TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Released as a single (Tamla 54041) on Thursday, May 25, 1961.
SONGWRITER: Berry Gordy
PRODUCER: Berry Gordy
BACKSTORY: “I adored that album, and wanted to do one just like it,” Marvin Gaye told his biographer David Ritz. The work he was speaking about: Billie Holiday’s Lady In Satin. The album he made: The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye. This was the young singer from Washington, D.C., trying to find his way through the music business as the 1950s became the ’60s, and seeking some definition beyond the doowop group of which he had been a member, the Moonglows. “He wanted to be a pop balladeer,” confirmed Motown founder Berry Gordy. “Fred Astaire, Sinatra, that sort of thing. Top hat, cane, that was Marvin Gaye.”
Gordy had recognised Gaye’s talent – reportedly, at Motown’s 1960 Christmas party – but felt that the key to commercial success lay in catering for the rhythm & blues market, not the crowd who loved Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole. He gave Marvin the freedom to record songs by Irving Berlin, Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hart for The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, but made sure that the LP also included the R&B flavour of “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide” – which became Marvin’s first-ever solo single.
That 45 preceded the release of the album by a couple of weeks, and was sandwiched chronologically somewhere between “I Want A Guy,” the Supremes’ debut single for the Tamla label, and “I Don’t Want To Take A Chance,” the all-important follow-up to the debut Motown single – and first hit – by the teenaged Mary Wells, “Bye Bye Baby.” Gordy produced all three, since his record company was not yet of a scale demanding most of his time for business, rather than for making music.
Nonetheless, “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide” was not a hit, nor did the album sell in significant quantities. It was not until Marvin’s fourth 45, “Stubborn Kind Of Fellow,” that record buyers started paying attention. Even so, he persevered with the music he loved the most, recording albums of Broadway standards and Nat Cole covers. “Our [promotional] focus was on the Motown sound,” said Berry Gordy, decades later, “and so because those albums didn’t happen [on the charts] with Marvin, it wasn’t necessarily a reflection on him. It could have been a reflection on me and the company’s efforts in moving in that direction. As far as I was concerned, Marvin Gaye was a great balladeer.”
REMAKES: As an obscure, albeit historic, debut single, “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide” has not attracted much interest from other singers. But since the man who wrote the song also owned the company which published it, he did at least have one of his other artists give it a try. That turned out to be Mary Wells, for whose debut album Berry Gordy was assembling tracks. Thus, “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide” – recorded in much the same sparse-but-soulful manner as Marvin’s original – appeared on Wells’ Bye Bye Baby LP, released in late 1961. Motown made its copyrights work. That album also featured Mary’s interpretations of songs associated with still others, namely “Come To Me” and “I Love The Way You Love” (both successful for Marv Johnson), and “Shop Around,” the first major hit for the Miracles.
FOOTNOTE: “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide” may have been Marvin’s first 45 as a Motown artist, but one single preceded it – for promotional purposes only. “(I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over” was pressed up for distribution in May 1961 to draw attention to The Soulful Moods Of Marvin Gaye, shipped to stores in June. (“Conscience” was the album’s opening track.) Today, what makes the promo disc all the more intriguing – and invaluable – is the spelling of the singer’s name on the label copy: Marvin Gay. This was the family name, and Marvin had used it – that is, without the “e” – until joining Motown. Then, he wanted the touch of class which came with the additional letter. ”I was aware that Sam Cooke had done exactly the same thing,” Gaye told author David Ritz. “If it worked for Sam, why wouldn’t it work for me?”