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Saturday, December 14, 2013

Sweet Sounds Coming Down on the Night Shift: "What's Going On" and "Sexual Healing"

So much has been written about Marvin Gaye's life -- the tremendous talents, the ups and downs of his career, and his tragic demise at the hands of his father. Biographies are cited below. If you haven't read about Marvin's turbulent life, Steven Turner's book is an excellent start.

I don't want to discuss Gaye's biography in detail, except as it relates directly to two songs he wrote, produced, and sang. Everyone knows Marvin's music was among the very best from Motown and later from CBS. In this entry, I want to keep the focus on two of the many Marvin Gaye hit songs.

Two Marvin Gaye anthems changed the face of R&B, and, in turn, paved the way for new directions in popular music. These monumental songs transcended musical tastes; they introduced new perspectives by dealing with controversial themes in American society. In a word, the songs were not emblematic of Marvin Gaye and his music; instead, these songs were dicotomies of the very soul of the man. They remain landmarks for talented artists to this day.

"What's Going On" (Released in 1971 on the Motown subsidiary, Tamla) 

Marvin Gaye was experiencing tremendous turmoil when he wrote "What's Going On." His marriage to Anna Gordy, his boss's sister, was in shambles (although the divorce wouldn't be final until 1977). He was deeply affected by the death of his duet partner and close friend Tammi Terrell, who had collapsed into his arms during a concert and succumbed to a brain tumor a year earlier. Marvin was struggling with the culture of turbulence -- the Vietnam War, the drug use in the inner city; the assassinations of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Robert Kennedy; the race and ant-war riots across the country.

According to accounts, the song's inspiration came from Renaldo "Obie" Benson, a member of the Motown Four Tops, and from Frankie Gaye, Marvin's younger brother. Benson witnessed police brutality and violence in Berkeley's People's Park during the famous Bloody Thursday protest.

Benson said to author Ben Edmonds, "I saw this and started wondering 'what the heck was going on, what is happening here?' One question led to another. Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets?"

Additional inspiration for "What's Going On" came from Frankie, who talked with Marvin about his own experiences while serving in Vietnam. Also in 1968, Marvin Gaye's cousin had died in the Vietnam War. -- an event that greatly impacted both of them. The actual expression "what's going on" is said to be a greeting often used by Marvin and his Detroit Lions friends, Mel Farr and Lem Barney, who sing backup on the track.

The time was right for change. It seems everyone wondered about the impact of the counter culture. Gaye, himself, had been personally inspired by social ills committed in the United States, citing the 1965 Watts riots as a turning point in his life in which he asked himself, "'With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?'"

During phone conversations with Motown head Berry Gordy, who was vacationing in the Bahamas at the time, Gaye had told Gordy that he wanted to record a protest record, to which Gordy said in response, "Marvin, don't be ridiculous. That's taking things too far."

Gaye rarely participated in the songwriting process at Motown until producing "What's Going On." Of course, the song was a powerful political statement, not the normal, pop fare of the Motown hit machine, but Gaye was convinced he could use this vehicle to make an important statement as an artist. At the time, Motown artists Stevie Wonder and the Temptations were also recording more serious and challenging material, much different from the Motown hits of the '60s.

In truth, credit for writing "What's Going On" must be given to songwriter Al Cleveland, Renaldo "Obie" Benson, and Marvin Gaye, but it was Gaye who injected magic into the mix.

Benson presented the untitled song to Marvin Gaye, who added a new melody and arrangement, and he revised the song to his liking, adding in his own lyrics. Marvin even drafted in extra players, including several Detroit Symphony members. Benson later said Gaye tweaked and enriched the song, "added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem like a story than a song... we measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it."

Benson wanted to give the song to his group but the other Four Tops turned down the request. Folk singer Joan Baez also passed on it. Marvin Gaye actually wanted the Originals to record the song, but Benson and Cleveland talked him into recording it himself.

