record with three Top 40 hits, this was the beginning of the duo's fruitful collaboration. Producers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol supplied most of the tunes, working with an assortment of collaborators, but two of the biggest numbers were by Ashford and Simpson: the lushly romantic "Your Precious Love," and the unforgettably joyful "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," later covered by Diana Ross. The production often leans towards 60s cornball, as on a cover of Frank and Nancy Sinatra's huge #1 hit "Somethin' Stupid" (yup), and the annoying novelty number "Sad Wedding." But Jamerson rocks out on several numbers with fast-paced bass lines, as on "Two Can Have A Party"; the band gets down and funky on "You've Got What It Takes"; and Gaye absolutely soars on his gorgeous self-penned "If This World Were Mine." With so many high points, United is just a couple of misfires away from being a total classic. (JA)
- Ashford & Simpson's contributions are clearly the best tracks here, but there's enough other quality material to keep you from getting bored. I suspect the followup album is even better, and I'm eagerly anticipating hearing it. (DBW)
You're All I Need (Gaye & Terrell: 1968)
This yielded two major hits - "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing" (recently covered by Elton John) and "You're All I Need To Get By." By mid-1969 Terrell had come down with brain cancer and the duo had stopped recording. Later in the year Gaye released "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," which already had been a hit for Gladys Knight and the Pips. The single topped the charts for an amazing seven weeks, making it Gaye's biggest commercial success. (JA)
I Heard It Through The Grapevine (1968)
Motown's strategy of recording multiple versions of its hits
really paid off here: just a year after Gladys
Knight and the Pips went to #2 with Whitfield/Strong's "Grapevine," Gaye recorded
a slower, pained version that not only hit #1, it became the label's
best-charting single of the entire decade. This album was rushed
out to cash in, and it's uneven, from a wide variety of sources. "You"
was a minor hit single written by Jeffery Bowen, Ivy Hunter and Jack
Goga, with careful production and woodwind arrangements recalling tracks
on the Four Tops' Reach Out.
"Chained" also cracked the Top Forty, written and produced by Frank
Wilson, but it's formulaic and unmemorable; meanwhile, Hunter's "It's
Love I Need" rocks. Ashford & Simpson
sneak in one number, "Tear It On Down," which is in the mold of their
contemporaneous hit duets but not as melodic. The album is padded out
with long-shelved covers of early rock and roll hits like Goffin/King's "Some Kind Of Wonderful" and the
Drifters' "There Goes My Baby," plus a take on "Loving You Is
Sweeter Than Ever," by Hunter and Stevie
Wonder with lovely lyrical playing by James Jamerson.
Gaye got two more of his own co-writes onto wax, "At Last (I
Found A Love)" and "Change What You Can," though he still hadn't found his own voice as a writer:
they're both forgettable reruns of standard Motown formulas.
A typical Motown album of the period, with some great singles ("Too
Busy Thinking About My Baby," "That's The Way Love Is"), a couple
of nice surprises ("More Than A Heart Can Stand"), a couple of
disasters ("This Magic Moment") and mediocre filler ("Memories").
The two singles both hit the Top 10, understandable as they were the follow-ups to "I Heard It Through The Grapevine." (JA)
Easy (Gaye & Terrell: 1969)
This is an odd and disturbing story: Terrell was dying as this was recorded and wasn't really up to singing, so most of the female duet parts are actually sung by Valerie Simpson, including the single "Good Lovin' Ain't Easy To Come By." (Ashford & Simpson wrote most of the tracks and presumably produced the whole thing.) But rather than release an album of duets with the then-unknown Simpson, Motown's marketing people packaged the disc as another set of Gaye/Terrell tunes.
