Wednesday, July 13, 2016


This is the third box set covering Marvin Gaye's entire album output for Motown, from 1961 until he left the company 20 years later, just before his death. After a whirlwind 60's period that saw him release two or three albums a year, solo or duet sets, there were just seven albums in the last ten years that time, as more care was put into the recordings, although personal turmoil also added months and in some cases years to the delays. It was a period that started with one of the greatest artistic statements ever recorded, and ended with one of the greatest, most public meltdowns.

The end of the 60's saw Gaye battling, both personally and professionally. The death of his duet partner, Tammi Terrell, had affected him, and his turbulent relationship with his wife, Anna Gordy (Berry's older sister, and 17 years senior to Gaye), had helped thrown him into depression. He'd always been troubled by the pop fame he'd achieved, considering himself more of a jazz musician, and wanting to make more serious music. Conversations and letters with his brother Frankie, a Viet Nam soldier, led him to consider more serious lyrical themes. And Four Tops member Obie Benson brought him a song that his band had rejected, the similarly-serious What's Going On. Gaye vowed to change his music, and in the process, changed Motown as well.

Gaye produced his own sessions for the first time, and broke the usual Motown rules. Only some of the so-named Funk Brothers were used in the laid-back jam sessions for the songs, while other players were invited in, who fit Gaye's plans (and lifestyle). He even credited all the musicians on his liner notes, a Motown first. Hearing the title cut, Berry Gordy hated it, and refused to release it as a single. Gaye reacted by refusing to do anything else, and eventually staff members snuck the song out without the boss knowing. The rest was literally history, as What's Going On became the label's fastest-selling single, a huge smash that also saw the album of the same name become a massive Top 10 hit. Along with Stevie Wonder, Gaye turned Motown into an albums company, making scads more money for Gordy than ever before. The album also included two more hits, Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) and Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), was named album of the year by Rolling Stone, and usually features in the top ten of any serious all-time albums poll.

The next year saw Gaye move into the growing blacksploitation soundtrack world that had inspired Isaac Hayes' smash Shaft and several others. Gaye provided the music for Trouble Man, a forgettable cinematic venture but a successful work for the composer. There were very few vocal cuts on the disc, and some of those just wordless harmonies. Mostly, it was a funky-bluesy score that followed the screen exploits of the Mr. T character. Gaye was also dabbling with synthesizer and early disco, and while the Trouble Man vocal theme became a Top Ten hit, fans were still waiting for a true followup album to What's Going On.

That came in 1973 with Let's Get It On, some of which had been started during the What's Going On period. But these were the thematic opposites of that socially-minded material, instead a collection that looked at the confusion of sex and spirituality that haunted Gaye. Most people didn't hear the complication though, and simply got that it was pretty sexy music, which once again rocketed to the top.

Oddly, Gaye returned to the older Motown philosophy for his next project, another duets album, his fifth, and first and only with the queen, Diana Ross. The two biggest stars of Motown at that point, Diana & Marvin should have been a sure-fire blockbuster but instead was only a modest million-seller, largely due to the lack of big hits. You're a Special Part of Me managed to get to #12, but the main focus seemed to be an unsubtle grab of two recent Stylistics hits, You Are Everything and Stop, Look, Listen, which were released in England as singles, where the originals had failed to chart. It's one of Gaye's weakest efforts.

A big gap followed as Gaye's personal life and drug intake stunted his creativity. Although he was doing few concerts by then, a live album filled the void (not included in this box) before 1976's I Want You finally appeared. Gaye had allowed producer Leon Ware to mold most of the music, which was again spicy but without the spirituality, and a lot more-laid back in the grooves. It had a little bit of disco in it, and some moans that sounded pretty real. It was sleek, but not ground-breaking.

The next work remains one of the most stunning albums ever released by a major artist, and still not widely known. Here, My Dear was a double-album from 1978 that was actually part of his divorce settlement with Anna Gordy, as she was to receive royalties from it. Troubled by the arrangement, Gaye used it as platform to record his thoughts on his ex-wife, their marriage, the breakdown, his new wife, and other highly personal topics, largely unfiltered. Just the song titles alone let you know what's in there: When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You, You Can Leave, But It's Going To Cost You, I Met A Little Girl, Anger. It's crazy, but crazy-brilliant, as the music includes some of his best grooves, the production is stunning, and the words captivating. Even Anna Gordy later said she had come to appreciate it. It can be spiteful, childish and arrogant, but these were people breathing rarefied air in their wealth, and while we are only getting Gaye's side of the story, the artistic and psychological experience is one I recommend examining.

The last disc for Motown was the failed In Our Lifetime from 1981. By now Gaye was in steep decline, his second marriage collapsing, drugs in control, and IRS problems hounding him. It started life as a disco album, but along the way he shelved that and rewrote the cuts into more introspective works. He was battling Motown over the growing costs, and eventually the tapes were taken, overdubs added and the album quickly put out. Gaye was incensed, and finally got out of his contract. Surprisingly, he still had one last gasp in him, and hiding from the tax people over in Europe, he made Sexual Healing the next year, before his tragic demise. It's too bad that non-Motown album isn't here to wrap up the box and give it a better ending than the tepid in Our Lifetime, but still, some of the greatest music of the 70's is found here.

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