"Marvin could caress a song like no other singer. He could even bring tears to the eyes of the upper crust." - Frankie Gaye, in his memoir about his brother Marvin Gaye
It is not always a good thing to learn too much about artists whose work we admire and who were so influential in shaping the music of the times in which we've lived.
I definitely felt that way this past week when, in search of a tidbit about the Temptations' Paul Williams that I had heard might be lurking in a book about Marvin Gaye's life, I ended up listening to six CDs about a man who was about as tormented a human being as one could possibly imagine.
I refer to the audiobook version of Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, by David Ritz. I knew I wasn't going to read it because rarely is that genre of book well written by any definition of the term. So since the length of my daily commute just cries out for ways to keep me entertained, I slogged through the set, hoping I'd find what I was looking for about Paul (I didn't) and learning more about Gaye's life, about which I knew just the usual highlights (or lowlights).
I don't want to disparage the man; his body of work was a gift to our generation. But after listening to his story, I must say I'm surprised he wasn't killed sooner than he was. Hell, I wanted to kill him - he was insufferable. His own worst enemy, he was a colossal mess of a human being and brought misery to many in his private life. As it was stated in the book, he "turned blessings into burdens." And that would be putting it mildly. Like Michael Jackson, he was extremely disturbed, brought on in part by a lifelong terrible relationship with his father and massively conflicted feelings about his animal vs. his spiritual nature. He desperately needed psychological help he never got.
But his music, for all his relentless despair, was sublime, and his sensibilities enabled him to be comfortable working in different genres. His first top 10 single, Pride and Joy, is an example of how swinging Gaye could be - certainly a lightweight sort of song, compared to, say, his masterpiece What's Going On, but as he interpreted it, it was fabulous. It was inspired by his feelings for his first wife, Anna Gordy (Berry's daughter, yikes I meant sister, thanks J!!) and made Gaye Motown's most successful solo artist to that point, bringing with it pressures that he could never surmount.
Written by Gaye, Norman Whitfield and Mickey Stevenson, Pride and Joy also features Martha and the Vandellas. Singing background was one of the ways the girls earned their keep around Motown until they could get their lucky break (see my earlier post on Heat Wave to learn more about them).
In these early days, Marvin was a paragon of cool - it's pointed out in Divided Soul that he actually aspired to be a crooner like Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole more than he did a soul man. He admired singers who were extremely relaxed like Perry Como and Dean Martin. In Gaye's case, his relaxed persona may have stemmed in part from the fact that he was never straight, but that's another story. The fact is, he had a silky, emotional voice that oozed with style, very reminiscent of Sam Cooke, whom he idolized. If you want to dissect it a bit, YouTube has an a cappella version of Pride and Joy that's a lovely novelty - you can really immerse yourself in his voice. Enjoy!