It's an interesting trip for Ashford & Simpson fans, as it marks a bridge between the standard Motown sound of "Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing" and the orchestrated epics on Diana Ross' debut; a slow version of the Four Tops' "Baby I Need Your Loving" sits next to the lovely, lilting "What You Gave Me." Ashford begins to explore social themes on the out-there lyrics to "The Onion Song." There's even one track here ("Love Woke Me Up This Morning") which turned up on Simpson's brilliant solo debut Exposed. But for all that, this isn't a very good record:
several of the tunes are substandard, including a pair of clichéd Harvey Fuqua numbers ("More, More, More" and "I Can't Believe You Love Me"), and in trying on different styles, A & S embarrass themselves with "California Soul," a blatant ripoff of the Mamas and the Papas' "California Dreamin.'" Not a lost classic, just a curiosity. (DBW)
That's The Way Love Is (1970)
Contains a multitude of pop covers, including "Yesterday," "Groovin'," "Cloud Nine," "Abraham, Martin and John" and more, in addition to the hit title track. (DBW)
What's Going On (1971)
Justly considered a masterpiece, addressing current events that are
still current today: urban survival and war ("Inner City Blues
(Make Me Wanna Holler)," "What's Happening Brother," the title
song), the environment ("Mercy Mercy Me"). Consistently tuneful and
surprising, from the soaring vocals on "Flying High" to wrenchingly
honest lyrics backed with funky bass and Latin percussion on "Right
On" to the heart-stopping coda that closes the album. (DBW)
A huge commercial success, this features three Top 10 singles - "Mercy Mercy Me," "Inner City Blues," and the title track. (JA)
You're The Man (recorded 1972)
This was never released, though the title track came out as a single in 1972. Other than that, I know nothing about this project. (DBW)
Trouble Man (1972)
After the success of What's Going On, Marvin was given free
rein, and his next project was this mostly instrumental movie
soundtrack, clearly inspired by Isaac Hayes' Shaft. The title track is breathtaking and the album is
thematically coherent with flashes of brilliance, but there's a lot
of redundancy - the same melodies recur again and again, and it
wears thin, particularly since there are almost no vocals.
Let's Get It On (1973)
The title song became the biggest selling single in Motown history,
with Marvin's best bedroom vocals (the explicit lyrics pushed the
envelope for mainstream R&B), a sinuous groove, and virtuoso
drumming by (I think) Andrew Smith. Without this song Barry White
never would have happened. The rest of the album stays remarkably
focused -- every track is about sex, all in virtually the same tempo,
the same key, with similar orchestration (strings sustain chord
roots throughout). If you're actually listening to the record,
rather than using it as background music, it gets monotonous.
It's dismaying to find Gaye so completely narrow-minded only two years after What's Going On. Side 1 is co-produced and co-written with a single collaborator, whereas side 2 is a mishmash of arrangers, but the sound stays steady and dull throughout. Victor Feldman and Bobbye Hall are among the session players. (JA)
Later in 1973, Gaye recorded an album of duets with Diana Ross, Diana & Marvin.
Recorded at his first live performance in five years, this record sailed into the Top Ten. (DBW)
I Want You (1976)
Gaye was very short on ideas at this point: conceptually it's just Let's Get It On Some More. He didn't even write the title track (present in three versions), it's by album producer and cowriter Leon Ware, who also wrote the lovely, gentle "All The Way Around." Gaye did write the fine album closer "After The Dance," and a few other incidental tunes. His voice is as moving as ever, and the arrangements effectively imitate the lush professionalism of Get It On and What's Going On, but there's nothing new here. (DBW)
There's some mellow R & B professionalism here, but the hormone levels are out of control; the otherwise impressive "Come Live With Me Angel" has Gaye crooning "suck dick," and several tracks are ruined with distracting, faked female orgasm vocalisations ("Since I Had You").
Ware has his name on every tune, working either with Gaye or T-Boy Ross. (JA)
Live At The London Palladium (1977)
A double album on one CD; three sides recorded live, focusing on his mid-70s work ("Distant Lover," "All The Way Around," "Trouble Man," "Let's Get It On") in versions just like the albums. His earlier hits are crammed into three medleys - the best is the first, where his 60s hits are remade in his later mellow, layered-vocal style. Many of the snippets are so brief they're unsatisfying ("You're A Wonderful One") and the more frantic tunes don't benefit from the laid-back treatment ("Hitch Hike")
but it's still an interesting experiment. Four tracks from What's Going On make up the next medley, and sound like Gaye had lost interest in the material. But the duets medley is a disaster: Florence Lyles is filling in for Tammi Terrell and Kim Weston, and just isn't up to it; meanwhile the arrangements and Marvin's showbiz patter recall Sonny and Cher. The one studio track is an eleven minute take on the enjoyable but minimal #1 hit "Got To Give It Up" - stick with the single version if you've got it.
This disc made it all the way to #3, as his commercial hot streak continued. (DBW)
Here, My Dear (1978)
- After Gaye's marriage to Anna Gordy broke up, he was ordered to pay her the royalties from his next album. He came up with this double album about their marriage, mostly a defensive, embarrassing attack on her (title track, "You Can Leave, But It's Going To Cost You"). It's repugnant, considering the facts of the case (after she'd worked for years to build his career, he set up house and started having kids with a woman half his age, and then was shocked when she finally filed for divorce), but it also doesn't make for great art: it's more like a precursor to today's tell-all autobiographies, set to music.