(Dorian Lynskey. 33 Revolutions per Minute: A History of Protest Songs,
 from Billie Holiday to Green Day. HarperCollins. 2011)

Gaye asked his engineer Kenneth Sands to give him his two vocal leads to compare what he wanted to use for the song's release. Sands ended up mixing the leads together, by accident. However, when he heard it, Gaye was so impressed with the double-lead feel that he kept it, influencing his later recordings where he mastered vocal multi-layering adding in three different vocal parts. Rock critic Dave Marsh (1989) said this resulted in "a vocal that moves through a dreamscape in which facts and wishes are equally terrible."

Rob Bowman stated that by the early 1970s, Gaye had essentially developed "three distinct voices; his smooth, sweet tenor, a growling rasp and an unreal falsetto."

Bowman further wrote that the recording of the "What's Going On" single was "the first single to utilize all three as Marvin developed a radical approach to constructing his recordings by layering a series of  background vocal lines on different tracks, each one conceived and sung in isolation by Marvin himself." Bowman cites Gaye's multi-tracking of his tenor voice and other vocal styles "summon[ed] up what might be termed the ancient art of weaving."

(Rob Bowman. "Marvin Gaye: The Real Thing". Marvin Gaye: 
The Real Thing in Performance 1964-1981. April 2006)

And speaking of the recording, the Funk Brothers, the legendary house band of Motown, relate an infamous James Jamerson incident related to the song. Jamerson, a Funk Brother himself and one of the most renowned bass guitarists ever, was known to imbibe quite a bit. Respected Motown arranger and conductor David Van De Pitte said later to Ben Edmonds that Jamerson "always kept a bottle of [the Greek spirit] Metaxa in his bass case. He could really put that stuff away, and then sit down and still be able to play. His tolerance was incredible. It took a hell a lot to get him smashed."

The night of the recording of "What's Going On," Jamerson was pulled into the session after Gaye located him playing with a band at a local bar. Jamerson entered the studio to record the bass lines to the song, but, according to the story, Jamerson couldn't sit properly in his seat, and, instead, he lay on the floor playing his wonderful, liquid bass riffs.

(Richard Buskin. "Marvin Gaye 'What's Going On?'" SOS. July 2011)

When the recording had been done,"What's Going On" was an incomparable song of haunting social commentary oriented in sounds of jazz, gospel, and classical music orchestration. Gaye's fingerprints were all over every element of the recording.

Reports say the song was issued without Gordy's knowledge. Motown head Berry Gordy Jr. admits he had reservations about "What's Going On." The single was considered a gamble for Motown's congenial image. Over the years rumors have surfaced that Gordy hated the record until he discovered the single had sold 100,000 copies in the US upon its release

Gordy, himself, claims the stories surrounding his refusal to release the song are false. He explained to the Wall Street Journal:

"For years, people have written that I stood in the way of this song's release and that Marvin had threatened never to record for me again if I didn't put it out," he said. "That must make for great reading, but none of it is true.

"My reason for pushing back on Marvin wasn't to stop the single, just to determine whether or not this was another one of his wild ideas," Gordy said. "Motown was about music for all people—white and black, blue and green, cops and the robbers. I was reluctant to have our music alienate anyone. This was a big risk for his image."

"What's Going On" had a tremendous impact because listeners weren't used to hearing social commentary from Gaye. As Jackson Browne said in a 2008 interview with Rolling Stone: "No one was expecting an anti-war song from him. But it was a moment in time when people were willing to hear it from anybody, if it was heartfelt. And who better than the person who has talked to you about love and desire?"

The album What's Going On contains the song with the same title. A concept album, it's a suite that tackles many issues, including the environment ("Mercy Mercy Me") and poverty ("Inner City Blues"). It was the first album Gaye released that sold a lot of copies. Until then, like most Motown artists, he had lots of hit singles but album sales were secondary.

The song topped Detroit's Metro Times list of the 100 Greatest Detroit Songs of All Time, and in 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it the fourth greatest song of all time. In the same list updated in 2013, the song remained at that position. It is also included in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list, along with two other songs by the singer. It was also listed at number fourteen on VH-1's 100 Greatest Rock Songs.

Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today, yeah

Father, father
We don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today

Picket lines and picket sign
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me
So you can see
Oh, what's going on
What's going
What's going on
What's going on

Right on, baby
Right on
Right on

Mother, mother
Everybody thinks we're wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply because our hair is long
Oh, you know we've got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Come on talk to me
So you can see
What's going on
What's going on
Tell me what's going on
I'll tell you ya, what's going on

Right on, baby
Right on, baby
Right on, baby

"Sexual Healing" (Released in 1982 on Columbia Records)

Sex has always been a staple of popular music -- the blues, R&B, and rock. Moving to the beat of the song suggests doing it through suggestive dance or heated copulation. An early, slang definition of rock was “to cause to move with musical rhythm." In fact, roll has been used for centuries to denote having intercourse as in the phrase "rolling in the hay."

"By the early 20th century “rock” had morphed somewhat to being used as a slang term by black Americans referring to dancing to music with a strong beat, principally rhythm and blues -- at the time called 'race music' or 'race records.' 

"Around the early '20s, these two terms, 'rock and roll,' had naturally merged together, forming a double entendre, typically referring to very suggestive or scandalous dancing as well as simply having sex, depending on how you looked at it.  One example of this is the 1922 song “My Man Rocks Me, with One Steady Roll.”

 (Daven Hiskey. "Where the Term 'Rock and Roll' Came From." October 5, 2010)

Rock, including R&B, (I despise the need to categorize various divisions of music with a beat.) has always been concerned with shocking diversions from the "safe," middle-of-the-road pap of the pop culture. The music embraces sexual references and overall liberalism, and the aggressiveness of this genre suggests freedom -- sexual freedom being among the liberties. As Keith Richards once said, "Rock and Roll: Music for the neck downwards."

Double entendre, suggestion, connotation, race records, even doo wop -- it's all rock and roll in the hay. As times become more and more liberal and coy evocation becomes overt lyric, sex is at the heart and the genitalia of the music.

(Come softly, darling)
(Come softly, darling)
I need, need you so much

Wanna feel your warm touch   

"Come Softly To Me" The Fleetwoods

Ridin' along in my automobile
I'm anxious to tell her the way I feel
So I told her softly and sincere
And she leaned and whispered in my ear
Cuddlin' more and drivin' slow
 With no particular place to go

No particular place to go
So we parked way out on the Kokomo
The night was young and the moon was bold
So we both decided to take a stroll
Can you imagine the way I felt?
I couldn't unfasten her safety belt!

"No Particular Place To Go"  Chuck Berry

Well I'm a king bee baby
Buzzing around your hive
Yeah I can make honey baby
 Let me come inside.   

"King Bee" Slim Harpo

When you come home you can eat pork and beans
I eats mo' chicken any man seen

I'm your backdoor manThe men don't know 
But the little girls understand

"Backdoor Man"  Howlin' Wolf

Mary, Mary, quite contrary
Tell me, how does your garden grow?
You got silver bells and you got cockleshells
Pretty maids all in a row

If you don't know how to do it
I'll show you how to walk the dog 

"Walkin' the Dog" Rufus Thomas

When I'm ridin' round the world
And I'm doin' this and I'm signing that
And I'm tryin' to make some girl
Who tells me baby better come back later next week
'Cause you see I'm on a losing streak  

"Satisfaction" The Rolling Stones

Fast forward to 1981, just a decade or so from the time when American race relations were most severely tested by massive white Southern resistance to integration. All the while, rock and roll was busy making integration in a cultural form. 

Rock and roll -- sexual, working class and multi-racial -- was busy transgressing the most fiercely guarded social boundaries of the time. The public view of the music itself had changed -- once considered primitive "devil music," rock survived the British Invasion, political rebellion, the Vietnam War, and Sgt. Pepper-inspired stylistic variations. 

However, sexual references in mainstream popular music that soared high on the Billboard charts were still mainly suggestive and romantic. The big money of the industry and the watchful eye of the FCC still demanded a God-fearing, thou shall not openly promote the "act" demeanor. 

Who would have believed a preacher's son would soon provide a musical sermon to remedy the primary urge?

