What is it about some great artists that makes them want to be someone else? Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the father of Sherlock Holmes, aspired to be a historical novelist like Leo Tolstoy or Fyodor Dostoyevsky, neglecting that he created some of the finest detective fiction of all time. François Truffaut was in awe of Alfred Hitchcock, even though many thought his own films as complex, mysterious and beguiling as Hitchcock’s. Marvin Gaye had his sights set on becoming another Frank Sinatra. At least that’s the inference we take from his biographer, David Ritz. In his book “Divided Soul,” Ritz quotes Gaye: “Everyone wanted to sell to whites ‘cause whites got the most money,” adding that, at Motown, his record label, “Our attitude was — give us some.”
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Gaye recorded 25 studio albums plus four live and 24 compilations, mostly for Motown, but his magnum opus was “What’s Going On,” an album that unfurls the narrative, and perhaps the meaning, not only of Gaye’s understanding of life, but of the times in which he lived. First released on May 21, 1971, Gaye’s supreme achievement approaches its 50th anniversary. The occasion offers a chance to assess Gaye’s and his creation’s relevance.
As a teenager, Gaye (or Gay, as he was; he added the “e” for effect later) was in one of the doo-wop groups popular in the 1950s that specialized in close harmony vocals and meaningless phrases — hence the name. On the advice of a friend, he moved to Detroit, the base of Motown Records, the now-iconic label started by Berry Gordy in 1959. While his contemporaries at the Atlantic and Chess record companies annulled some of their black artists’ attempts to mimic white performers, Gordy, in many cases, reversed the process. In Gaye, he found perfect raw material.
Passionate about success in the mainstream and, by implication, white-dominated markets, Gordy initially marketed Gaye as a wholesome crooner, appearing with big bands on national television when possible. His early releases were typically covers of standards, such as Vaughn Monroe’s “Sandman” or nondescript Motown originals, like Gordy’s own composition “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide.” Gaye’s first album, released in 1961, was most likely an indication of his desired musical direction and comprised standards such as Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” and Rodgers and Hart’s “How Deep Is the Ocean (How High Is the Sky).” His versions of Sinatra’s “Witchcraft” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” from the musical “My Fair Lady” suggest his ambitions.
Gaye was a multi-instrumentalist and would often play on other artists’ material. He also wrote. One of his songs (co-written) was “Stubborn Kind of Fella,” which, while no harbinger of what lay ahead, gained Gaye recognition when it was released as a single in 1962. It also set his career off on a different trajectory. Over the next several years, he continued to write and collaborate with other Motown personnel, until, in 1965, he gained international attention with his “Ain’t That Peculiar.” Gaye also duetted, most notably with Tammi Terrell (“Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” became a big success in 1968). Terrell died tragically young, at 24, in 1970.
The whole time, Gaye still had his sights set on the mainstream. Gaye, as Ritz writes, “did everything he could to win a mainstream middle-class audience, crooning the ballads he thought white music lovers wanted to hear.” He may not have felt comfortable doing it, but he went along with most of Gordy’s ideas, like performing at whites’ dinner clubs, dressed in a tuxedo and a bowtie.
Remember: Gaye would have been accustomed to appearing in front of whites-only and sometimes physically segregated audiences. Some African American artists specialized in what was disparagingly called the chitlin circuit — a network of clubs, theaters and other venues with black clientele. Up until 1964, segregation was a constitutional part of America’s social structure. The landmark civil rights legislation outlawed segregation in public places and made discrimination in employment illegal. Of course, society didn’t change nearly as quickly as many wanted. Frustration at the lack of meaningful progress expressed itself in the rise of militant groups like the Black Panthers and the more pervasive ethos of black power that became prominent in the late 1960s.
Gaye’s early attempts to maneuver himself into a mainstream market were often at odds with the ambitions of contemporaries like James Brown, Otis Redding and Gaye’s colleague at Motown, Stevie Wonder, all of whom pursued a rather different course, maintaining a black sensibility without compromising their independence. This rankled with Gaye and, even while his records sold and he became acknowledged as a global artist, he confessed to feeling like “Berry’s puppet.” This didn’t mean he felt exploited. If anything, Gaye was complicit, at one stage agreeing to sing an advertising jingle on a Detroit radio station.
Even after his internationally acclaimed “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in 1968, Gaye felt he was quiescent to the demands of the white market he was trying to break into: “Sometimes I felt like the shuffle-and-jive niggers of old, steppin’ and fechin’ for the white folk.” It was a remarkable and seemingly guilt-stricken admission for a singer who, at the time, was drawing comparisons with Ray Charles and Sam Cooke. (Incidentally, this tune was used under the famous 1985 ad for Levi’s, which featured the recently deceased Nick Kamen.)
Heart and Soul
Then, in an unexpectedly magnanimous deal, Gordy offered Wonder a contract that effectively freed him from the usual constraints of Motown and allowed him creative control over his own music. Gordy was rewarded with four virtuoso albums from Wonder. Presumably emboldened by Gordy’s newfound amenability, Gaye sought and got a similar contract, one with greater artistic license. He took immediate advantage of it. At first, Gaye released a single: “What’s Going On” was not one of his own songs but delivered a message he endorsed.
The message itself was generic: “There’s far too many of you dying / You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some loving here today.” Resistance to US involvement in the Vietnam War, which had started in 1964 and ended with the withdrawal of American forces in 1973, was at its height and, while the lyric was presumably about this conflict, it had — and still has — wider resonance.
The single was successful and Gordy encouraged Gaye to make an entire album in a similar style. He did so, the story being that he completed the whole project in a month. Early reviews were exciting. “Gaye has designed his album as one many-faceted statement on conditions in the world today, made nearly seamless by careful transitions between the cuts. A simple, subdued tone is held throughout, pillowed by a densely-textured instrumental and vocal backing,” wrote Vince Aletti in his review for Rolling Stone. “Part mystic, part pentecostal fundamentalist, part socially aware ghetto graduate, this particular Motown superstar simply happens to believe that he speaks to God and vice versa,” Time magazine rhapsodized.
The album had a molten quality, each track bleeding into the next, with themes of spirituality, violence, poverty, unemployment, policing, drug dependence, the inner cities, the environment and the care of children flowing through. It was a glistening, rippling, soul-stirring triumph, fundamental and organic. And it wasn’t just the audial beauty that caught the attention but the almost primal force with which it was delivered. Gaye sang as if he were baring his heart and soul.
Gaye never surpassed his masterwork and went into a gradual descent, parting with Motown, falling behind on alimony payments and sliding into a debt reported to be $7 million by 1978. Gaye spent time alone in Hawaii, the UK and Belgium, still writing and sporadically recording. It was a period of unhappy isolation. He was given a lifeline by Larkin Arnold of CBS and repaid him with an album and the 1982 single “Sexual Healing,” which is, as readers will know, as sensuous a piece of pop music as there has ever been.
Gaye might have slid a little, but he was still a solid entertainer in his forties. The following year, he went on a concert tour that was, by all accounts, disorderly and marred by confusion. Gaye had also acquired a taste for cocaine. During the tour, he became involved in a violent conflict with his own father, who drew a gun, killing his son. It was the day before Gaye’s 45th birthday.
We often talk about entertainers’ legacies as if they all leave one. Of course, very few actually do. Marvin Gaye did. His tour de force remains an intricately immersive piece of art, of its time and also of any time. It has the social realism of a Basquiat canvas and the sly subversiveness Spike Lee brings to his films. It is an exercise in the possibilities of popular music, persuading listeners to engage with issues and events, but in elliptical ways that make thinking and taking pleasure one and the same thing.