(Written by Berry Gordy)
On the one hand, there was the smooth MOR easy listening cover of (I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over by clean-cut all-American would-be crooner Marvin Pentz Gay Jr., who wanted nothing more than a solid career churning out serviceable renditions of pop standards, enjoying respectable sales and carving out a niche as the new Nat King Cole.
On the other hand, there was this, a doo-wop flavoured, downtempo but unmistakeably R&B ballad, credited (for the first time on record) to “Marvin Gaye”, released less than a week later. Both singles, and their respective B-sides, would feature on Gaye’s debut LP, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, slated for a summer release a couple of weeks down the line.
The dual-handed approach was the result of a battle between Gaye and Motown chief Berry Gordy over the direction young Marvin’s musical career would take. Gaye wanted to sing standards for the rest of his life, Gordy wanted him to ditch the MOR chestnuts and unleash the potential R&B idol he saw beneath the surface. The compromise saw Gordy greenlight an LP of smooth jazz-tinged pop standards, but on the condition Gaye cut a couple of custom-made R&B numbers at the same time. The two singles came about because Gordy wanted to try and get an R&B/pop crossover hit as well as plugging copies of the LP to an older, whiter standards audience. To that end, the easy listening single was virtually a promo for the album, with very few copies pressed for retail, while this single, the R&B one, received all the promotion and attention.
Not that it mattered, because the album and both singles ended up in the bargain bin, all having missed the charts by a country mile, thus proving nothing and answering none of Gaye and Gordy’s questions.
The song is a bit of an odd choice to prove a point. Given that he wanted to show what Marvin Gaye could accomplish if he cut an unstoppable R&B single for the young generation to lap up, you’d expect Gordy to have chosen a smouldering R&B rocker to showcase Gaye’s looks, voice and personality. Instead, he chose a gentle, pedestrian doo-wop number which wasn’t going to turn many teenage heads in the pre-video era no matter how sexy Gaye was. He sings it well, if without much enthusiasm – Gaye had enjoyed a fine early career in doo-wop, including being drafted into a late line-up of the legendary-but-fading Moonglows at the end of the 1950s, and this stuff was clearly bread and butter to him – but to the modern listener this isn’t too far removed from the standards Gaye wanted to be doing in the first place.
It has its moments; Gaye’s voice is the big draw here, instantly recognisable even at this young age, and Marvin Gaye is always interesting, even when he’s not all that interested. The backing vocals are finely crafted, and there’s a silk-smooth R&B organ line running through the entire song which holds the interest for a while. All told, though, it’s not special, and even without knowing the convoluted backstory, it sounds far too much like a man going through the motions; once you know the full facts, it’s very obviously the sound of Marvin Gaye fulfilling a contractual obligation so he can get back to his true dream of ripping through the Irving Berlin songbook.
Giving up on such an obvious talent clearly wasn’t an option, rather luckily for the history of popular music, and so there was no question of Gaye finding himself dropped after the dismal commercial performance of his first solo records; but the question of what kind of solo act he would be was still very much up in the air. Both sides claimed a victory, but to the modern, objective listener, the first round of the match between MOR and R&B for Marvin Gaye’s musical soul ends with honours even. At zero.
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!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
(Or maybe you’re only interested in Marvin Gaye? Click for more.)
“Never Let You Go (Sha Lu Bop)”