Although he was the son of a preacher, Marvin Gaye had quite a reputation as a ladies' man. Not only was Gaye handsome, but also he was a keen dresser, a powerful fashion statement with a Motown career bolstering his image as a sex symbol. His relationships with women revealed his two sides -- Marvin, the red-hot, romantic recording presence and Marvin, the "50 Shades of Grey" dominant presence.

"The dark side of life and the dark side of the mind really fascinated him," Janice Hunter, Gaye's second wife, told biographer Steve Turner. "There was stuff that I can't even talk about that just went so deep, so dark and so bizarre... Forbidden, dangerous, scary, off-the-wall ways of thinking and behaving."

(Steve Turner. Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye. 2000)

Revealing Gaye as an extremely troubled individual. Turner interprets Gaye’s rise to the top as complicated by racist encounters on tour, a troubled marriage to Gordy’s sister Anna, an illegitimate child (fathered with his wife’s niece), and the untimely death (from a brain tumor) of singing partner Tammi Terrell. Marvin's excessive drug use led to paranoid delusions of persecution and increasing financial difficulties (from failure to pay child support to dunning by the IRS).

Gaye mused a few years before his death: "How much have I spent in toot over the years? I don't want to know... Enough to certify me as a fool. You'd have to call me a drug addict and a sex freak."

Most biographers agree that Marvin's darker side most likely was fueled by his addiction to cocaine and by his abusive father, Marvin, Sr.  His father, who was a strict disciplinarian and a Pentecostal preacher yet also a licentious cross-dresser and drunk, left deep scars on his psyche. He allegedly abused young Marvin’s beloved mother, Alberta, and harassed his son at every opportunity.

"Living with father was something like living with a king, a very peculiar, changeable, cruel and all-powerful king," Marvin Gaye told biographer David Ritz. "You were supposed to tip-toe around his moods. You were supposed to do anything to win his favor. I never did. Even though winning his love was the ultimate goal of my childhood, I defied him. I hated his attitude... If it wasn't for mother, who was always there to console me and praise my singing, I think I would have been one of those child suicides you read about in the papers."

 (David Ritz. Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. Da Capo Press. 1991)

One of the few solo performers in the label's group-oriented stable of stars, Gaye performed romantic duets for Motown so that the label could capitalize on his sex appeal. Motown teamed him up with its sexy female solo artists -- Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Tammi Terrell. Diana Ross -- to record romantic duets. The result was dynamite.

According to rock historians, the following is one probable story about how "Sexual Healing" came to fame.

Marvin Gaye went to Ostend, a resort town on the coast of Belgium, on February 14, 1981, under the advice of music promoter Freddy Cousaert. Gaye had bottomed out: he faced financial difficulties with the Internal Revenue Service and the end of his second marriage. At the time, he was struggling with cocaine addiction and depression. Gaye relocated to Cousaert's apartment, where he hoped to relax and recover from his drug problemsHis goal was to recapture his high artistic standards while storming back to America with a massive comeback.

In Ostand, Gaye did curb his drug use and recover from his depression. He began to exercise and seemed to regain his health. In addition, he began cutting ties with his longtime recording label, Motown. He declared that he would never record with the label ever again after he accused the label of betraying his creativity.

 (David Ritz. Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. Da Capo Press. 1991)

While in Ostend, Gaye invited David Ritz to the apartment to help write his biography -- Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. (Ritz has also written biographies for musical icons Ray Charles, Buddy Guy, Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and Janet Jackson.)

Ritz claims he gave Gaye the idea for "Sexual Healing." It was rumored that Gaye had a large collection of pornography, to the point that many of his friends felt he was addicted to porn.

Ritz says this was the inspiration for the song:

"On his coffee table was an avant-garde, French sadomasochistic book, full of cartoon drawings of women who were sexually brutalized. I told Marvin, 'This is sick. What you need is sexual healing, being in love with one woman, where sex and love are joined instead of sexual perversity.'"

"Marvin liked the concept of sexual healing, so he asked me to write lyrics to go with this concept. I wrote most of the lyrics, including all of the verses and the chorus lyric, and Marvin wrote the melody and the bridge lyric. I wrote the lyrics like a poem, and the entire lyric was finished in about 30 minutes. Marvin immediately loved the song, and he thought it would be a hit. He said, 'This is what I've been looking for.'"

