Somebody once asked me to name my top 10 favorite music albums. After thinking for awhile, I decided that would be nearly impossible, since so many of my favorite artists have recorded multiple albums I could include on such a list.
However, one that definitely would be in there is “What’s Going On,” by the great Marvin Gaye.
Like other great musical artists, Gaye recorded multiple exceptional albums — but “What’s Going On” shot him to a whole other level. Hearing the album for the first time, it’s hard to realize the the album’s quality would not be immediately recognizable upon first hearing. However, Gaye had to battle with Motown record company founder, Berry Gordy Jr. to get the album released on Motown’s subsidiary label, Tamla.
Gordy didn’t object as much to the quality as to the content. He didn’t want one of his label’s leading artists delving deeply into the issues of the day. Gaye’s album wasn’t so much a political call-to-action, but a series of questions and observations regarding the state of the nation. Like so many Americans in early 1970s, Gaye questioned what the late 1960s and early 1970s had wrought, singing about everything from demonstrations to ecology.
The album’s quality wasn’t just in its lyrics, though. The music on the album — which features one of the best utilizations of synthesizers I’ve ever heard — presented a soundscape that sounded other-worldly, but conveyed an earthy quality at the same time. That’s quite a feat.
Gaye’s massive contributions to American music will be formally recognized by the U.S. Postal Service on April 2, when the U.S.P.S. will deliver a commemorative postage stamp on his honor — marking the occasion that would have been Gaye’s 80th birthday. It’s a fitting tribute to the musical giant.
When I first learned a stamp would be issued in Gaye’s honor, I wondered which image of him they would choose. Would it be the young, slick clean-cut image Gaye presented when performing in the mid-1960s when he began having his first chart successes and song in a smooth, slick style? Or would it be more akin to his appearance when he cut his later recordings, when he grew a beard and often wore a knit sock hat, or toboggan?
Those who admire Gaye’s music got their answer when the Postal Service revealed the stamp it will issue. It will be the older, toboggan-wearing Gaye who will be commemorated on the stamp’s main image. I can’t want to get a sheet of the Marvin Gaye stamps to tuck back with some of my other mementos.
I first became of Gaye when I heard one of his earliest hits — “I’ll Be Doggone.” I liked the double sentiment in the lyrics, with the singer delivering a heartfelt message how he’s work all day and give his “baby” all his pay — unless he finds out she’s running around and spending his money all over town. “Then, I wouldn’t be doggone,” he intones — “I’d be long-gone.” Gaye delivered both the sentiments of love and the warning about running around with equal aplomb.
The first time I remember seeing Gaye perform came when he joined a roster of other singers — ranging from the Beach Boys and the Rollings Stones, to the Supremes and James Brown — on what was called the T.A.M.I. show, with the T.A. M.I. supposedly a reference to Teenaged Music International. A theatrical release, the movie gave many music fans an opportunity to see some of their favorites musical heroes do extended sets, because the televised variety shows of the time usually limited performers to only one or two songs.
Gaye came on about mid-point in the show — suave and debonair in a suit and tie. His extended set included some of his early hits, including “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” “Can I Get a Witness” and “Pride and Joy.” He closed with another early hit, “Hitch Hike.” The Rolling Stones must have been watching and listening, because they later covered the song on their “Out of Our Heads” album.
Gaye went on to issue a number of hits, including “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You).” The song would be covered a few years later by James Taylor, who would also score a hit with it.
Gaye’s biggest hit by far to that point came with another song that had already been made a hit a year before Gaye’s version was released. Songwriters Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong co-wrote a song in which they believed: “I Heard It Though the Grapevine.” The Miracles recorded it first, followed by Gaye’s version, but Gordy vetoed the release of Gaye’s record. Instead, it went to Gladys Knight and the Pips — who sent the song to number 2 on the charts in 1967.
It would appear that Gaye had forever lost his chance at leasing a single of the song, so it was placed on his album “In the Groove,” with the idea of making it a deep cut. However, upon release of the album, radio disc jockeys took the record-in-hand and slapped it on the turntable. Demand from listeners grew so great, that Gordy had to relent and release Gaye’s version as a single too— even though Knight and the Pips had already taken it to number 2 on the charts.
No matter. Gay’s version proved so iconic that it shot to number 1 and became even a bigger hit than Knight’s version. Once the song’s ominous keyboard-laden opening riff is heard, it’s likely to stay in your head .
Creedence Clearwater Revival also scored a hit with the song — featuring a rare, extended guitar solo from John Fogerty.
It’s fitting Gaye’s receiving the April 2 honor from the U.S. Postal Service.
One thing’s for certain regarding the music of Marvin Gaye — and it’s well-described by the title of one of his many hits songs.
Whenever I hear Gaye’s voice, regardless of the song or the era in which it was recorded, I often have the same thought: “How Sweet It Is!”
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com