By Daniel Garrett
Marvin Gaye, The Best of Marvin Gaye, The 60s
The Millennium Collection
When many people thing of the work of singer, pianist, and composer Marvin Gaye, they think of songs of disappointed love and obsessive sexuality, and bleak social issues and progressive political vision, with sex and politics being the active polarities in his work. Gaye was the aware but troubled lover, hoping for transcendence in a discouraging world. It is easy to forget that in the beginning of his career, Gaye admired Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, and Clyde McPhatter but that the tenor’s idols included Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra, two men he had hoped to emulate, and that Gaye’s first popular songs contained a lot of youthful infatuation and the first steps toward mature awareness. Those were songs written and produced by William Stevenson, Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier, Smokey Robinson, and Norman Whitefield: the songs on The Best of Marvin Gaye, The 60s, among which the most likable and moving are probably “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” and “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby.” Marvin Gaye won the listener through assertion, charm, and feeling.
“I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, has had a long life, in homes and on dance floors, as it captures the tension and worry that increases as one suspects one’s lover of being unfaithful, a lyric realization that is set to a driving rhythm and strings that move at an equally fast speed, while Gaye’s voice rises in anguish. He both wants to know the truth and dreads it. Gaye was something of an actor in song; he had the ability to sound like the man on the street, but one with an enlightened, if contradictory, consciousness. The music listener heard references to family, church, and school in Gaye’s work, those early educators and touchstones, the expected resources for affection and knowledge, and often what must be left behind if life is to be lived fully or honestly. Leaving them behind meant freedom—and risk, if not trouble. There is a female choral arrangement in “Pride and Joy,” and it is somewhere between male doo-wop and the call and response of a church choir. The song, its subject a working man’s pride in his lady love, has Gaye’s conversational singing, an intimate style that suits microphone and radio, singing which takes sudden leaps up in octave and also contains a few grunts. Heaven and earth, and body and spirit, are suggested in that kind of singing.
Paradoxically, a man finds his dedication growing with his lover’s betrayal, an odd quirk of psychology, in “Ain’t That Peculiar,” which has a clapping beat, over which Marvin Gaye’s singing is masculine and assured without seeming bullying or insensitive, and the sound of his assurance is part of his musicality. However, some of Gaye’s singing is actually rough, quite forceful, in “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” a song Gaye co-wrote with William Stevenson and George Gordy, and one suspects a bit more personal investment in the song. The roughness has an emotional edge, and yet there is something confidential and vulnerable that balances it. A confession has been made that keeps the listener sympathetic to the narrator—and the singer. The song became Gaye’s first success in 1962.
Something of a love song as well as a referendum, the composition “Can I Get A Witness” has a title that refers to both church and the law, and in it the narrator talks about how distant his beloved is, leaving him with sleepless nights and tears, and he says love should not be that way, before asking someone in the congregation, court, or crowd for confirmation. It is a little reminder of how one’s private life often takes part somewhat in public: private trouble drives people out of doors, for comfort, for sanity. Yet it is that glimmer of insanity—of the troubled mind—that gives so much of Gaye’s work a special power, as his feelings are both extreme and extremely recognizable.
Those who followed Marvin Gaye’s career know he was a talented and tormented man, and that his life ended in tragedy. Marvin Gaye Jr. (1939-1984) was an Icarus who flew high, then fell. He is celebrated for his 1970s Motown albums What’s Going On?, Let’s Get It On, and Here, My Dear, but in the early 1980s his song “Sexual Healing” brought erotic desire, love, and spiritual refreshment together, and became a personal and social anthem. As a young man, Marvin Gaye had joined Berry Gordy’s Motown family, after working with rhythm-and-blues performer and rock pioneer Bo Diddley, and singing doo-wop harmony with Harvey Fuqua and the Moonglows. Gaye, who performed as a drummer at Motown, needed a welcoming family. He had been born into a religious family, led by a strict and punitive preacher-father, Marvin Gay (without the e), one of those men who seem more preacher than father. Gaye had an independent streak, and quit high school before spending a frustrating time in the nation’s air force. He was a great artist, and a complicated man—selfish and generous, street smart and philosophical, petty, proud, an innovative artist with some traditional tastes, able to recognize the talents of others but also very competitive. Following the success of “Sexual Healing” from the Columbia album Midnight Love, Marvin Gaye returned briefly to his Motown family by appearing in the record company’s televised twenty-fifth anniversary concert; but Gaye’s drug use had spiraled, and he moved back into the home of his biological parents, rarely a good thing for any intellectually independent person. Marvin’s father insulted his mother, Marvin put himself in between them, hitting his father, and his father shot him—and Marvin Gaye Jr. died.
Marvin Gaye’s tragedy is part of why hearing a song like “How Sweet It Is” remains quite delicious, an almost forgotten prize. “How Sweet It Is,” written by Brian and Eddie Holland with Lamont Dozier, is an appreciative ode done in a crooning style that Gaye sustains; and it does not become too gooey. Gaye’s anguished, high-voiced performance in “That’s the Way Love Is” can be seen, like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” as an achievements and also as a promise of the mature work to come. He tries to give advice to an abandoned woman in “That’s the Way Love Is” and one hears in his pain a sense of the limits of his control—in changing her mood, and in himself having a love that is always happy. He advises her to look to the future, but himself admits, “I’ve been hurt by love so many times.” Gaye embodies compassion, cynicism, and hurt.
The hopeful boy in him is perceptible in “Hitch Hike,” in which he says he’s going to find his girlfriend, and quickly, even if he has to catch rides: “I’ve got to find that girl if I’ve got to hitch hike around the world.” The song, like others, has very simple words and attitudes, part of what makes it easy to understand and like—at least coming from a young man. (The “hitch hike” was also a dance.) “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby,” written by Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong with Janie Bradford, is strong on rhythm and has a sultry interpretation from Marvin Gaye, as he declares that he does not have time to think about science or philosophy or even to make small talk as he is too busy thinking about a love more valuable than jewels. He makes it sound as if there could be nothing more natural, so confiding and earthy and happy is he. The song’s momentum rhymes with that of the heart. “I’ll Be Doggone” and “You’re a Wonderful One” are similar in theme, and interesting for having what seem to be basic soft rock rhythms, but it is Gaye’s combination of assertion and charm in the first and the echo of gospel in the second that give both songs, and others here, a window into one man’s mind and into the complex nature of black masculinity. Desire is one path, and transcendence another—and some men insist on taking both, splitting themselves in half.
Daniel Garrett, born in Louisiana and a longtime resident of New York, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel admires classic and modern literature and philosophy, and likes painting and sculpture, French film, Afghan and Indian food, jazz, rock, and world music; and his writing has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review and more.