Marvin Gaye had had a breakthrough (in more ways than one) with his previous single, the immortal Stubborn Kind Of Fellow, which had both landed Gaye on the charts (#46 pop and the R&B Top Ten) and pushed him firmly away from the jazz-club crooning of his dreams and into the R&B sphere. The die was cast; Marvin’s path was clear, and it only remained for him to try and capitalise on his own success with another hit record. No pressure, then.
For the follow-up, Marvin again co-wrote the song, along with his producer Mickey Stevenson and another Motown producer, Clarence Paul. It’s in a similar bag to Stubborn Kind Of Fellow, Marvin again turning to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas to perform backing vocals, with a similar tempo, driving beat and some more jazz flute courtesy of Thomas “Beans” Bowles; but Hitch Hike is rougher and tougher than its predecessor, more raw and less enduring.
It did its job commercially; this was Marvin Gaye’s first Top 30 pop hit, and it played an important role in his transformation into an R&B star by giving him something to dance to on stage. A whole signature “hitch hike” dance routine was developed to go along with the song (Marvin taking his cues dance-wise from Chubby Checker’s contemporary hit Popeye (The Hitchhiker), according to the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 2), a significant step forward for the live presence of a man who felt “shaking his ass” was undignified, beneath him, an affront to his artistic integrity. But it’s also Marvin’s least interesting single to date.
I don’t mean “worst” – no, it’s actually very good, the stabbing horn attacks, the Vandellas’ shrill interjections, Beans’ flute solo bit, the way the band fills the white space in the song to keep it chugging along without a pause, the verse-ending sort-of-chorus (Marvin almost screaming himself hoarse, I’ve got to find that girl / If I have to hitch hike round the world!), they’re all great.
No, I just mean that this is the first Marvin Gaye single about which I can’t write thousands of words explaining where it fits in with Marvin’s musical development, the first one that doesn’t really advance us – musically – any further along the path to What’s Going On. The lyrics, some forgettable fluff about Marvin hitch-hiking his way across the country chasing some girl (we never find out why she’s worth the trouble, or indeed anything about her at all), were apparently tossed off as a last-minute thing after the band track was already cut, and it shows. Marvin’s performance, whilst still raw-throated and unrefined, is a definite step backward from Stubborn Kind Of Fellow. Ultimately, I think it suffers because it’s just not as good a song, or a record, as its predecessor; playing the two back to back, regardless of the order, it’s Stubborn… you’ll be singing afterwards.
Still, it’s fun enough on its own merits – there’s plenty to enjoy here – and it certainly did its job. I’d just be surprised if this was anyone’s favourite Marvin Gaye record.
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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“Just A Few More Days”
“Hello There Angel”