B-side of This Is The Life
(Written by Ronald Miller and Richard Jacques)
Not that My Way, more’s the pity; Marvin recorded this at a time when the famous My Way – the good one – hadn’t even been written yet. (Not even Claude François’ French original, trivia fans.)
No, this My Way is that strangest of Motown creatures, a “pseudo-standard” – a Motown original created purposely to sound just like a Broadway or Tin Pan Alley number, published under the company’s “upmarket” Stein & Van Stock imprint and intended to fool listeners (and sheet music buyers) into thinking these were songs written 30 years previously by white guys with Jewish names.
Ronald Norman Gould – who became “Ron Miller”, and who we’re meeting here for the first time on Motown Junkies – was already a white Jewish guy, so he fit right in. A fascinating character, one of Motown’s most accomplished balladeers, Miller had been discovered by Berry Gordy one night in a Chicago bar, our Ron playing piano and singing his own material; Gordy approached Miller to ask what shows all these songs came from, as he’d never heard any of them, and on finding out Miller had written them all himself, signed him up on the spot. (A different story, apparently cooked up later by Motown’s PR department, has the two meeting when Miller delivered a pizza to Gordy’s hotel room – but this is one of those times when the truth is better than the fiction.)
It’s a shame we’re meeting Miller in this context, though, as My Way, snappy title aside (you can bet Paul Anka made a note!) is scarcely his best work. As for Marvin Gaye, who we see here living out a fantasy as an MOR entertainer… well, this is scarcely even a Marvin Gaye record at all.
For reasons we’ve already gone over in some detail, in 1964 Marvin Gaye was given studio time – and some expensive string arrangements! – to record a third album of MOR tunes, both big Broadway ballads and homegrown soundalikes. The resulting LP, Hello Broadway (left), is one of the most frustrating of all early Motown albums; the care and attention to detail that have been lavished on this project are just unbelievable (including a stereo mix of the whole LP, the first time Motown had sanctioned such a move), and Marvin’s voice has never been clearer or sweeter, but it just doesn’t work. The songs are often dull, the arrangements are often overcooked, and Marvin himself treats each number as a challenge of deferent vocal mimicry, hardly ever allowing his own personality to intrude upon a tune, never mind really imposing himself on it, wringing the emotion out of a hokey old standard. Some of it sounds lovely, but it’s the kind of lovely sound you might get if you’d handed him a sampler of Hungarian folk hymns and told him to just copy it phonetically, without ever understanding a word.
And those are the good tracks. Sometimes, as with the nominal A-side here, This Is The Life, and definitely with My Way, Marvin starts singing in a new style we haven’t really heard before, a weird, unfamiliar sing-song kind of vocal cadence. It’s pretty, but it doesn’t sound like the Marvin Gaye we’ve already come to know.
Marvin later described Hello Broadway as “music aimed at the supper club audience… That was me with my white voice. But looking back on it now, I think it was a big mistake.” No kidding, MPG, no kidding.
The biggest problem here is the song, which is a slushy, meandering thing, lavishly arranged but lacking in memorable hooks or lines, almost spectacularly unspectacular, a soft jazz nightmare; it’s a warmup exercise for a vocalist like Marvin, but he’s given precious little guidance as to where to go, and so – as a pianist noodles aimlessly in the background, paying no heed to notions of melody – Marvin just does whatever he wants to do, drifting in and out of tune with the music, belting out big notes in the middle of sentences, bounding up to the top of his available range mid-verse, and just generally making a mess of the song. His performance ultimately isn’t enough to compensate for the flawed material, and ends up not being worth the price of admission.
Still, on the plus side, I think this is the last time we’ll ever have to endure Marvin Gaye doing this on Motown Junkies. He did cut a fourth MOR album, 1965’s A Tribute to the Great Nat ‘King’ Cole, but it was very much against the run of play by then, and whilst it’s not awful, Motown were wise enough not to pull any singles from that one and risk confusing audiences any further.
And so, unless there are more adult contemporary horrors lurking on B-sides deep in the catalogue, I do believe this is where we say goodbye to Marvin Gaye the soft jazz balladeer. In an earlier review, I made comparisons between Marvin’s MOR material and Michael Jordan’s baseball career, or Scott Walker’s early-Seventies C&W albums, and I think they still stand; this is the sound of an enthusiastic dilettante, someone with a clear love for what they’re doing, but struggling to translate their great God-given skill from another sphere. In Marvin’s case (and Scott’s!), the result was some records which are only interesting for the name on the label, records which are doggedly average at best, and often – as is the case here – considerably less good even than that.
Essentially, if My Way had been released under the name of, I don’t know, “Walt Edwards” or something, nobody would ever have given it a second listen, because the painful truth is that while Marvin Gaye may have been Motown’s greatest and most fascinating solo star, his MOR output is that of a keen hobbyist indulging himself at the listener’s expense, and on this evidence, I’m not sad we won’t be covering any more of it.
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.)
“This Is The Life”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
Listen to all past episodes here.