Working without a producer or co-writer, there's no one to bring any structure to the tracks: most just ramble interminably over a simple chord progression, with no discernable verses or chorus ("When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You,"
the single "A Funky Space Reincarnation").
Despite all this, there are a couple of moving, intense tunes that do work - "Anger" and "Everybody Needs Love"
- and when he doesn't sound stoned out of his mind ("Time To Get It Together") his voice is still lovely.
His least commercially successful album since M.P.G., and his last for
- Moral approval of an artist's behavior outside the studio just isn't relevant. But Gaye's work here is indeed rambling, sluggish, and incoherent.
There are just a handful of crafted efforts like the silky doo-wop revival title track, and he pads like crazy, rewriting that tune ("Everybody Needs Love") and reprising the best song - twice ("When Did You Stop...").
Despite this, his ornate vocals are impressive ("I Met A Little Girl"; the gorgeous, romantic "Sparrow"), and the easy-going, jazzy soul grooves make decent background listening ("Time To Get It Together"). And whatever the contradictions between Gaye's lyrics and reality, he's speaking more from the heart than ever here. (JA)
Love Man (recorded 1979)
Though this album was never released, it was conceived as a return to bedroom funk, and one track was issued, the single "Ego Trippin' Out." (DBW)
In Our Lifetime (1981)
- I keep listening to this, wondering why it doesn't stick in my mind,
and I'm coming to the conclusion that it's just unmemorable. There's
nothing terrible about it, but he's done everything here before and
there are no great tunes. You don't need this unless you've got a
whole pile of his other records and you've played them all to death.
- Wow, that's not my reaction at all. This is one funky record, and the tunes here are a lot more distinct from each other than the ones on Let's Get It On, complete with mood and tempo shifts ("Far Cry"). Instead of saccharine strings, Gaye goes with free wheeling, Rick James-influenced bass lines, his own smooth backup vocals, and subtle, but often energetic and jazzy horns. It's a good plan; the stripped-down arrangements give it some real grit. Plus Gaye's earnest, over-sexed lyrics make more of an impact here than usual. Although the arrangements do wander and the tunes are not always accessible, this is a definite for late-period Marvin Gaye fans. (JA)
I will mention that the CD re-release contains the 8-minute "Ego Trippin'" as a bonus track, which wasn't on the configuration I reviewed. Not that I think it makes a full star's difference... (DBW)
Midnight Love (1982)
- His first LP for Columbia; if he'd lived longer this would probably
be considered his comeback effort. Gaye is following rather than
leading now -- the album is horn-heavy late disco, heavily Earth, Wind
& Fire influenced -- but it's entertaining, packed with good licks,
and has several tracks ("Midnight Lady," "Third World Girl," "My
Love Is Waiting") about as good as the album's huge hit, "Sexual
- A very solid effort, even when he's derivative: with its intricate sequenced synths, "Midnight Lady" sound like a really good Rick James number. "Sexual Healing" is every bit as complex and has one of his best melodies. Most of it is the same sort of down-tempo balladry ("My Love Is Waiting"), although there's another disco groove ("Joy"); it's not always memorable but it's always carefully crafted.
A synth-heavy record that made the 80s sound like they were going to be a great decade... in addition to producing and writing everything, Gaye plays most of the instruments here; he's joined by Gordon Banks (guitar, some bass and drums) and Bobby Stern (sax, harmonica), and David Stout leads the horn section. (JA)
Dream Of A Lifetime (1985)
This is a crass cash-in, throwing together unfinished post-Midnight Love tracks with outtakes from the Motown years. The 80s material is very rough, synth-dominated, and sounds more like demos than the polished sound of Midnight Love. There are a couple of catchy tunes ("Sanctified Lady," "Ain't It Funny"), but lyrically, it's vicious and pornographic ("Savage In The Sack"), with "Masochistic Beauty" being difficult to sit through. The mini-symphony "Life's Opera" puts Gaye up on a soapbox, but he doesn't seem to have anything to say.
As for the older material, "It's Madness" sounds like a What's Going On outtake, and would have been a worthy addition to that album: it's a moving, string-dominated meditation. The title track is similar and more personal, and "Symphony" is an experiment co-written by Smokey Robinson: it sounds like an early reach for his 70s sound. (DBW)
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