Marvin Gaye's entire Motown album collection has been reissued in a series of multiple-disc box sets, on both vinyl and CD. The first of three, covering the early to mid-60's, arrived last year, and now the second and third are here. Because of the scope, let's just look at number two this time, shall we?
This eight-disc set covers the years 1966 - 1970, a turbulent time for Gaye that saw him rise to great fame, but also struggle to find his true identity. The Motown machine gave him a tremendous platform, but also restricted him to work in the system. Clearly by 1969, he was straining to explode on his own, and it was hurting his recordings. Albums were still not the Motown focus, yet Gaye wanted to make great ones like the rest of the important artists of the time.
Motown had decided that Gaye did well with a female duet partner, originally Mary Wells in 1964, but after she left the ship, that role went first to Kim Weston, and then to Tammi Terrell. During this time, there was one album with Weston, and then three with Terrell. The formula (and it was indeed a formula for the company) was to issue an album based around a hit single, using whatever songs it could muster up. The album with Weston, 1966's Take Two, was built around the big hit It Takes Two from the year before. The album came together in the usual way, with a show tune ('Til There Was You, also covered by The Beatles), Motown tracks used for others (The Four Tops hit Baby I Need Your Loving), and attempts at follow-up hits (What Good Am I Without You, which failed). But the pair were well-matched, Weston brought lots of grit and energy, and it is a pretty good selection. Like Wells before her though, Weston got mad about her contract and split the label, ending the team.
Far more successful was Gaye's partnership with Tammi Terrell. Starting in 1967, the pair put out a string of hit singles, largely written by the team of Ashford and Simpson. The first of their three albums, United, includes Ain't No Mountain High Enough and Your Precious Love, as well as a third hit, If I Could Build My Whole World Around You, written by producers Harvey Fuqua and Johnny Bristol. It was an inspired set from start to finish, with a fun cover of Something Stupid, and a rare gem of an album track in Sad Wedding. The hits kept coming the next year, and another album called You're All I Need appeared, of course featuring the huge You're All I Need To Get By. It also included another Top 10 cut written by Ashford and Simpson, Ain't Nothing Like The Real Thing. But then tragedy struck, with Terrell collapsing on stage with Gaye, eventually dying from a brain tumour. A third album, Easy, came together with leftovers, Gaye turning old Terrell tracks into duets, and Terrell labouring to piece together her vocals while trying to battle her illness. It's the weakest of the three albums, but still includes some good tracks, including The Onion Song, and the cool California Soul, a 5th Dimension cut.
That should be enough for anybody's four years, but Gaye was doing just as much as a solo artist at the same time. 1966's Moods of Marvin Gaye was a mixed bag of styles but with an excellent result. It included his most recent smash hits Ain't That Peculiar, I'll Be Doggone, Little Darling (I Need You) and One More Heartache, and also some leftovers from attempts at a standards and jazz-vocal album. He was still thinking he'd like that to be his future career, not this soul-pop stuff, so here we get One For My Baby (And One More For The Road), a fine version, and even Willie Nelson's Night Life.
1968's In The Groove really knocks it out of the park though. First, there's I Heard It Through The Grapevine, but the rest of the album lives up to it. Gaye was actually somewhat adrift as a solo artist at the time, with the emphasis having been on the duet work, and producer Norman Whitfield was getting him to use his falsetto more, including a "woo" that later was stolen by Michael Jackson. There are several great tracks here, including You, Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever, and Chained.
1969 brought the M.P.G. album, and the following year saw That's The Way Love Is, and while they both have the hit singles, they each suffer from that Motown, singles-first plan. Gaye was obviously a massive talent, yet there was no vision here for the records, like all the other great acts of the day. Instead, we get covers such as Yesterday, Gaye messing with the melody, or Groovin' by The Rascals, which was just a copy of the Motown style in the first place. It's funny how of the eight albums here, these are the weakest of the group. But that frustration Gaye felt would be channeled into What's Going On in 1971, where the next box set begins. See you then.