On April 1st 1984 Marvin Gaye was shot dead at his Mother’s home by his Dad, Marvin Gay Sr. At the time Gaye should have been riding a wave of new popularity with the release of Midnight Love, his first album at CBS Records, which featured his only Grammy Award winning song ‘Sexual Healing’. Instead he was holed up in his room, suffering from cocaine-induced paranoia when his Father shot him.
Gaye’s life wasn’t an easy one (as David Ritz chronicles so well in his book) but he managed to define an era of music, creating some of the best soul records ever made. The ‘Prince of Motown’ was a pioneer, inspiring his peers and future generations alike. On this anniversary of his death we take a look at ten of our favourite Marvin Gaye songs.
I Met A Little Girl (Here, My Dear – 1978)
This song is the second of his incredible Here, My Dear album released as part of Gaye’s divorce settlement with Anna Gordy, the sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy. It finds Gaye at his most emotional, giving a glimpse into his anguish over the divorce whilst sharing with the world the story of his and Gordy’s relationship. The backing arrangement is a delight, and Gaye’s continued use of vocal tracking is sublime.
I Want You (I Want You – 1976)
Co-written and produced by Leon Ware, ‘I Want You’ is perhaps the raunchiest thing Gaye ever released. It’s an incredibly well produced track: the percussion of Bobbye Hall and the legendary Eddie “Bongo” Brown of the Funk Brothers is tasty, as is the lush string and horns and the shredding guitar. Gaye’s vocals are once again multiplied, with the lead vocal full of raw power and emotion. It’s truly one of his finest. For a stripped down mix of Gaye’s vocals, check out John Morales’ M&M Mix.
Come Get To This (Let’s Get It On – 1972)
Whilst ‘Let’s Get It On’ rightly gets all the credit it deserves for being such an excellent and iconic tune, ‘Come Get To This’ is equally as good. It features a saxophone solo mixed low in the track cushioning Gaye’s vocal, adding to the overall jazz feel of the song. It’s one of the standouts from an exceptional album.
What’s Happening Brother (What’s Going On – 1971)
From his landmark album, ‘What’s Happening Brother’ is almost an extension of ‘What’s Going On’. It’s more directly linked to the war in Vietnam, a conflict Marvin’s brother had been a part of it. It tells the story of a man who has returned from the conflict and who is ‘slightly behind the time’; it traces the harsh reality of war, as well as the personal and financial struggles of returning soldiers from the war. This is one of Gaye’s underappreciated gems.
Pride & Joy (That Stubborn Kinda Fellow – 1963)
Early on in his career Gaye had wanted to be the black Sinatra, singing easy listening, middle-of-the-road jazz tunes perched on a bar stool. Indeed, his first albums at Motown tried to achieve this, with one in tribute to Nat King Cole. ‘Pride & Joy’ whilst not a jazz standard nonetheless is clearly very much jazz-based, but at the same time pushes Gaye to a more soulful path. The song was written by Norman Whitfield, William Stevenson and Gaye himself, and features none other than Martha Reeves & The Vandellas on backing vocals.
Ain’t No Mountain High Enough (United w/ Tammi Terrell – 1968)
Written by then-Motown staff Nikolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson this duet between Gaye and Tammi Terrell is his best: of all the dueting partners Motown gave Gaye (Kim Weston, Mary Wells, and even Diana Ross) none of those releases reach the height of this. With The Funk Brothers providing the groove, Gaye and Terrell work their vocal magic on a Motown classic. Gaye and Terrell’s duets were incredibly popular and helped launch Gaye to a wider audience. Sadly, the collaboration wouldn’t last as Terrell was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died in 1970.
Heavy Love Affair (In Our Lifetime? – 1981)
‘Heavy Love Affair’ is a delicious piece of Motown funk, featuring a driving bass line, brash horns, and thick layers of vocals all recorded by Gaye. The percussion work is also a delight, lifted in part from his disco smash ‘Got To Give It Up’. The string and horn arrangements are once again beautiful, helping to make this, in the opinion of TF&SR, one of his best ever recordings.
Too Busy Thinking About My Baby (M.P.G – 1969)
This another collaboration with Norman Whitfield, the producer most famous for his work with The Temptations, and the disco group Rose Royce. Whitfield forced Gaye to sing like David Ruffin of The Tempts and Levi Stubbs of the Four Tops; Gaye doesn’t struggle, but equally doesn’t quite match their gruffness vocally. That said, this is another excellent Motown single.
What’s Going On (What’s Going On – 1971)
There’s not much we can really add to what has already been said about this song except for the fact that nearly forty-five years after it’s first release, it still remains the most relevant social commentary song around. Co-written by Renaldo Benson of The Four Tops and Al Cleveland, the song was offered to Benson’s band-mates but the group reportedly turned it down. After the death of Tammi Terrell, the return of his brother from Vietnam, and the continued social injustice towards African-Americans this was the perfect vehicle for Gaye to have his say on the world.
How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) – (How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You – 1964)
Perhaps the first of what we might call ‘Sophisticated Soul’ was this song. The jazz feel of Pride & Joy remains, but the Funk Brothers mix it with their brand of polished soul. James Jamerson’s bass is at it’s most sublime here; the piano riff is simply delightful. It’s a perfect piece of Motown pop, and one of Gaye’s best recordings.