Ritz wrote, "It was my way of suggesting what I believed he needed, a reconciliation of the confusion, fostered in childhood, between pleasure and pain."

Gaye's closest friends dispute Ritz's claim. Here are some other versions of the story:

* Gaye recognized the phrase "sexual healing" Ritz used as a good hook for a song title, and Marvin, himself, scrawled out the lyrics and adapted them to a slow, reggae-style instrumental track composed by keyboardist Odell Brown, one of his sidemen.

* In a 1994 interview with HUMO, a Belgian magazine, FreddyCousaert claimed the only songwriters were Gaye and Brown and stated Ritz's contribution was the title.

* In Frankie Gaye's memoirs, My Brother, Marvin, the singer's brother claimed Ritz had told him, "not only are you sexy, your music is healing," inspiring Gaye to write the lyrics himself.

* Gordon Banks told The Atlantic in 2012 that the conversation between Gaye and Ritz had nothing to do with Marvin's S&M collection but because Gaye had been intrigued by Amsterdam's red light district, to which Ritz replied that Gaye needed "sexual healing" but said he had nothing to do with the creation of the song.

* Musician and friend Odell Brown stated Marvin never met Ritz and assumed Ritz was just there for an interview for Rolling Stone.

David Ritz was not given a writing credit for "Sexual Healing," but was thanked in the liner notes for inspiring the song title. This broke his friendship with Gaye. Though Gaye himself acknowledged Ritz for coming up with the song title, Ritz sued Gaye for $15 million for partial credit. Ritz was eventually credited after settling with Gaye's estate following his death, his case was dropped due to insufficient evidence in 1983. The song credits now read: "Odell Brown/Marvin Gaye/David Ritz."

Whatever really occurred spurred CBS Records to offer Gaye a contract, and they agreed to sign him and to help clear his financial debt.

 (Dale Kawashima, Song Writer Universe.

The first sounds on the "Sexual Healing" are drums and the whispers of Marvin's early mentor, singer Harvery Fuqua, who would assist him in production of the song and its parent album, Midnight Love.  Fuqua whispers, "get up, wake up," four times before the sounds of a rhythmic keyboard are played. Afterwards, Gaye is heard singing an ad-lib before the first verse. Then, Marvin pleads with a yearning “Baaaaby," and continues to moan, growl, and caress the conscious object of his desire.

CBS rushed "Sexual Healing" out as a single, and it became the best-selling soul hit. A month later, the company released the tune on the rushed LP,  Midnight Love.

Is the song funk, boogie, gospel, or soul? Most think it's a unique mix of love appetite and yearning for the coveted intimate "love potion." It was structured with enough oozing sexuality to melt the lock off any chastity-belted young virgin. Male listeners don't know whether to blush or just enjoy swelling in anticipation.

The breakthrough for music with "Sexual Healing" is honest, forward, and uncompromising. At last, with no strings, romance, or dallying, an artist admits he needs sex. Not just backseat-of-the-car, quicky, dirty banging but pure, enjoyable, satisfying S-E-X. Make no mistake, the Marvin in this song is through with procrastination, and masturbation but in no need for procreation, yet he treats sex with adult and complex emotions.

Little Richard did it in the '50s, and in following decades, a million others followed his leads, but Marvin Gaye, with his voice, his song, and his charisma defined the musical art of conveying sexual needs. Even Prince, who greatly expanded on the theme, must bow to Gaye's style of delivery. He, alone, uplifts the act as a spiritual cleansing. 

I could have written about an equally sexy "Let's Get It On" released by Gaye in 1973. Yet, "Sexual Healing" doesn't hint of any apology or hesitation for having intercourse; it just says "fulfill the need straight up." But, Gaye gets the visceral job done without once saying the expletive "f word" or treating the subject matter as animal behavior. The song has pinpoint precision of purpose, yet it retains an endless freshness and listenability because one hears in it concerns for the immense and overwhelming emotions that two people who are deeply in love feel for each other.

