(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
Here’s an unusual thing.
Marvin Gaye’s last single, the storming (if lyrically dubious) I’ll Be Doggone, had topped the R&B charts, going Top Ten pop and shifting a million copies, in the process establishing once and for all the template for Marvin’s coming period as one of America’s hottest, sexiest, most magnetic pop stars.
At least, that’s what I thought. But for the follow-up, we’re abruptly jerked in a radically different direction; instead of consolidating what was achieved on I’ll Be Doggone, this is a baffling digression, a diversion. Gone is the guiding hand of Smokey Robinson, and instead we get a throwback to the bad old days, with Marvin, his one-time regular writer-producer Clarence Paul and Funk Brothers vibes man Dave Hamilton putting together a backing track jam for Stevie Wonder – to be entitled Purple Snow Flakes, a reference to an obscure old Stevie song called Purple Rain Drops which we haven’t met yet here on Motown Junkies – before Marvin decided he liked the backing track for himself, and wrote a new set of lyrics.
I don’t know if the would-be Stevie version of this was ever recorded, or if it ever had words, but this sounds like it would have been right up the maturing Wonder’s alley. Certainly, it’s a very different proposition to anything Marvin had recorded before; not only is it pitched for a much higher voice, meaning Gaye spends almost the entire song in a breathy upper-register space, but it’s also melancholy and forlorn in a way we haven’t really heard yet. So, it ends up being a pointer for Marvin’s future – but not his immediate future, his chart-topping 45 star phase. Rather, it’s a sign of things to come almost a decade from now, the pained pleadings of a tortured soul we hear on Marvin’s seminal run of Seventies albums – and it’s set to the saddest tune in the world, a tune that’s full of strange changes and surprises.
It’s absolutely remarkable, this. I don’t just mean that it’s good – although it definitely is, don’t get me wrong, but I’ll be going into that in a moment – rather, I mean that Pretty Little Baby sounds like absolutely nothing else we’ve heard so far and I can’t properly process it, stuff it into a box. It’s a simple melody built on top of an even simpler melody, somehow adding up to something very complex indeed but coming across almost parodically naive.
There are three distinct phases to this, all of them, well, remarkable. I keep using that word because it’s so appropriate here. The first phase pitches this as a children’s Christmas record in the middle of June: sleigh bells, tinkling arpeggios to simulate snow, a verse vocal riff borrowed straight out of Oranges and Lemons, flat, shouty call-and-response female backing vocals that sound like nobody I can identify, and then over the top of all that, Marvin Gaye bouncing around somewhere in the clouds, his tears making it rain.
That an almost comically Christmassy “sleigh ride and nursery rhyme” section can work as well as this anyway is remarkable, because it should by all rights be powerfully annoying, and instead Marvin just makes it flat-out powerful, his voice full of yearning, apparently having started taking his vocal cues from other great Motown singers like David Ruffin and Levi Stubbs rather than the MOR crooners he’d previously idolised – and he adds some weird, unnatural phrasing on top, emphasising all the “wrong” syllables as he sing-talks his way through his problems. The effect is startling.
DAR-ling, PLEASE stay / Don’t go A-way
(If you leave me!)
WHAT a HEART-ache / For HEAV-en’s SAKE
(Don’t you need me?)
It’s this newfound voice which leads us into the second phase of the song, as the nursery rhyme folds away and Marvin instead starts out in another direction entirely, bridging the gap with a semi-chant – don’t you know, you… – and then, as the music peels off and the backing singers switch to straight cooing, it’s almost a different song altogether:
…Gave me the world
Little girl, when you gave me your love
So, if you take your love
You take my world with you too, mmm
Another verse, as strange and alien as the first; another bridge, as strange and alien as the first; and then Marvin and the backing singers unite for the chorus, which is even more strange and alien than anything else:
And I said: BABY
Oh, pretty little BABY
Don’t leave me, BABY
Pretty little BABY
Writing it down can’t possibly do it justice. He scrapes the sky; he turns what might have been a standard-issue, off-the-peg plea for another chance from a little boy’s lament into a grown man’s tragedy. It’s not enough that his “baby” know he’s desperate; rather, she needs to know that nobody, ever, in the history of romance, has been quite so on the edge as Marvin’s narrator is here. It’s astonishing.
Right towards the end, he interjects an apparently ad-libbed “Baby, PLEASE!” between lines of the chorus, and it instantly calls up ten different pleading songs by Seventies Marvin, from What’s Going On, Let’s Get It On, I Want You and Here, My Dear, and for the first time since I started doing this blog, you can see a direct, shining path from here to there.
The single sold well enough, though hardly troubling the sales records of its predecessor (Pretty Little Baby eventually went top 30 pop and top 20 R&B, solid if not spectacular), and when the follow-up Ain’t That Peculiar appeared a couple of months later, it bore far more resemblance to the work begun on I’ll Be Doggone than anything suggested by this diversion; Pretty Little Baby was reduced to the status of a bewildering curio, never included on any of Marvin’s albums, a record that wouldn’t properly make sense until Marvin had been universally accepted as a troubled genius rather than a handsome guy who got up on stage and shook his ass for a living.
It’s a million miles away from the cocky swagger and sexy snarl and hip-shaking confidence and drive of Doggone, a record that – sexist overtones or not – had gone a great distance to paint a picture of Marvin Gaye as a character for fans to latch on to, a distance now hastily backtracked by this baffling curveball of a follow-up.
But I get the feeling that Motown recognised something special here; perhaps this was so strong – but so strange – but so strong – that Motown had no choice but to ensure it was released. Whether to fill in some gaps in our knowledge of the brilliance of Marvin Gaye, or whether simply because it’s very good, well, even now I couldn’t say.
What I can say, with some certainty, is that while this isn’t Marvin’s best Motown side so far – it’s bizarre, and it’s miserable (and I just realised I haven’t mentioned the production, which is fuzzy and distorted and generally sounds like it was recorded from inside a shoe) – it’s probably my favourite. It’s raw, it’s honest, it’s painful, it’s beautiful, it’s everything I want when I go to Marvin’s later albums. Quite some going.
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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“They’re Only Words”
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