This past April marked what would have been the 80th birthday of one of Motown Records’ greatest talents, Marvin Gaye. Sadly it also represented the 35th anniversary of his senseless death as his father shot him in what appears to have been a domestic dispute.
To commemorate Gaye’s contributions to popular music, the United States Postal Service has issued a stamp with his portrait. In addition Universal Music Group, which now owns the Motown Records catalog, has just released “You’re The Man,” an album that was recorded in late 1971 and set for release for the following year. It never saw the light of day until now.
Berry Gordy, the founder and chief executive officer of Motown, always wanted the artists on his label to be apolitical and to instead concentrate on tunes that dealt with relationships and other universal themes. While there were occasional Motown hits that dealt with the problems of the real world such as the Supremes’ Love Child” and the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” they stood out because they were the exceptions to the way that Gordy liked doing business.
Gordy faced a conundrum in 1972. Marvin Gaye, who had been one of his most reliable hit makers for the past decade had a massive hit album with the critically acclaimed “What’s Going On” which spawned three hits, “Mercy, Mercy Me” which was one of the first songs to warn about global pollution; and the title track and “Inner City Blues,” which looked at the very grimy side of urban life at the time.
There is little doubt that while Berry Gordy was satisfied with the sales of “What’s Going On” he was hoping that Marvin Gaye had gotten the social commentary out of his system. You can just imagine the look of anguish when he got the first acetate pressing of Gaye’s followup album to “What’s Going On/” and heard tunes as “This World Is Rated X,” which had nothing to do with carnal pleasures (a topic that Gaye would delve into quite frequently with hits as “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing”) but rather the economic hardships many faced; “Piece Of Clay,” a gospel-inspired tune about backstabbing; and finally the title track, “You’re The Man,” which excoriated insincere politicians.
Whenever an album gets shelved it’s an understandable reaction to think that the quality of the music on it couldn’t have been very good. That is certainly not the case with “You’re The Man” and that’s besides the fact that Marvin Gaye’s leftovers would be better than 99% of everyone else’s music.
I am mystified about why Berry Gordy was so dead set against releasing this album since most of the songs stayed away from controversial themes and stuck with traditional upbeat pop themes. “You’re The Man” clearly demonstrates why the early 1970s was a very fertile period for both pop and soul music. Gaye, as was his wont, made catchy music that wasn’t appreciated by Motown’s gatekeeper.
Gaye was not reticent about showing his influences here. “I’m Gonna Give You Respect” has a Curtis Mayfield feeling while “Try It, You’ll Like It,” whose titled was undoubtedly derived from the tag line of a popular Alka-Seltzer TV ad at the time, evokes memories of Tower of Power with its strong brass sections and lively vocals. “You Are My Special One,” showcased Gaye’s falsetto at its best while “My Last Chance” has the lush orchestration that is reminiscent more of Ken Gamble & Leon Huff’s Philadelphia International sound than it does Motown.
There is even an original Christmas tune thrown in for good measure, “ I Want To Come Home For Christmas,” which sounds like the kind of tune that Berry Gordy would certainly love with its hooks and Marvin Gaye imploring that he can’t wait to see Santa Claus. The problem for Gordy was that Gaye made it clear that he was singing this tune from the viewpoint of an American prisoner of war in North Vietnam.
If you want to back to a time when music was both good and meant something be sure to listen to “You’re The Man.”