Leon Ware was one of the most prolific soul songwriters of the 1970’s. There were collaborations with Ike & Tina Turner, Quincy Jones, and the incomparable Minnie Riperton. He was a Motown man, though, thanks to the work he penned for the Miracles and Jackson 5 among others, and by 1975 he was ready to record Musical Massage for the company when Marvin Gaye heard a cassette of his material and begged Ware to give him some of the tracks to expand his romantic classic, I Want You.
Ware was already serving as producer on Gaye’s album and three of his demo tracks with co-producer T-Boy Ross were already set for inclusion. Before long, Ware had songwriting credits on every single song, but, far more importantly, his arrangements solidified the suite-like theme for the album, which deserves as much mention as Gaye’s seductive vocal presence.
It is impossible to listen to the reissue of Musical Massage and not hear the strains of I Want You. The album followed Gaye’s and did not receive the support it probably needed to distinguish itself from not just I Want You, but also the similarly timed releases by Jones and Riperton which benefited from Ware’s masterful touch.
While that historical link is compelling, it is shortsighted. Ware’s impact on romantic soul should be brought forward to neosoul child Maxwell, whose debut, Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, credits Ware on the breakthrough single “Sumthin’ Sumthin”, but it would be a shame to stop there. Maxwell and co-producer Stuart Matthewman (Sade and Sweetback co-founder) lay claim to the bedroom spirituality that Ware preached.
Angelic background vocals mingle with light string flourishes on a higher plane, but persistent percussion and driving rhythm guitar anchors the warm, sweetly aching flesh. Besides the presence of Riperton on “Instant Love” and the demo of “Comfort”, which became “Come Live with Me, Angel”, Ware received vocal accompaniment from Gaye on “Holiday” and assistance from Bobby Womack on both “Holiday” and “Musical Massage”. Although the strong, unsung work by guitarists David T. Walker and session great Ray Parker Jr. should also not be overlooked as part of this winning formula.
The attention to musical detail in creating and sustaining a sensual mood is the debt that Maxwell and Matthewman seem to acknowledge, and their primary studio players, including Wah Wah Watson, former New Power Generation drummer Michael Bland, and percussionist Bashiri Johnson, are standouts who would have been right at home working with Ware. And Maxwell is known for a heady, sometimes indecipherable stew of carnal spirituality.
In the liner notes for the reissue, Ware discusses the lyrical connection between the secular and the sacred in “Don’t You Wanna Come”, the demo that Gaye helped transform into “After the Dance”. “My original idea came from the church,” he notes, “I recalled the preacher standing in front of the congregation, calling them to come to Jesus. ‘Don’t you want to come? Don’t you want to come inside the Lord?’ I took that and went between the sheets.”
Despite the fact that Gaye’s voice may carry further, old school lovermen-in-training would do well to lay back and let Ware’s Musical Massage teach them how to do a body right.