In his review of Midnight Love for Rolling Stone, Dave Marsh  described "Sexual Healing" as a track that was "sort of a polemic for the power of rampant humping." Blender described it as "the plaintively blue-balled model for basically every slow jam" since its release. Read the printed lyrics below:

Get up, get up, get up, get up!
Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up!

Oh, baby now let's get down tonight

Ooh baby, I'm hot just like an oven
I need some lovin'
And baby, I can't hold it much longer
It's getting stronger and stronger

And when I get that feeling
I want sexual healing
Sexual healing, oh baby
Makes me feel so fine

Helps to relieve my mind
Sexual healing baby, is good for me
Sexual healing is something that's good for me

Whenever blue teardrops are fallin'
And my emotional stability is leaving me
There is something I can do
I can get on the telephone and call you up baby

And honey I know you'll be there to relieve me
The love you give to me will free me
If you don't know the thing you're dealing
Ohh I can tell you, darling, that it's sexual healing

Get up, get up, get up, get up
Let's make love tonight
Wake up, wake up, wake up, wake up
'Cause you do it right

Baby, I got sick this mornin'
A sea was stormin' inside of me
Baby, I think I'm capsizin'
The waves are risin' and risin'

And when I get that feeling
I want sexual healing
Sexual healing is good for me
Makes me feel so fine, it's such a rush
Helps to relieve the mind, and it's good for us

Sexual healing, baby, it's good for me
Sexual healing is something that's good for me
Well, it's good for me and it's so good to me my baby, ohh

Come take control, just grab a hold
Of my body and mind, soon we'll be making it, honey
I'll be feeling fine,
You're my medicine, open up and let me in
Darling, you're so great, I can't wait for you to operate

I can't wait for you to operate

When I get this feeling
I need sexual healing
Oh when I get this feeling
I need sexual healing
I gotta have sexual healing, darling
'Cause I'm all alone
Sexual healing, darling
Till you come back home

Please don't procrastinate
It's not good to masturbate

In cutting to the quick of sexual needs, Marvin opened the musical door to mainstream acceptance of "putting the meat and gravy" on the table without lewdness. The lyrics of "Sexual Healing" transcended nasty early blues cuts like Roy Brown's grinding "Butcher Pete" and the schmaltzy- suggestive love anthems like Bread's "I Want To Make It With You." 

In a series of interviews following the release of "Sexual Healing," Marvin Gaye told The Los Angeles Times people should follow his lead. He said, "What they need is to live out their sexual fantasies... Everybody would be happier and less crazy if they could do what they wanted to sexually."

Once again, success was fickle for Marvin Gaye. He returned to the United States from Belgium in October 1982 and relapsed. His addiction led to increasing paranoia and depression. During the promotion of his Sexual Healing Tour, he wore a bullet-proof vest and brought along bodyguards with loaded pistols because he feared for his life as he was convinced that someone was plotting to kill him.

During his Sexual Healing Tour promoting the album, Gaye closed the show singing his hit in a silk robe, often stripping down to bikini underwear. Fan reaction was mixed. Also in 1983, he appeared in one of the more memorable segments of Motown's 25th-anniversary television special, obviously disoriented but riveting nonetheless. The Trouble Man continued his troubles.

"Sexual Healing" won Gaye several music industry awards. At the 1983 Grammy Awards,  the song won Gaye two Grammys, including Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Instrumental Performance.

The American Music Awards recognized the track for Favorite Soul/R&B Single. "Sexual Healing" had reportedly sold over one million units in its standard format and was certified Platimum - for sales in excess of two million US copies - by the Recording Industry Association of America in 2001. The digital sales of "Sexual Healing" reached 500,000 units in shipments and was certified as a gold single in 2005. Also issued as a mastertone, this format was certified platinum in 2007.

Despite being chained to his personal demons, Gaye wrote a song of liberation. With soul and conscious fervor, Marvin Gaye gave musical interpretation to sweet sexual desire that blended the spiritual and the carnal. Direct, sensual, passionate, and therapeutic-- it was all of this. In its stunning appeal,"Sexual Healing" became the seminal anthem of sexual discovery.

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