(Written by Herb Madgison and Allie Wrubel)
No typo. The singer who would go on to international superstardom as Marvin Gaye, racking up million-selling singles and albums for Motown in the Sixties and Seventies, began his Hitsville career as Marvin Pentz Gay Jr., jobbing session drummer and would-be supper-club crooner extraordinaire.
Marvin’s ambitions were decidedly limited when he first pitched up at Motown, or at least they seem that way to modern readers who know what eventually happened. Briefly a member of the Moonglows (the legendary doo-wop group masterminded by future Motown songwriting and production maven Harvey Fuqua, who brought him to Detroit and later sold his contract to Berry Gordy), Marvin wanted to be a pop crooner, a standards singer on the club circuit, somewhere between Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra with just a dash of Billy Eckstine.
Despite his oft-cited supposed love of jazz, Marvin’s earliest Motown solo material is MOR balladry all the way, with hints of swing and big band; if there’s a discernible jazz influence at work here, it’s the very smoothest of smooth jazz, at least ten years behind the curve. No, Marvin’s horizons stretched as far as Porter, Berlin, Rodgers and Hart. He knew what he was doing, and knew what he wanted; at 21, he had the voice and the bravado to carry it off, too, getting himself signed to Motown after buttonholing a bemused Berry Gordy at the company Christmas party and serenading him with an off-the-cuff acapella rendition of the Chordettes’ “Mr Sandman” (a song he’d end up covering on Tamla within the year).
Gordy, though, had other plans. No fool when it came to spotting talent (or potential sales), he’d noticed how the female Hitsville staff melted into puddles whenever the dashing Marvin happened to walk by; here, perhaps, was the pop idol he’d been seaching for, but such potential was going to be wasted if Gay was allowed to follow his dream; the days of lounge crooners singing to crowds of screaming teenage girls had already drawn to a close.
Gordy had also no doubt made a mental note that the boy could play the drums, and with no small amount of proficiency; paying the bills by working as a session drummer (including with the Motown house and touring bands), playing with considerable verve and gusto, Gay seemed markedly more at home drumming on rousing R&B and wilder jazz numbers than the pop standards he apparently longed to sing.
To Gordy, the path was clear: Marvin Gay would set the world on fire as a smouldering, moody R&B superstar. To Marvin, the path was equally clear: he had the looks, the voice and the mass appeal to be an easy listening pop sensation, if only Motown would back him.
It sounds like a pivotal moment in the plot of The Motown Story, but in fact it turned out to be an impasse. Neither Gordy nor Gay would back down, and so a compromise was reached. Motown would record an LP featuring Gay tackling numerous old MOR pop standards (no small offer; there had only been a handful of Motown LPs released to date, all of them on established artists with proven fanbases like the Miracles and the Gospel Stars, and so this represented something of a gamble for the wobbling label). In return, Gay would humour Gordy and cut a couple of more R&B-inflected sides for a one-off single, dipping a tentative toe in the waters of the R&B charts where Motown had had their greatest success to date.
The result of this compromise was a curious pair of singles, released almost concurrently. This one was barely released at all, being lifted directly from the proposed standards album and distributed as a promo to try and start a grassroots, word-of-mouth campaign and maybe get some speculative radio play on MOR stations. Meanwhile, the R&B single, Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide / Never Let You Go (Sha Lu Bop), appeared in stores just days later. During the process of recording the album, Marvin’s surname acquired an extra “e”, and the LP appeared in June 1961 as The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, a hotchpotch work featuring a selection of eight standards and then the three tracks recorded during the sessions for the R&B single tacked onto the end.
If releasing this single at the same time as Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide was supposed to answer some sort of argument about the natural direction for Marvin Gaye’s future career, it didn’t work. Both singles stiffed, the album was a disastrous flop, and nothing was proved either way.
But that’s all for the future. What about this record?
As a single, this isn’t too bad. It’s a real shock to fans of Gaye’s magnificent future work; even if you’ve acclimatised yourself to the idea that he didn’t just spring into existence fully-formed with Hitch Hike and Stubborn Kind Of Fellow a couple of years later, it’s still something of a surprise to hear him in full-on croon mode; Marvin Gaye, purveyor of perfectly serviceable versions of venerable pop chestnuts.
He’s got a fine, fine voice. It’s unmistakeably Marvin Gaye, even in this nascent form, and it’s undeniably better than the material he’s chosen to work with. It’s entirely plausible he could have made a real career out of this sort of thing; close your eyes, you can imagine him giving this his all in an upscale nightclub, mostly older, white guests putting their drinks down on their tables, rapt with their eyes on the stage as their table candles flicker in their red shades. Marvin would be immaculately dressed in a lounge suit, eyes closed as he croons into the mic, catching his breath for a moment after his big finish, thanking the audience with a little smile for the polite applause that feels like it should accompany the end of this.
He could have pulled it off. But he’d have been forgotten by now, I’d wager.
Instead, we get this tentative step along an abortive career path. Previously a local hit in Michigan for Nolan Strong, (I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over is notable mainly for the unexpected reference to Pagliacci, the miserable clown (which apparently stuck in young Smokey Robinson’s mind and resurfaced in his songwriting on a couple of occasions in the future, most obviously in The Tears Of A Clown). It’s not a particularly memorable song, but Gaye delivers it with sincere abandon, wholeheartedly earnest in his belief that he’s destined to be the new Nat King Cole. It’s more listenable than you’d expect. More than anything else, it’s long, running for almost five and a quarter minutes, comfortably the longest A-side Motown would release in the 1960s; it feels even longer than that.
As a single, it’s OK. As a historical document, a crossroads, a glimpse into some alternate timeline, it’s fascinating. As a Marvin Gaye record, it’s not exactly one of the classics. But whatever the outcome, he’d laid down a marker as One To Watch. He wouldn’t be dropped despite the lack of commercial success in the early days; Berry Gordy knew there was something there worth building on, and he kept young Marvin on the books, which of course turned out to be one of Gordy’s shrewdest moves in a career not exactly short of inspired decisions.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
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