On April 1, 1984, legendary Motown soul singer Marvin Gaye was shot and killed by his own father. Some believed it was sick April Fool’s joke. It was sick, but it was no joke. In a cruel twist of fate, Gaye died a day shy of his 45th birthday. If Gaye had still been singing his soulful muse, he would have turned 75 on April 2. At this time, I would like to share my ten favorite Marvin Gaye songs with you.
This was Gaye’s contribution to the Disco era. Released in March 1977, it would prove to be his final number one hit on the U.S. Billboard charts. Unlike most disco music, “Got to Give It Up” stills holds up. It makes you want spend the night on the dance floor. Indeed, the backbeat and Gaye’s falsetto would inspire Robin Thicke’s monster 2013 hit “Blurred Lines.” However, when Gaye’s family thought “Blurred Lines” sounded too much like “Got to Give It Up,” Thicke, Pharell Williams and Clifford Harris, Jr. filed suit against Gaye’s estate last August. Gaye’s family filed a countersuit two months later. Well, I’ll be doggone.
This was Gaye’s first collaboration with Motown legend Smokey Robinson who co-wrote “I’ll Be Doggone” with fellow Miracles Marv Tarplin and Pete Moore. Tarplin’s lead guitar gives “I’ll Be Doggone” its backbone. Released in January 1965, it would land in Billboard’s Top Ten.
8. Trouble Man
Following the success Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield had with recording the soundtracks for the blaxploitation films Shaft and Superfly, respectively; Gaye got in on the act by recording the soundtrack for Trouble Man. While the film was not successful, the soundtrack was and highlight of it is the understated title track which Gaye sings in a falsetto voice. He also played both piano and drums on “Trouble Man.”
The title track of Gaye’s 1973 album, it shot up to number one on the Billboard charts late that summer. No doubt many children were conceived to this song. “Let’s Get It On” was co-written by Gaye and Ed Townsend who was previously best known for his 1958 hit “For Your Love.”
I remember having to convince people in high school that the California Raisins did not originally record “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” Composed by the tandem of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was originally recorded by Gladys Knight & The Pips in 1967 to a vastly different arrangement from the version released by Gaye the following year. Although Knight’s version is great in its own right, Gaye’s rendition became the definitive version of the song staying at Number One on the Billboard charts for seven weeks in December 1968 and January 1969. Creedence Clearwater Revival would record a nearly 11 minute version of the song on their 1970 album Cosmo’s Factory inspired by Gaye’s arrangement.
Released in September 1963, “Can I Get a Witness?” was written by the Motown triumvirate of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier, and Eddie Holland who also provide back up vocals along with The Supremes. Throw in some great piano by Earl Van Dyke of the Funk Brothers it is mystery as to why it only reached #22 on the Billboard charts.
4. Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing (with Tami Terrell)
During his two decades as a recording artist, Gaye became well known for recording duets with top female singers such as Diana Ross, Mary Wells, and Kim Weston. But by far his most productive collaboration was with Tami Terrell. They would record three albums together before Terrell would succumb to brain cancer in 1970 at the age of 24. Written by the husband and wife team of Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson, “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” had an upbeat yet understated arrangements which complimented the harmonies of Gaye & Terrell. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” would be a Top Ten hit for Gaye & Terrell in the spring of 1968.
Gaye’s most notable album was What’s Going On? Prior to its release in 1971, Gaye had spent his career covering other people’s songs. With the opportunity to write his own songs What’s Going On had a political edge that was nearly absent from his previous work. “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” was one of the first songs ever written about the environment. (A year before, Iron Butterfly recorded a song with an environmental theme called “Slower Than Guns” on their album Metamorphosis). What I like about this song isn’t so much the lyrics, but rather the long fadeout which is highlighted by a saxophone solo by Wild Bill Moore. “Mercy, Mercy Me” ends with a crescendo full of an impending sense of doom. It is about as depressing a song as one will ever hear on AM radio.
2. You’re All I Need to Get By (with Tami Terrell)
This is my favorite Gaye and Terrell collaboration of all. Ashford & Simpson not only wrote this masterpiece, but also provide background vocals on this track. Terrell would be dead less than two years after “You’re All I Need to Get By” hit the Top Ten. It is said that Gaye never fully recovered from Terrell’s death, which makes listening to this song all the more heartbreaking.
This is my favorite Marvin Gaye song ever. It was written by Smokey Robinson along with fellow Miracles Marv Tarplin, Pete Moore, and Ronald White and became a hit for Gaye in 1965. It’s upbeat yet has an underlying melancholy. I love both Tarplin’s guitar work on the intro and backup vocals by The Andantes. Some of you might find my favorite Marvin Gaye song is, well, peculiar. But when it comes to Marvin Gaye’s music I don’t think you can really go wrong.
Honorable Mention: “The Star Spangled Banner,” 1983 NBA All-Star Game
In one of his last public appearances, Gaye sang a rousing, soulful version of our national anthem. Gaye even had the audience clapping in unison with him. Nearly 15 years earlier, Gaye sang the anthem at Tiger Stadium prior to Game 4 of the 1968 World Series. His rendition was far more conventional. The following afternoon it was Jose Feliciano’s turn and all hell broke loose. While many vilified Feliciano for his unique take, I can’t help but think that Gaye wished he had sung it that way. (Interestingly, Feliciano would later record a peculiar version of “Ain’t That Peculiar”). Well, Gaye would get his chance to sing the anthem his way before it all came to an end.
In honor of what would have been his 75th birthday, I hope you will share your favorite Marvin Gaye songs with me.