Thirty years ago, Diana Ross & Marvin Gaye were reunited in spirit and song. On the first day of 1985, MTV Networks launched Video Hits One (VH-1), a “adult contemporary” companion to its main U.S. music channel, debuting with Marvin’s inspirational performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the NBA’s 1983 All-Star Game, then seguing into Diana’s emotional tribute to the late singer, “Missing You.”
“Sometimes I’ve wondered,” sang Diana, “I didn’t understand/Just where you were trying to go/Only you knew the plan.”
Diana & Marvin was recorded in Los Angeles during 1972, when Motown moved its headquarters there, and as its princess and prince became involved with Hollywood: Diana with her starring role in Lady Sings The Blues, Marvin with his soundtrack work for Trouble Man. Berry Gordy knew the plan.
According to biographer David Ritz, Marvin had foresworn duets with anyone after Tammi Terrell’s death. But he saw this liaison as an opportunity to further assert his primacy in the court of King Gordy, after the personal and professional triumph of What’s Going On.
Berry steered the album as its executive producer, but took the reins personally to produce its most compelling track, “You’re A Special Part Of Me.” The responsibility for much else fell to Hal Davis, Motown’s West Coast stalwart, although the single most powerful moment of the entire album – the opening verse of “Pledging My Love” – was in the hands of one-quarter of the Four Seasons, Bob Gaudio, then newly signed to Motown.
Recording this album, Diana found Marvin’s modus operandi to be challenging: specifically, his tendency to smoke joints (and enjoy wine) while recording. She was pregnant with her second child, and reportedly did not want to jeopardise the baby’s health. After initial sessions together, the artists opted to record their parts separately. Recording technology facilitates togetherness, and you wouldn’t know from listening that the two superstars were not often face-to-face when singing. Besides, as an early Motown slogan declared, “It’s what’s in the grooves that count.”
“You’re A Special Part Of Me” is the perfect mix of these two most distinctive voices, overlaid with warmth and intimacy, stirred by James Carmichael’s sympathetic arrangement, bringing the song and the singers to a harmonious, powerful climax. Marvin’s vocal swoops and interjections (“Talk to me!”) recall his fine work with Tammi, and the only flat note is that this track, when released as a single, failed to reach the Top 10 of the pop charts.
Actually, what’s also a surprise is the number of cover versions: two from the Philadelphia songbook, “You Are Everything” and “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart),” and one from the inventory of the wicked Wilson Pickett, “Don’t Knock My Love.” That said, there is nothing wrong with the choice of the Philly favourites, whose originals were produced and co-written by Thom Bell for the Stylistics. Marvin and Diana are vocally engaging, and the arrangements are close to Bell’s smooth, sophisticated template. Moreover, “You Are Everything” found favour in Britain, where this interpretation was a Top 5 success, while the album stayed on the charts for almost a year. (In the U.S., Diana & Marvin had that same sales longevity, although it peaked short of the Top 20.)
“Don’t Knock My Love” races along with pumping brass and rhythm while Diana and Marvin pitch in with gusto, but it lacks the grittiness of Pickett’s version, with which it must inevitably be compared.
By contrast, the opening of “Pledging My Love” is absolutely stunning. Marvin summons all the power, soul and drama at his command, and time is suspended for 52 seconds. To her credit, Diana stands aside for this tour de force, then comes in to solo and duet, with what sounds like a heavenly chorus in back. (The song itself is one of rock & roll’s seminal works, first recorded by the late, great Johnny Ace; it was his biggest hit, after the singer tragically killed himself in a backstage game of Russian roulette.) “Make this fire in my soul/Forever burn.” It will, Marvin, it will.
Melancholy is present on “My Mistake (Was To Love You),” with the prince reaching for his upper register, as he does on other tracks. Equally moving is “Just Say, Just Say,” with delicate harmonies supported by a classy, Paul Riser arrangement. The song was written by Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson, and is said to be among their last productions at Motown. Diana and Marvin make it their own. “All I want to hear, all I want to feel,” he persuades, “is your voice.”
If the two singers weren’t in the studio together when singing “Include Me In Your Life,” it’s hard to tell, judging by the vocal togetherness and trade-offs. “Darling, darling, darling/Include me in your life,” invites Diana, while Marvin counters joyfully with “You know I’m just a stubborn kinda fellow.” On “Love Twins,” they also harmonise to fine effect: “Let people say/You won’t see one without the other.”
Released in October 1973, the first edition of Diana & Marvin comprised ten tracks, while a 2001 reissue added a further four. The most attractive of these is “I’ll Keep A Light In My Window,” originally part of an album featuring various Motown artists, issued in tribute to Berry Gordy’s late father, “Pops.” Diana and Marvin’s performance is uplifting, tinged with gospel. The track was co-written and co-produced by Leonard Caston, a former Chess Records artist who later worked at Motown. His curriculum vitae there includes an album, Caston & Majors, which contained “Light” in its first incarnation.
Among the other Diana/Marvin tracks on the reissue were “Alone,” a piano-led ballad which sounds as if it, too, belongs in church, and “The Things I Will Not Miss,” a song taken from the 1973 movie remake of Frank Capra’s 1937 classic drama-fantasy, Lost Horizon. Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote songs for the update, with overtones of Broadway. Diana carries the load here, with Marvin in soft voice, almost speaking rather than singing, and there are moments when it’s hard to believe that it is he. Berry Gordy’s decision to omit the track from the original Diana & Marvin seems prudent in retrospect, even if it offers insights into the challenges which he – not to mention his stars – faced in making the plan.
“Sometimes I’ve wondered, I didn’t understand/Just where you were trying to go…”
BUY NOW: www.itunes.com/motown