(I snapped this photo when I was there at the original Motown headquarters.)
Marvin Gaye. His records meant so much to me. They became a part of my cellular structure, influencing everything from the way I sang, wrote, arranged and just thought about my own music. And though I tried, for about ten minutes in my youth, to sound like him, of course I never did, and that was a good thing. It forced me to find my own voice.
Marvin was the CHAMPION of not only singing, but of layering his vocals like gorgeous, thick yet articulate tangles of vines, branches, tendrils, city streets, fogs and mists. He could bring on a weather front with that voice.
He also had so many brilliant arranging and production ideas: like, for instance, layering one or more horns playing their hearts out, enough in the background to be not a “part” but just a vapor of a feeling. He had equally stunning imagination when it came to setting up grooves, like a film director creating scenes in a movie. Besides being a dangerously gifted singer and composer, he was a superb drummer and pianist. He could do it all. He could sing smooth or add the growl to his voice with amazing control. He could “beg”, sing gospel, the blues, jazz, he could croon, trill, chant, hum and just open his mouth and make the very act of vocalizing sound absolutely effortless. I always said it really didn’t matter what word or syllable or sound he was singing; when it came out his throat the sound became art. If anybody else other than Marvin sang the lyrics “you sure do love to ball”, I would scoff at the unimaginative cliche. When he sang it (in the song of the same title on his 1973 album “Lets Get It On”) the line just worked and it became a part of a soulful, melodic, rhythmic truth.
When I first heard his song “What’s Goin’ On”, in the Summer of 1971, on the jukebox at Jimmie’s Pizza in West Hartford, Connecticut, it exploded like a big blossoming bomb in my brain. I remember the instant feeling of being haunted by a beautiful loneliness, a voluptuous sadness, an inner city of tears populated by saxophones and crowd voices and bongos and strings and the all-important major seventh and minor ninth chords that held up the whole thing.
A brief story.
When my major label debut record “Blind To Reason” came out in 1988, RCA sent me on an eleven city promotional tour. They were catered affairs at recording studios, to which radio executives and key record store people were invited. (Remember record stores?) I’d wait in a room somewhere while they’d play the album, then I’d do a solo set on the baby grand piano. My product manager at RCA told me they had done this with Bruce Hornsby, and it was very successful in establishing good will with radio and retail accounts. The cities I went to were New York, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Boston, Cleveland, Chicago, Dallas, San Francisco, Seattle, Atlanta and Detroit. It was alot of fun and it did help my radio play and record sales.
When I was in Detroit, one of the radio people invited me and my manager on a private guided tour of “Hittsville, U.S.A.”, Motown’s first headquarters on 2648 West Grand Boulevard. I was thrilled to go to the place where I knew Marvin Gaye had recorded many of his first hits.
It was a cold and grey Winter day when we arrived at the museum in the New Center area of Detroit, a mixture of small to medium sized commercial buildings and modest residential homes. We were greeted by a very nice young woman who proceeded to give us a tour. I remember being surprised (and comforted) by the no-frills style of the place. After some trouble getting the film projector started, we watched a short documentary in a small room that reminded me of a church basement, complete with the requisite well-used, folding metal chairs. Then the woman showed us the cozy, diminutive recording studio, and I was again amazed at the smallness of it all. As she and my manager talked, I asked if it was alright if I looked upstairs, where they had a few rehearsal and office rooms. She said that would be fine, so up I went.
As I walked around, music was playing on speakers somewhere. As I peered into a room with a tiny upright piano and a chair, the song “What’s Goin’ On” began.
There I was, standing there, alone in a cold room of a house in Detroit where one of my musical heroes sang and recorded, and suddenly his voice was there with me. I mean his voice was an actual presence in that room with me. As Marvin sang “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying”, that’s exactly what I started to do. Cry. No one could see me, and I gave in to the emotion.
In that moment, in that room, hearing that wonderful song again, it was as if a journey of my soul had been completed. And from the very bottom of my heart, I thanked Marvin for his voice, for his music, for this song, for his soul.
I am not embellishing or romanticizing when I say that I felt his spirit answer. It was as if the air around me caved inward in the shape of a smile. I was not alone. He was with me, not just in voice, but in spirit, and I’ll never forget it.
God Bless you Marvin. You did so much more than make records. You wrote stories and poems that will live forever in my soul.
To hear “What’s Goin’ On” click HERE.