Marvin Gaye & His Women
The word on the street seems to be that Marvin Gaye, while a fantastic singer throughout his tenure on Motown, really hit his stride when he achieved artistic control of his records starting in 1971. Funny, though, I don’t hear it that way. For starters, Gaye’s muse was rather sporadic, causing long gaps between records and even then he resorted to tactics like basically taking over the tracks for Leon Ware’s album I Want You. As well, he tended to focus on a particular theme, or even a groove, so that some of his later albums are a tad monotonous.
It was in the hands of those commercially-minded songwriters and producers in Hitsville, though, that Marvin Gaye produced the most enduring work of his career. His distinctive voice, combined with one of the hottest bands around and undeniable melodies, made records that stand among the finest moments of ‘60’s soul “How Sweet It Is”, “I’ll Be Doggone”, “Ain’t That Peculiar”, and the biggest single hit of the decade by any artist, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
Where Marvin shined especially was on that lost art, the duet. I’m not sure why they don’t seem to make many of them these days, but a man-woman romantic duet is one of the coolest forms of music ever. You get enjoyable contrast of voices, a bit of characterization in the lyrics, and great harmonies. Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are raking in the bucks doing country duets; I’m not sure why some teen-pop svengalis don’t stick Justin Timberlake and Mandy Moore together.
In Gaye’s career he paired with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Tammi Terrell and Diana Ross for a thrilling string of memorable recordings. The Ross recordings were a contractual obligation in the early 70’s, and Gaye sounds disinterested, while the Wells recordings suffer from cutesy lyrics and raw production. The Weston and Terrell duets, however, date from Motown’s heyday (1965-1969) and only convince me more of the enduring value of this style of music.
Kim Weston is mostly famous for singing “It Takes Two” with Gaye, and what a song it is: long pattering verse melody, with those ecstatic harmonies on the chorus and the trombone zipping along gleefully. Their other duets are charming, too: “It’s Got to Be a Miracle” finds both singers giving an astonished performance of a dreamy tune, and “What Good Am I (Without You)” is charmingly jaunty.
It’s the duets with Tammi Terrell that turn vinyl into magic, though. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” are just a couple of the classics written and produced by Valerie Simpson and Nickolas Ashford (Willow Run High School’s most prominent alumnus Go Flyers!), and while their fame is well-deserved, my favorites are a little more obscure. “Your Precious Love” is an absolutely luscious slice of devotion with its gentle Marv Tarplin-style guitar lick and reeeeaally close harmonies. “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” takes its rhythms from “Ain’t No Mountain” but creates an entirely different feeling with its bouncy melody and creative lyrical imagery. The most ridiculous number is also a personal delight to me, just because it’s so much fun: “The Onion Song” (“The world is just a great big onion / and hate and fear are the spice that’ll make you cry / and the only way to get rid of this great big onion / is to plant love seeds”). Marvin and Tammi have a gleeful smile in their voices on this one, but the melody and the beat keep it chugging along nicely. A hidden gem in the Motown catalog.
Rich Bunnell wrote a fine piece on us web record reviewers, stating the we do this “just as much for the building of the writers' musical knowledge as for the readers’”, and I have to say that’s been the truth for me. When I first started writing for this page, if you had asked me my favorite kind of music, I’d have said, “I like all kinds of rock and roll.” While that’s true, I do like all kinds of rock and roll, all the careful listening I’ve been doing has led me to the conclusion that there’s no kind of music that tickles my fancy quite as much as soul music, and Marvin Gaye’s duets are just another reason why. With that pleading voice, those romantic lyrics, the incredible playing in the rhythm section, this music makes feeling good feel better and feeling bad feel OK. While Gaye’s life was tragic and his death a scandal, what a gift he left us with these incredible performances!
Complaints, criticisms, or bribery reviews: Contact me!