b/w My Way
(Written by Charles Strouse and Lee Adams)
After a dismal little run of sides, the unexpected return of Marvin Gaye warmed my heart. Sure, it’s too soon to be meeting him again, coming just a couple of weeks after How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), but when it comes to extra Marvin, who’s complaining?
Me, as it happens. This is awful.
Marvin’s third (third!) LP of standards and show tunes, Hello Broadway, had already yielded up the rather good Walk On The Wild Side for use on the flip of his earlier single Baby Don’t You Do It, but Motown’s marketing mavens felt the album could do with some more exposure, and so they threw together this promo-only 45, pulling two tracks from the LP to give DJs and distributors a flavour of what they were missing.
And what they were missing, it turns out, was two lifeless cuts of the tiredest, least-inspired whitebread crooning you’re ever likely to encounter from a soul legend. Quite why Motown felt it important to highlight this is anyone’s guess. Perhaps they just greenlit this with a resigned shrug – “Eh, maybe SOMEONE will like it.”.
In mid-1964, with an increasingly respectable stack of R&B and pop hits, Marvin Gaye still cherished his dream of being a mainstream entertainer, singing for well-dressed grown-ups rather than screaming teens; if he no longer harboured ambitions to be the new Nat King Cole, he nevertheless wanted to do something serious, something more prestigious than shaking his hips and dancing around a stage belting out Hitch Hike.
Motown boss Berry Gordy, who’d tabbed Marvin as a future R&B superstar from day one, was happy enough with the returns on his investment – and tempted enough by the idea of developing a bona fide MOR circuit “name” – to indulge Marvin in his expensive fantasy, even as the R&B records sold by the crateful, while the adult contemporary stuff gathered dust on the shelves. But the routine was starting to wear thin. As mentioned, Hello Broadway was Marvin’s third album of this stuff – Broadway tunes, hokey old standards, hokey new songs written to sound like hokey old standards – and none of it was selling.
Worse, it was starting to send out mixed messages. Gordy had hired etiquette coach Maxine Powell and instituted the Artist Development department, Motown’s “finishing school”, to turn his roster of rough-and-ready public housing teens and hard-drinking street-corner doo-woppers into genteel and respectable performers in satin gowns and sharp suits, groomed – in Powell’s words – to play just two venues: the White House and Buckingham Palace.
But however much Marvin Gaye might have wanted to earn the respect that came with becoming a mainstream entertainer of older (and whiter) audiences, he just wasn’t cut from that cloth. Gaye was a brooding, headstrong, moody individual, a troubled soul convinced of his own greatness. Motown played up this angle in their marketing, the smouldering, handsome Gaye portrayed as a rebellious figure, slightly enigmatic, slightly dangerous, with a dark energy brewing behind those beautiful eyes; the recipe sold buckets of records and cemented Gaye’s place as a successful chart star, and as the Sixties progressed, the label would reap the benefits of him being both a hugely commercial pop star and a talented, intelligent artist.
But all of that was in the future, and in the meantime, here’s Marvin the obedient showbiz apprentice, begging for scraps at the feet of the old order, a slave to the establishment. Not exactly on message.
This is a thoroughly dispiriting record. It’s a schlocky, schmaltzy little song, an excerpt from the contemporary Sammy Davis Jr. stage musical Golden Boy (where it serves as a brief moment of happiness in amongst a lot of gloomy, heavyweight stuff) lifted out of context to become a simple celebration of success – “hooray, I’ve finally made it!” – and much-covered as a standalone standard, most notably by white crooner Matt Monro, missing the point on every level.
Marvin’s version is better than Monro’s turgid stylings, for sure, but don’t take that as a recommendation – it’s still not good.
In 1978, when Marvin cut the astonishing Here, My Dear LP, a self-portrait of a man driven to the very edge of complete mental breakdown by the collapse of his marriage and working through his tensions on vinyl for everyone to hear, there are a couple of tracks (the opening Here My Dear/I Met A Little Girl medley, for instance) where Marvin puts on a weird, high voice with a strange sing-song cadence, sounding almost stoned; a disturbing indicator of the narrator’s mental state as he delivers a passive-aggressive kiss-off to his ex-wife.
That’s what springs to mind every time I listen to This Is The Life, which seems to be performed using that same voice – but on a song about celebration and blissful joy. He’s anything but joyful, giving a nice-sounding performance (especially after Monro’s attempt!), but rather than investing the song with his own character and taking risks, Marvin shrinks back into his shell, reading out the lyrics with no empathy and no real emotion.
As so often with Marvin’s MOR material, his technical ability isn’t really in question – though he’s not on his home turf and can’t play this game as well as he thinks he can, a realisation that was only just dawning on him – but rather he’s hamstrung by an out-of-proportion respect for hokey Tin Pan Alley material that borders on reverence. That’s the story here, where he’s obviously copying Sammy’s delivery, doing the whole thing with a huge forced smile (including some audible half-laughs between lines) just because that’s how he thinks the song is meant to sound.
It’s a song about all your dreams finally coming true, but Marvin makes it sound as if he’s just found an extra beer at the back of the fridge. When he sings Children, make way / I’m here to stay!, it’s meant to be the culmination of a lifetime of struggle giving way to fame and fortune, but there’s no confidence in his bullish pronouncements – you’re not even sure those children will recognise him, never mind move out of his way. Which is the problem with the whole record: it doesn’t sound real, doesn’t connect with the material or the listener. Essentially, he’s pretending to be happy, and not particularly convincingly.
The ultimate conclusion is that Marvin Gaye, eventually the beloved, million-selling jewel in Motown’s crown, just wasn’t a skilled interpreter of MOR material. It’s not that he doesn’t love the songs, it’s that he loves them too much, becoming afraid to impose himself on them without realising that’s exactly what we’ve come to hear. With that approach, Marvin is no longer free to be Marvin, and so he’ll never do great things. At best he’s a tribute act – and it’s no coincidence that his upcoming fourth and final standards LP was billed as such (A Tribute to the Great Nat King Cole).
I’m not giving this 1, because his voice does sound nice, and because he’s not Matt Monro. But this is still a lifeless, rote rendition of a song that wasn’t all that great in the first place, and its very existence underlines the fact Marvin Gaye still wasn’t quite the finished article.
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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