In the Wee Small Hours . . .
Marvin Gaye has long been acknowledged as the “Crown Prince” of the Motown Corporation. Beginning as a session drummer for the label (after a brief “doo-wop” career in Harvey Fuqua’s MoonGlows and the Ravens), Gaye emerged as the label’s signature male solo vocalist with the release of “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and a string of soul-pop ditties like “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved By You”, “Can I Get a Witness”, and “Hitch Hike”. By the mid-1960s, Motown began to consciously pair Gaye with female vocalists like Mary Wells and Kim Weston, finally creating the legendary pairing of Gaye and Tammi Terrell, who have become the very definition of romantic duets in the pop music industry. After Terrell’s death in 1970 of a brain tumor, Gaye embarked on an aggressive and ambitious shift in his career, recording the ground-breaking “protest” album What’s Going On (1971). Two years after its release Gaye again shifted gears, recording one of the most majestic tomes of carnal pleasure ever with the hugely influential Let’s Get It On (1973). Because of the recording and the commercial success of the title single, Gaye has forever been known—even some 18 years after his death—as the “Love Man”. The new collection Love Songs: Bedroom Ballads draws upon this legacy, compiling some of Gaye’s most accomplished, yet largely obscure, love ballads.
Material for Love Songs: Bedroom Ballads is largely drawn from two sources, Gaye’s now legendary Vulnerable sessions and I Want You (1975), his soulful celebration of orgasmic ecstasy. The latter is not to be confused with Let’s Get It On, which while also dedicated to carnal pleasures attempts to find some balance between celebrating sexual gratification (“Let’s Get It On” and “Keep Gettin’ It On”) and morbid spirituality (“If I Should Die Tonight”). I Want You was Gaye’s first studio disc after Let’s Get It On (Marvin Gaye Live and his duet album with Diana Ross were released in between), and Gaye seemed hell-bent on pushing the proverbial sexual envelope as the recording is laced with not so subtle sexual innuendo, including the conscious decision to layer some of the tracks with the sounds of female orgasm (former Delphonics leader Major Harris had his only major hit, “Love Won’t Let Me Wait”, using the same strategy.) The disc was largely co-produced with Leon Ware (see Quincy Jones’ “If I Never Lose This Heaven” and Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are”, which is reworked on I Want You).
Love Songs: Bedroom Ballads features three tracks from I Want You. On “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again”, co-written with Ware and the late T-Boy Ross (Diana’s brother) Gaye opens the song with the lovely lyric, “Dream of you this morning, then came the dawning and I thought you were here with me . . . in my dreams I was lovin’ you, every place that you wanted me to”. The song functions as a grand come-on in which Gaye later admits, “although I never gave up no head (before) / But there’s always a first time you know / I’ve made up my mind soon I’ll be lovin’ you”. By song’s end, Gaye has built a refrain around the act of cunnilingus, gleefully singing, “give you some head baby, I gonna lock you right up woman”, perhaps providing some context for R. Kelly’s equally gleeful refrain of “feelin’ on you booo-ootee” in the remix of “Feelin’ on Your Booty”. On the percolating “Since I Had You”, Gaye narrates a chance meeting between former lovers at a “neighborhood dance”. That “neighborhood dance” has been immortalized on the cover art of I Want You, which features painter Ernie Barnes’ famous Sugar Shack (Barnes’ work also adorned the set of the series Good Times). In some regards the song is simply brilliant, if one tries to strip away all of the song’s musical and narrative levels. Throughout the song, Gaye’s mellifluous falsetto is layered with his explicit backing vocals (“body soak ‘n’ wet, ejaculated sweat” and “won’t you give me some, let’s go home and ‘cum’”) and the orgasmic moans of said former lover. Ironically, the song’s bridge, which Gaye begins with “Big Daddy Rucker sure nuff getting down, ah this is a mellow dance . . .” turns inaudible when Gaye sings “remember how I used to do this to you . . .” There’s not a critic who has written about this song who has not spent some significant hours trying to decipher what were likely even more explicit lyrics than those that are audible. Compared to “Since I Had You”, the explicitly titled “Feel All My Love Inside” is tame (this would also be the case for Minnie Riperton’s equally provocative titled “Come Inside My Love” which was also co-written by Leon Ware).
Whereas the tracks from I Want You are explicit in their motivations (sexual and aural climax), the tracks drawn from Vulnerable are amazing exercises in recorded romance. The sessions date back to 1967 and the initial work that Gaye did with the late and legendary arranger Bobby Scott on a collection of Big Band standards. Gaye’s work with Scott’s original charts continued for more than 12 years as he recorded the tracks several different times, the most astounding of them made as Gaye began to fine tune the multi-layered vocal approach that made his groundbreaking What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On such brilliant achievements. With those two recordings, Gaye began to layer his different vocal ranges (falsetto, mid-range [his normal singing voice] and a gospel-like growl) often creating a Marvin Gaye “trio”. Most pop audiences were unaware, for example, that when Billy Joel used such a strategy for his fine “The Longest Time” (from 1983’s An Innocent Man), Gaye had perfected it a decade earlier. In some ways, Gaye did for vocal layering what the Beach Boys did for sound layering on their amazing Pet Sounds (1967). As many critics have noted (see Gerald Early’s One Nation Under a Groove: Motown and American Culture and David Ritz’s Gaye bio Divided Soul), Gaye was profoundly influenced by pop vocalists in his formative years, especially Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole (see Gaye’s Cole tribute album), thus Vulnerable was Gaye’s attempt to make a recording on the scale of Sinatra’s In the Wee Small Hours. Different versions of the Vulnerable tracks have been released since Gaye’s death in 1984 on Romantically Yours (1985), the Marvin Gaye Box Set (1990), and a second box set, Marvin Gaye: The Master, 1961 - 1984 (1995). The project itself, featuring different versions of the core tracks, was finally released in 1997.
Love Songs: Bedroom Ballads collects seven of the Vulnerable tracks, focusing on the single-layered versions of the songs. On “Funny, Not Much” and “This Will Make You Laugh”, Gaye plays it straight, toying opposite an uncredited muted trumpet. Both are fine vocal performances that speak powerfully of Gaye’s interpretive prowess, but are a far cry from the multilayered versions of the songs that have been released elsewhere. The version of “The Shadow of Your Smile” that appears on LS:BB had been previously unreleased, and sounds like one of the many early versions of Vulnerable tracks where Gaye was trying to find a place for “Marvin Gaye” within these songs, thus he sounds more like a “guy” trying to riff off of Sinatra than Marvin Gaye. Of the Vulnerable tracks compiled on LS:BB, “I Wish I Didn’t Love You So” is the clear standout if only because it is the one song that features the competing “Marvins” as Gaye’s mid-range is layered under his gospel “shout”. What it creates for the listener is a wonderful rendition of the Frank Loesser standard that is simply off the charts as Gaye yelps his way through the final stanza creating the kind of soulful cacophony that has made him legendary. Motown is to be commended for continually introducing fragments of the Vulnerable sessions to audiences. As great as legendary recordings like What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On are, Vulnerable remains his most significant vocal achievement.
Love Songs: Bedroom Ballads is completed with tracks from Let’s Get it On (the still cool come on “You Sure Love to Ball”), his “divorce” project Here, My Dear (1978) (re-teaming with Let’s Get It On alumnus Ed Townsend on the optimistic “Falling in Love Again”,) and the moody “Funk Me” from Gaye’s last Motown outing, In Our Lifetime (1981).