Today we mark the 83rd anniversary of the birth of one of the 20th Century’s most important and celebrated musicians – Marvin Gaye. Born this day in 1939 in Washington DC and tragically killed by his own father a day shy of his 45th birthday in L.A., he crammed a lot of great Detroit music in the time he had. According to Casey Kasem, Gaye was the most successful solo artist of “the Beatles years”, a time when groups reigned supreme. And yet, his best work was still to come at that point. We’ve looked at his life before, so today we’ll look a bit at why he’s so revered. After all, he’s one of very few artists to be enshrined in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the Rhythm & Blues Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
While Gaye ran off an impressive list of hit singles in the ’60s, like “How Sweet It Is” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, as well as duets with Tammi Terrell like “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing”, there wasn’t yet much to distinguish him from other popular Motown artists of the day, or many of the other pop singers on other labels for that matter. He had a great voice, but basically just sang what his record company bosses told him to. However, around the end of the decade, that began to change. Ironically, he’d written some hit singles, like Martha and the Vandellas “Dancing in the Streets”, but not recorded them himself.
Maybe it was letters from his brother serving in Vietnam. Maybe it was seeing footage of the race riots going on, many near his record company’s front doors. Maybe it was seeing the growing level of poverty in Detroit, or reading of one young performer after another dying from heroin. Whatever it was, he had an epiphany. “In 1969 or ’70, I began to re-evaluate what I wanted to say,” he told Rolling Stone. “I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people.” So he set out to do that, and along the way probably came to realize that he needed more control over other aspects of the music. He was a professional drummer before joining Motown, and a competent enough keyboardist too, and he’d spent enough time in a recording studio to know how things worked. He began to play some of the music himself, produce the records himself and when he used other musicians, he was going to give credit to the session players and name them on his record notes.
None of this pleased his record company or its owner, Berry Gordy. As Rolling Stone put it, “the last thing Motown wanted its fans to do was think about what was happening in the world.” Motown had struck a gold mine in the ’60s with happy-sounding, easy-breezy love songs that made acts like the Supremes and Four Tops superstars. He didn’t want to rock the boat, even if he had to close his own offices and studio a time or two because the rioting on the streets outside made it too dangerous to get there. But Gaye persevered and recorded What’s Going On?, his 1971 masterpiece – which his boss hated. As the Songwriters Hall point out, with that album not only did he begin to take total control over his recordings but “he took on political and social issues like the Vietnam War, drugs, equality and the environment, while incorporating jazz, pop and classical styles.” It was as big a change from what he’d done before as The Beatles Abbey Road was from “I Want To Hold Your Hand.” Not only did Gordy hate it, he wouldn’t allow the title track, nor “Mercy Mercy Me” to be put out as singles until Marvin threatened to go on strike and not record or tour again for the label unless they were. Of course, he was proven right. The song “What’s Going On?” became Motown’s biggest hit single to that point and the album sold millions. What’s more, it’s still critically-acclaimed, being named the greatest album of all-time by Rolling Stone recently (previous versions of their list had it ranked at #6) and by The Guardian in Britain back in 1997.
The Temptations had a similar problem getting there opus “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” released the following year, but Berry had seemingly learned to not argue against records his artists felt strongly about, even when he disagreed. And soon after, Stevie Wonder came into his own, taking a similar trajectory to Gaye, soon writing, playing and producing most all of his own records in the ’70s, many of them making pointed social commentaries on many of the same issues Gaye had. Some – and I would put us here as among those “some” – would say Wonder even did it better than Marvin… but it’s reasonable to wonder if he’d have had a chance to were it not for Gaye mapping the trail first.
Gaye of course kept recording after What’s Going On? with mixed results, producing some very good and popular and some not so well-received records and seemed to be just beginning a career rejuvenation when he was murdered. But if we remember him for just one thing, it would be that record… and his letting other artists know, by his example, to be their own men (and women) and if they were being forced to make music they didn’t feel, ask themselves “what’s going on?”
*Tomorrow, I’m happy to be kicking off a new feature we hope to run periodically through the year. In addition to regular posts , we’ll be running a guest column each day for four or five, with great music fans talking about one topic . I hope you’ll like it and see one topic through various eyes – and ears.*