Friday, February 15, 2013

 

Marvin Gaye's Artistry

"An artist, if he is truly an artist, is only interested in one thing and that is to wake up the minds of men, to have mankind and womankind realize that there is something greater than what we see on the surface."--Marvin Gaye, speaking in Richard Olivier's documentary "Marvin Gaye: Transit Ostend"

Marvin Gaye's timeless, soulful voice is a finely tuned instrument that is appreciated by music experts and casual fans alike; Julius Erving once declared, "To me, Marvin Gaye is the greatest singer ever. You know what I mean? You listen to Luther and all of these other great singers, but when Marvin comes on, I gotta stop! He moves me. I gotta stop and say, 'That's the man.' Now someone may come along and lay 10 or 20 tracks and get the job done. You know, one of the ages, a classic. But it's not Marvin, who is the standard for me."

This is Gaye's unforgettable rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" prior to the 1983 NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles (Erving scored 25 points and won MVP honors as his East team defeated the West, 132-123):



Marvin Gaye died by his father's hand on April 1, 1984--less than 14 months after that passionate performance and one day before his 45th birthday--but his music is eternally fresh and relevant. Gaye's career followed a twisting path dotted with shining successes and stunning setbacks. He started out with a do-wop quartet called the Marquees in the late 1950s before signing with Motown to do some session work. His first solo album, "The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye," came out in June 1961 but did not reach the charts. Gaye's first hit was the single "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," which made the Billboard Hot 100 and reached the Top 10 of the Billboard R&B chart. In 1965, Gaye had three Billboard Hot 100 Top 10 singles ("How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)," "I'll Be Doggone" and "Ain't That Peculiar." Gaye began singing duets with Tammi Terrell in 1967 and they released a string of hits, including "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Your Precious Love," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" and "You're All I Need to Get By," the second and final chart-topping Billboard R&B single for the duo; whether or not Gaye and Terrell were lovers off stage, you believe that they were lovers after listening to them sing that song:




At the same time his partnership with Terrell produced those classic Motown hits, Gaye's solo career also took off: he had his first Billboard Hot 100 number one single in October 1968 with "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," a song that was later recognized by the Grammy Hall of Fame for "historical, artistic and significant" value.

A cancerous brain tumor killed Terrell in 1970 and her death devastated Gaye, plunging him into depression, but he emerged out of the darkness in 1971 to release the landmark "What's Going On" album, a tour de force both musically and culturally--Gaye's passionate cri de coeur against racism, war, poverty, drug abuse and other societal problems. Gaye openly defied Motown chief Berry Gordy, who wanted Gaye to stick to singing love songs--and the vindication of Gaye's view ultimately is not the commercial success of "What's Going On" (even though it was very successful commercially) but rather the enduring message it so eloquently expresses both lyrically and musically. The concept album opens with the title track--which reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the Billboard R&B chart--and includes two other singles that topped the Billboard R&B chart: "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)."

Martin Johnson summarized the album's greatness: "'What's Going On' is a deeply humanist work that acknowledges the desolation and turmoil but calls for a marshaling of human strengths to build a better tomorrow. That optimism amid grim circumstances is what has made the recording a timeless work" (November 25-26, 2006 edition of the Wall Street Journal). Alexander Solzhenitsyn's brilliant quote about art in general applies in this specific case as well: "A work of art contains its verification in itself: artificial, strained concepts do not withstand the test of being turned into images; they fall to pieces, turn out to be sickly and pale, convince no one. Works which draw on truth and present it to us in live and concentrated form grip us, compellingly involve us, and no one ever, not even ages hence, will come forth to refute them."

Gaye followed up "What's Going On" with two Billboard Hot 100 number one singles ("Let's Get it On" in 1973 and "Got to Give it Up" in 1977) but he suffered a series of personal and professional setbacks in the latter part of the 1970s. Gaye and his first wife Anna Gordy (Berry Gordy's sister) divorced in 1977; he then married married Janis Hunter, who delivered him two children before she and Gaye divorced. Tax problems and drug addiction also afflicted the tormented Gaye when he sojourned to Ostend, Belgium in early 1981 seeking tranquility and peace of mind. During a conversation in Belgium with David Ritz, Gaye expressed frustrations about his failed relationships with women and Ritz told Gaye that Gaye needed "sexual healing"--a close, loving relationship with a woman to heal Gaye's troubled soul. That phrase formed the basis for Gaye's last hit (the extent of Ritz' contribution has been disputed but Gaye's estate eventually settled a lawsuit with Ritz by granting Ritz partial songwriting credit); in 1982, "Sexual Healing" reached the top of the Billboard R&B chart, peaked at number three on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned Gaye the first two Grammy Awards of his career. Gaye may never have found the healing that he sought but his daughter Nona offered an interesting take about love in the March 2002 issue of Esquire: "You know, we're allotted three soul mates in a lifetime. So don't give up hope when you think you found your soul mate and it doesn't work out. You get three. I don't know if you always find all three."
Here is an intimate look at Gaye's Belgian interlude, from the Richard Olivier film "Marvin Gaye: Transit Ostend":



As a chess player, the name Ostend always conjured up for me images of the famous tournaments held there in the early 20th century but now when I see or hear Ostend I think first of Marvin Gaye seeking refuge there before making one last ascent to the top of the music business. Without the brief Ostend respite we may never have received the gift of Gaye's "Star Spangled Banner" or the aching yearnings he expressed in "Sexual Healing"--and if Gaye had stayed in Ostend instead of returning to the United States maybe he would still be alive and would still be creating music like his contemporaries Paul McCartney, the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen. The way that Gaye played the piano with such unbridled joy (starting around the 6:00 mark of the video) is beautiful--and particularly poignant considering that those talented fingers would soon be silenced forever. You can also hear part of "What's Going On" starting around the :40 mark.

Despite his suffering and his torments, Gaye lived up to the artist's mantra that he stated in the opening moments of "Transit Ostend": "What's Going On" issued a clarion call to wake up the minds of "mankind and womankind" to societal ills that must be addressed in order for our species to survive; Gaye's brother had fought in Vietnam, Gaye had witnessed poverty, racism, suffering and ecological problems and his thoughts/feelings about all of those issues just poured out of him. Neither his depression about Tammi Terrell's death nor Berry Gordy's objections could contain Gaye's urgency to produce his masterpiece and that is the essence of great art: powerful thoughts/feelings that a genius does not merely want to express--he needs to express those sentiments creatively as much as he needs to breathe, to drink and to eat and he cannot survive without doing so.

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