(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through Stateside Records)
By the summer of 1963, Marvin Gaye – once a jobbing session drummer and would-be easy listening legend – was a Top Ten recording artist, firmly in the R&B camp. At the same time, the Holland-Dozier-Holland trio were racking up an increasing number of significant chart hits for nearly every Motown act they were assigned to, which meant they got work writing and producing for almost everybody at the label. Their paths were always going to cross sooner or later.
In this case, “sooner” is a little bit of a surprise. The prolific HDH team’s overwhelming level of output – so noticeable during Motown’s mid-Sixties Golden Age – raises no eyebrows for having apparently been in play so early, but Marvin’s previous hit single – the rollicking Pride And Joy – had been his Top Ten breakthrough, an excellent consolidation of Gaye’s position as an R&B artist with a stock in trade of uptempo, gutsy numbers. Per later Motown policy, that record’s principal writer-producer, William “Mickey” Stevenson (who wrote Pride And Joy alongside Norman Whitfield and Gaye himself) should have been given the follow-up release. Instead, the new kids on the block jumped straight to the head of the queue with this new composition.
Perhaps Motown thought it was just too good to wait until after Stevenson’s submission (which the recording dates would suggest was probably this record’s B-side, I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby) had appeared. Certainly, this was Marvin Gaye’s best single to date.
Motown had long been flirting with the notion of “secular gospel”, the best Motown writers following the likes of Ray Charles and Sam Cooke in incorporating gospel elements into their R&B/pop songs; in recent months, this gospel influence had become more overt, as seen in the likes of Martha and the Vandellas’ Heat Wave and Little Stevie Wonder’s Workout Stevie, Workout. Now, the company’s hottest up-and-coming writers teamed with one of its hottest up-and-coming artists to deliver a knockout punch that succinctly sums up the dichotomy of great Motown in two minutes 48 seconds: an R&B attack on a gospel trope, the combination of church and romance, religious fervour and sexual healing. Who better to lay it down than the son of a preacher man?
That opens up all sorts of questions that space won’t permit us to discuss here, of course. Whole books could – and probably have – been written about how Marvin’s fractious, complex relationships with both his own father and the Almighty would dominate his life (and ultimately end it), so there’s an extra-textual interest to be had in hearing him singing a song based around a phrase that would be immediately familiar to a large percentage of African-American churchgoers, paying homage to the phrase’s origins through the music while landing it in a different context entirely through the lyrics.
The lyrics – which, thanks to that title and the gospel stylings of the music, call up more religious imagery than is actually explicitly included in the song – are absolutely tied to Marvin’s performance, even as on paper they’re so simplistic that they hardly seem to merit closer examination. The words here are primarily concerned with Marvin appealing to a crowd of listeners (everybody, especially you girls, usually gender-reversed when a woman sings the song): an interesting move in itself, his plea directed not just at you, and explicitly not his friends (who are mentioned separately), but rather a group of complete strangers comprising everyone else who might be listening now, or might have listened in the 48 (!!) years since this record first arrived, or who might ever listen in the future. He thinks he’s being mistreated by his girlfriend, but wants a second opinion (or rather an affirmation, since he’s made his decision already, of course); he’s asking us for a show of solidarity, for confirmation that he’s not going crazy. Some sympathy, an ego massage, and something to throw back in his girlfriend’s face the next time he feels she wrongs him. He’s seeking a situation-specific free pass, but somehow elevates the matter to something approaching a universal truth.
It’s a jumbled-up rant, mixing professions of loyalty (I believe a woman’s a man’s best friend / So I’m gonna stick by her ’til the bitter end) with downbeat imagery through little vignettes comparing his own impeccable behaviour (tossing in my sleep ‘cos I haven’t seen my baby all week) with her lack of gratitude (Is it right to be left alone / While the one you love is never home?) and even subtle come-ons aimed at those women in the crowd (I love too hard, my friends sometimes say / But I believe that a woman should be loved that way).
Perhaps this confusion is a clever depiction of a man at his wits’ end, or perhaps it’s just not a very well thought-out lyric, but either way, it puts Marvin in a place where his performance not only informs but dominates the song. He’s on spectacular form here, taking the performance tools of a rabble-rousing preacher (especially HDH’s repetitive chorus, consisting of the title delivered over and over again, call-and-response style, to a congregation of backing singers including none other than the Supremes, no less) to colour his approximation of a man who’s had enough. He’s on fire, delivering a sermon as authoritative as anything his father might have turned in, presaging his future status as high priest of sexy, sinuous music.
The band, too, know what sort of record they’re making. This is every bit as energetic as Heat Wave, if not more so; the pressure built up by the gospel flavour turns this into a full-on demand to TESTIFY! and the band lap it up, from the opening notes (a boogie-woogie/blues riff, four notes that recur right through the song, pounded out on bass and piano to within an inch of their instruments’ lives) and the waves of horns – especially tenor sax – that come blaring at the listener at the start of each line of the chorus. The liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 3 list the players who made up the Funk Brothers on the day, research which I reproduce here solely out of respect for the musicians involved: “Marcus Belgrave and Russell Conway (trumpets), Paul Riser and Patrick Lanier (trombones), Hank Cosby (tenor saxophone), Eugene Moore (baritone saxophone), George Fowler (organ), Eddie Willis (guitar), Clarence Isabel (bass), and Benny ‘Papa Zita’ Benjamin (drums).” Note George Fowler’s presence on organ – this is the man who until recently had headed up Motown’s bona fide gospel subsidiary, Divinity Records. (It’s perhaps not surprising that the thudding, monotonous bass line isn’t one of James Jamerson’s, as it shows none of the free-flowing invention Jamerson would often sneak into Motown sessions – but Clarence Isabel deserves all the credit in the world for working so tightly with Benny to keep that unstoppable groove going.)
Those same liner notes have Lamont Dozier crediting much of the song’s musical energy to the influence of the great blues man Jimmy Reed, but I don’t really hear it here – to me, this is more about mixing elements of gospel, blues and contemporary R&B and pop to create a cohesive, irresistible whole. For all its energy, it’s never coarse, always palatable enough for the pop charts; whether that’s a dilution (either of Reed’s style or the passion of full-blooded gospel), or a refinement, is very much down to personal taste. I vote refinement; it’s not a watered-down blues or gospel number, it’s a beefed-up R&B/pop record, and a splendid one at that. Great fun to listen to, every time, and a robust dancefloor record largely immune to the passing of time – not to mention a keynote record if ever there was one for the path of Gaye’s future career (if not his life).
Something of a barrage for the senses, this is a superb single, a direct attack that works through overwhelming the defences. The best record Marvin Gaye had yet made, it surprisingly failed to meet expectations commercially – missing the R&B Top 10 and pop Top 20 – but that means nothing. This sounds every bit as good today – as vibrant and mad and alive – as it did when it first appeared, and what’s more important it’s still just as enjoyable too. Gaye’s career was now set irreversibly on the right track, such that not even Marvin himself could argue against this kind of evidence.
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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“I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby”
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