TRACK OF THE WEEK
DAY & DATE: Released as a single (Tamla 54228) on Tuesday, November 21, 1972.
SONGWRITER: Marvin Gaye.
PRODUCER: Marvin Gaye.
BACKSTORY: According to this Marvin Gaye hit – a Top 10 success on the nation’s pop charts during January 1973 – there are three things to be sure of: taxes, death and trouble. The movie for which it was the title song attracted plenty of the last: it was not popular at the box-office nor among critics. Trade magazine Variety called Trouble Man an “inner-city crime potboiler,” noting that it seemed longer than the 99-minute running time, while the New York Times called it one of the ten worst movies of 1972.
Yet time has been kind. As a song, “Trouble Man” has since been performed and recorded by an eclectic mix of artists, while a 40th anniversary deluxe edition of the soundtrack album revealed hitherto-unknown depths to the music and its making. “It is simultaneously the epitome of cool and sensitivity,” said Lenny Kravitz of the score in the reissue booklet. “Marvin’s compositions for this film are among his finest work; they touch my soul every time I listen.” The movie’s director, Ivan Dixon, shot Trouble Man in Los Angeles during the spring of 1972; the singer began working on the score that summer, with recording sessions in the fall.
The fine detail of those sessions appeared in the 2012 reissue liner notes. The album’s “second voice” – evident on Marvin’s title track – was that of saxophonist Trevor Lawrence, the only musician credited on the album aside from Gaye himself. Also notable on the soundtrack were the sounds of the Moog, played by Marvin on a synthesizer given to him by Stevie Wonder. (Lawrence had his own track record with Stevie: that’s his sax heard on “Superstition,” for example). The arranger for “Trouble Man” was Dale Oehler. “Marvin wanted a jazz sound,” he recalled.
When released as a single, this became Marvin’s fourth Top 10 hit of the 1970s, after the disappointing performance of “You’re The Man.” When released as an album, Trouble Man was a Top 20 best-seller between the Top 10 achievements of What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On. The 2012 deluxe edition featured the complete film score, as well as outtakes from the recording sessions. “I enjoyed that job immensely,” Marvin told interviewer Paul Gambaccini several years later, “I enjoyed writing a film score. I’d love to do more. I think it’s probably some of my finer work.”
REMAKES: A couple of highly-rated jazz musicians, Grover Washington Jr. and Ahmad Jamal, were among the first to tackle “Trouble Man” soon after Marvin’s original. More surprising was the number of singers who chose to remake the song in their own style, including Manhattan Transfer’s Janis Siegel (1987) and Sweden’s Neneh Cherry on an album devoted to Marvin’s work (1995). Unexpected, perhaps, was the 1998 recording by Joni Mitchell with jazz musician Kyle Eastwood; she also added it to her in-concert set-list at the time. “In the process of learning [the song] for performance,” Joni later explained, “I discovered how truly original and eccentric the form of it is.” Some of that eccentricity may have rubbed off on actor/musician Jeff Goldblum: he included a related tune (“Don’t Mess With Mr. T”) from the Trouble Man soundtrack on his 2018 album, The Capitol Studios Sessions.
FOOTNOTE: The year before the release of Trouble Man, Marvin Gaye made his movie debut – as an actor. Chrome and Hot Leather starred the singer as a Green Beret, helping a fellow soldier to find the gang which had killed the latter’s fiancé. Although not a box-office smash, the film attracted positive notices, including a Variety description of Marvin’s thespian depth and style “in the popular tradition” of Paul Newman, for one. He possessed a “broad smile and comic wit,” added the reviewer. In this case, “T” evidently stood for Talent.