These are the albums widely regarded as defining the artistry and talent of Marvin Gaye, assembled here in a single digital package unimaginable when he made them.
Through tragedy and conflict, Marvin earned the freedom to create music of his choosing and to his timetable. The 1970 death of Tammi Terrell robbed him of the incentive to create music according to the Motown rulebook – a text which had served him well to that point. Marvin was a maverick even in the early years, but his depression over Terrell’s death was darkened by stories from the Vietnam War, told to him by his brother Frankie, who served in the U.S. forces there.
Marvin ached to express his feelings about the world’s woes and misplaced priorities, and despite initial conflict over the work with Motown founder Berry Gordy, he did so in 1971’s What’s Going On. It is a collaborative effort, not least because the singer could not read or write music; those who help in giving shape to his vision include arranger David Van DePitte and such co-writers as James Nyx, Al Cleveland, the Four Tops’ Renaldo Benson and Marvin’s spouse, Anna. There is also an unusual blend of musicians, favoured by the singer and Van DePitte, including jazz drummer Chet Forest and saxophone player Eli Fontaine, whose alto opens the masterwork. Gaye plays piano and layers his vocals through a gospel of timeless relevance – songs which, more than 40 years later, have lost none of their musical or spiritual power.
Marvin took a diversion for the 1972 album which followed What’s Going On, in the form of a soundtrack for a “blaxploitation” picture, Trouble Man. The cool, percussive title track remains one of the artist’s most subtle, atmospheric pieces of music – more sophisticated than the film – and the balance of the score leans to jazz, but with some orchestral passages where, as with What’s Going On, Marvin draws on the skill of collaborators, including arranger Dale Oehler.
For the third album here, 1973’s Let’s Get It On, Marvin turns to the elevated and the explicit for inspiration, and to a veteran record producer, Ed Townsend, for the first four tracks, comprising side one of the vinyl LP. (The second side, with tracks 4-8, was built on sessions begun in Detroit.) Having fallen for a new love, Marvin holds little back lyrically, and nothing musically. As before, he depends on a seasoned crew of session players to create the languid grooves, and turns to unusual sources – his wife, his sister-in-law – for a couple of the songs. Arguably, the ballads, such as “Distant Lover,” are as memorable as the get-downs, but the virtues of Marvin’s versatility lie in the choice.
Material drawn from all three of the above albums comprise this set’s fourth, a live recording from a 1974 show in Oakland, Los Angeles. By then, Marvin had more freedom than ever in terms of creating music, but he still feared and hated singing in concert. Once on stage, however, he always seemed to rise to the occasion, which is evident in every track on Marvin Gaye Live! – even the “Fossil Medley” of his 1960s hits, rendered with ebullience. A live excursion for two tracks from What’s Going On is memorable, but the overall highlight is “Distant Lover,” rightly identified by David Ritz, author of the singer’s biography, Divided Soul, as superior to the studio original.
If being on stage was anathema to Marvin, you wouldn’t know it from his second live album of the decade, either: Live At The London Palladium, a double album released in 1977, the year after I Want You. The star seems to revel in the British audience’s adoration, and evidently regrets the 12-year lapse since his last visit to London. His early hits are fossilised once again, but Marvin is in fine voice, so even these flashes from the past are alive with energy and enthusiasm. He also benefits from a supercharged backing band, most notably bassist Gerald Brown, and an engaging “stand-in” – Florence Lyles – for the late Tammi Terrell on such electric duets as “You’re All I Need To Get by” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”
The original, fourth side of Live At The London Palladium contained Marvin’s riposte to the demands of disco. “To me, there are two types of dance tunes, disco and funk,” he said at the time. To the latter group, unquestionably, belongs the 12-minute tribal chant that is “Got To Give It Up,” cut in Los Angeles just before Christmas ’76 with engineer/producer Art Stewart. It was a commercial triumph: when released as a single, it became Marvin’s third No. 1 on the pop charts.
A Los Angeles recording studio is the scene of the triumph that is I Want You. This is little short of a spiritual union between Marvin and Leon Ware, a singer/writer with a pedigree dating back to the late 1950s, when as a teenager, he was produced by Berry Gordy. Years later, Gordy’s enthusiasm for “I Want You,” which Ware co-wrote, led him to propose a hook-up with Marvin. Ware had recorded the backing track himself, and much else besides, when Gaye took to the idea of a collaboration. “For him to do that many songs of mine, hey, I didn’t care about me not putting my album out,” said Ware. Sensuality oozes from every silky second of music in this, Marvin’s first studio album since Let’s Get It On.
If I Want You was dedicated to Marvin’s second wife, Janis, then Here, My Dear belongs to his first, Anna. She was his motivator in the growing years at Motown, a task doubtless helped by the fact that she was Berry Gordy’s sister. But by 1975, their tempestuous wedlock had brought the couple to acrimony and divorce. In settlement, Marvin agreed to turn over to Anna the financial proceeds of a new work, Here, My Dear. It is highly personal, and perhaps the most complicated of all his albums, ranging from the depths of “Anger” to the self-awareness of “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You.” Marvin’s earlier studio collaborator, Ed Townsend, was involved, as were musicians familiar from his young days in Detroit to later times in Los Angeles. The most accessible track? “A Funky Space Reincarnation,” a piece of funk – not disco – issued by Motown as a 12-inch, vinyl single in 1979.
The inner conflicts of Marvin Gaye at Motown came to a climax with his final release, 1981’s In Our Lifetime? With his personal and professional life close to shambolic by this time, he had intended much of the material to yield a throw-away party album called Love Man. And yet, although exiled first in Hawaii, then in London, Marvin tapped into a vision of the future, and began refashioning the songs into something deeper. Before finishing this to his personal satisfaction, however, Marvin saw his tracks appropriated by Motown for release as In Our Lifetime? “Funky as the devil yet strangely inspirational, the songs resonate as both prayers and party tracks, the bizarre record of an artist trying to impose aesthetic order on a life turned chaotic,” David Ritz later wrote.
Tragedy and conflict, artistry and talent. In other words, Marvin Gaye – The Albums 1971-1982.
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