(Written by Pat Ballard)
Motown, Year Four – or “1962”, as it’s apparently known in the outside world – opened with a third commercial release for session drummer and would-be supper-club crooner Marvin Pentz Gay Jr., now firmly established as a singer under the name “Marvin Gaye”.
Back in the spring of 1961, Marvin and Motown boss Berry Gordy had reached an impasse over the direction Gaye’s career was going to take. Gordy saw the handsome, brooding singer as the solo R&B star he’d been looking for; Gaye saw himself carving out a career in MOR and adult jazz, much in the vein of a new Nat King Cole (with just a dash of Ray Charles thrown in for good measure). Gordy wanted Gaye to set teenage girls screaming by cutting the sort of material he’d previously written for the likes of Jackie Wilson and Eddie Holland; Gaye wanted nothing more than “to sit on a stool and croon”, and point blank refused to get up and dance, finding it demeaning and inherently disrespectful.
Neither side would budge; the compromise that had eventually been reached saw the release of a Tamla LP of standards, lightly-reworked with a soft jazz “edge”, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, complete with a couple of more upbeat, teenage-friendly R&B tracks tacked on to the end. The two singles spawned by the album showed between them the entire range of Gaye’s output at the time: one schlocky MOR/jazz disc released promotionally ((I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over b/w Witchcraft) and one more upbeat R&B-flavoured commercial single (Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide b/w Never Let You Go (Sha Lu Bop)). Neither record garnered much attention, sales of the album were poor, and so the question of what to do with Marvin Gaye’s future remained up in the air. Both camps came away from the débâcle still convinced that if only they’d been allowed to do the whole thing their way, it would have worked. Thanks to the sluggish sales of the LP, however, no-one was in any tearing rush to get more Marvin Gaye records in the stores right away, and so the quandary remained naggingly unresolved.
The interesting thing to me about all of this is that however much of a pain in Motown’s collective arse Marvin might have made himself at this point, and however poorly his records had sold, there was still apparently no question of him being dropped from the label. He was still recognised as a major talent for the future, charismatic, sensitive and drop-dead gorgeous as well as headstrong, moody and dogmatic. In short, worth sticking with.
(He was also, of course, engaged to be married to Berry Gordy’s big sister Anna, which may also have had something to do with it…)
As 1962 approached, and the time finally came for some new Marvin Gaye records, Marvin was still hell-bent on proving himself right. He had originally been signed to Motown after impressing Berry Gordy with his chutzpah by buttonholing him at the 1960 Motown Christmas party and serenading him with an acapella rendition of this song, a #1 Pop hit for the Chordettes back in 1954; if Mr Sandman had made an impression on Gordy then, Marvin reasoned, then it might make an impression on audiences now. As a result, the world was treated to this little historical artefact, a non-album curio of dubious worth.
As a snapshot of what was going on in Marvin Gaye’s head as 1962 came around, it’s fascinating, conjuring up a pastel-coloured vision of Manhattan parties, Sixties modernist architecture, synthetic fabrics and the clink of ice and glass, well-heeled white revelers dancing around the expensive record player – and at the centre of it all, Marvin Gaye, eyes closed, sitting on his stool, imagining himself at the last show of the night somewhere in Las Vegas.
As a record, it’s an almost unlistenable bit of MOR cheese, dated and schmaltzy. There’s a massively unsubtle minor-key vibraphone part which runs all over this, mostly in opposition to Gaye’s main vocal line, presumably intended to impart a jazzy, carefree feel, but which instead just swamps everything else on the record, irrevocably date-stamping it as a product of upper-middle class white America at the end of the Eisenhower administration. It’s actually less edgy than the Chordettes original, which – with its stand-up bass and sax parts – was in turn a product of the Forties rather than the Fifties; Marvin’s version only really has some natty brushed drums to commend it musically, the rest is unbearably cheesy.
The backing vocals are no better, some deft harmonising touches undone by a series of off-key doo-wop interjections of “ba ba ba” and the like, before a really poor bit where they take up the main vocal line at 1:14, stabbing the lyrics out in one-syllable, one-note bursts with little regard to whether they’re in tune or not; the Chordettes it ain’t.
All of which would be worth it if we got a great Marvin Gaye lead vocal out of the deal, but no. Marvin sounds almost nothing like Marvin Gaye here, only really identifiable by his shlightly lishpy pronunciation of the letter “s” (which is laid on so thickly here that in places it sounds as though he’s auditioning for a Grolsch commercial), and certainly nothing remarkable. Indeed, it’s quite a bit worse than “nothing remarkable” in some places on the record, where his lead vocal gets out of control and clashes with that all-consuming vibraphone, but on the whole it’s just… pointless, really. One of the all-time great soul voices serving up a competent, anonymous delivery of sappy, whiter-than-white fluff, seemingly intended as unobtrusive background music and seeking – virtually begging – the approval of white audiences in a craven and most unflattering way.
If you’d have somehow been able to travel back in time to 1962, meet young Marvin, and play him a copy of his majestic 1973 “short album about fucking”, Let’s Get It On, perhaps skipping straight to You Sure Love To Ball for maximum effect, and then read to him from his own liner notes for that LP (liner notes, I remind you, written just eleven years after Mr Sandman) –
(“I can’t see anything wrong with sex between consenting anybodies. I think we make far too much of it. After all, one’s genitals are just one important part of the magnificent human body. I contend that SEX IS SEX and LOVE IS LOVE. When combined, they work well together, if two people are of about the same mind. But they are really two discrete needs and should be treated as such. Time and space will not permit me to expound further, especially in the area of the psyche. I don’t believe in overly moralistic philosophies. Have your sex, it can be exciting, if you’re lucky. I hope the music that I present here makes you lucky.” – Marvin Gaye, 1973)
– he’d probably have been utterly horrified.
(In fact, I highly recommend going and listening to Let’s Get It On all the way through, just as a way of cleansing your palate after listening to Mr Sandman).
Certainly, there is no conceivable path of musical development by which we could possibly have got from here to there without a fundamental change of direction, and so the resounding failure of this single, Marvin Gaye’s worst Motown release, and the rethinking of basic concepts which resulted, should be widely celebrated by all music fans worldwide.
Because fail it did. Resoundingly. The liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2 have a great little quote from Marvin himself, noting that both Berry Gordy and Harvey Fuqua had repeatedly told him this wasn’t the right direction for him and that he was wasting his time cutting records that weren’t “in a commercial bag”, instead needing something “more oriented to the teenagers”; emphasising that this mis-step was his choice and his fault, and admitting that deep down he knew he was wrong. And he was wrong, quite spectacularly. But asking someone to give up their dreams is a big deal, and Marvin wasn’t ready to do that just yet. If he was going to be converted to the path of R&B and soul, he’d have to be coaxed there in baby steps. This record represents the furthest he ever got from that path.
Right, I’m off to listen to Let’s Get It On now.
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.
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|The Twistin’ Kings
“Congo (Part 2)”
“I’m Yours, You’re Mine”