Graded on a Curve: Marvin Gaye,
Volume One 1961–1965

Marvin Gaye is rightly evaluated as a crucial chapter in the story of Motown, but the relationship’s peaks weren’t immediate. Marvin had his goals while Barry Gordy and company had theirs, and across his first batch of releases the results only fitfully align with the vocalist’s popular image. The seven 180gm LPs contained in USM’s Marvin Gaye Volume One: 1961-1965 are still very much of interest however, offering a portrait of the soon to be great artist as a confident young man profoundly concerned with classicist pop objectives.

A recurring theme in the history of 20th century Pop finds record labels big small and in between striving purely in the name of profits to mold and modify a developing talent into a contemporary setting. In the process these actions frequently limited, damaged, or even downright quashed creative promise. In such instances the label’s miscalculations were reliably due to the reactive nature of the whole endeavor, the attempts seeking to capitalize on trends in place of shaping organic wrinkles in musical progress.

The seven albums included here complicate the above scenario considerably, detailing Motown as determined to travel a fertile trail as the young and undeniably skilled Gaye sought not to set trends but instead to examine a Pop/Jazz zone a la Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra just as this tradition was on the wane.

Rather trying to strong-arm him into a mode he didn’t wish to inhabit, Motown displayed a tremendous amount of patience with the singer’s ambitions, though this might not be as commendable as it sounds; Gaye was fully capable of pulling-off (if not truly excelling at) the crooner role, making commercial success in this capacity a possibility. Had that transpired, Motown surely would’ve primed the pump until it gushed. On the other hand, none of the non-R&B focused LPs assembled in 1961-1965 charted, and Motown was unambiguously in the business of hits.

Pre-Motown, Marvin was part of vocal quartet The Marquees. Based in Washington, DC, the group crossed paths with Bo Diddley, who hooked them up with Okeh and co-wrote their only single, ‘57’s modest “Wyatt Earp.” Later, under the auspices of Harvey Fuqua The Marquees became Harvey and the New Moonglows, cutting a few records and doing session work for Chess.

In 1960 the New Moonglows ended their run, Gaye and Fuqua relocating to Detroit. Signing to Tri-Phi Records as a session drummer, by the next year Gaye was in the Motown stable, Gordy having renegotiated the contract with Fuqua. Marvin’s debut 45 for Tamla, “Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide” b/w “Never Let You Go,” emerged in May of ’61.

The a-side is a slice of down-tempo R&B assisted instrumentally by the heft of the Funk Brothers (though their signifying moniker of quality came later), the organ especially sweet. Gaye, having just added an e to his surname, is in strong voice, and the song goes down easy, but in part due to the backing vocals it also sounds like it could’ve been cut three or four years earlier. The punchy and uptempo flip solidly qualifies as a b-side, making the 45 an enjoyably minor first effort.

Both are tacked onto The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, the LP appearing a month later and almost entirely composed of jazz and pop standards. The byproduct of compromise, the result was a lack of hits, Gaye more engaged in delivering material from Rodgers and Hart (“My Funny Valentine”), Irving Berlin (“How Deep is the Ocean (How High is the Sky),” “Always”) and Cole Porter (“Love For Sale”) than the Gordy and Fuqua penned single.

This might seem a potential bummer, but Gaye handles the program with aplomb. Despite some claims, he was more than mediocre as a vessel of standards, and the humble recording budget and lively backing add to the appeal, enough so that the stylistic detour near the completion is abrupt; perhaps surprisingly, it does the R&B no favors.

That Stubborn Kind of Fellow landed in racks in late 1962; more forthrightly soul-infused than its predecessor, it provided Gaye with his first hits, opener “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and the dance craze groover “Hitch Hike.” Sandwiched between them is “Pride and Joy,” the three numbers getting the album off to a rousing start.

“Got to Get My Hands on Some Lovin’” and “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)” keep the energy up, but the main weakness is unevenness; as side two unwinds, “Soldier’s Plea,” issued as That Stubborn Kind of Fellow’s first single and tellingly not a hit, is weakened by datedness and a fair percentage of the subsequent tunes register as filler. It’s likeable filler, but filler nonetheless.

Retail headway didn’t deter Gaye from aiming straight at the MOR bull’s-eye; his next two studio records eschewed R&B for the climes of the supper club and the Broadway stage. Alongside a persistent emphasis on standards, including an energetic opening rendering of the Carey-Fischer staple “You’ve Changed,” a jazzy air helps to deepen the string arrangements and slow tempos defining When I’m Alone I Cry.

There’s also a solid version of “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face,” the Lerner and Loewe warhorse sourced from the musical My Fair Lady. And that serves as a perfect segue into Hello Broadway…This is Marvin, though the difference in value is substantial. The aforementioned jazziness lends varying degrees of verve to When I’m Alone I Cry, and in turn provides counterpoint to its milquetoast tendencies (like the goofy backing vocals of the title track), but Hello Broadway is unfortunately swaddled in the saccharine.

Gaye was well prepared, but even when a head of steam gets worked up, e.g. “My Kind of Town,” Jerry Long’s arrangements are simply no great shakes, and with the exception of the bombast produced in “What Kind of Fool Am I?” and a spirited closing run-through of “Walk on the Wild Side” (that’s David and Bernstein, not Lou Reed, natch) it’s difficult to make a legit argument in favor of this disc.

Much easier to praise is Together, his team-up with Mary Wells. The first of Gaye’s mixed gender tandems (a little later it was Kim Weston, then a fruitful duet with Tammi Terrell; one LP with Diana Ross saw release in ‘73) it hit stores shortly after When I’m Alone I Cry and prior to Hello Broadway, the three presenting a fairly schizophrenic musical sandwich for 1964.

This is not to infer Together is a gutbucket affair. To the contrary, it was spawned in hopes of repeating the out of left-field success of Paul and Paula; ‘twas only a matter of time before the impulse to duplicate a market splash figured in this situation. But if polite, the Funk Brothers are back in full effect, and there’s nary a string section to be heard.

The two sides of the album’s hit single, “Once Upon a Time” and “What’s the Matter with You Baby,” are the standouts (“Together” isn’t far behind), but the entirety coheres pretty nicely through the chemistry of the singers and also the unified instrumental approach. Nothing groundbreaking is happening as much of the disc nods to the ‘50s (and in the case of “I Love You (For Sentimental Reasons),” the ‘40s), but the execution is steady throughout, and Together’s status as Gaye’s introductory charting album is well-deserved.

During the same period Gaye’s “You’re a Wonderful One” was a large seller, and its big-riffed R&B begins ’65’s How Sweet It is to Be Loved by You. And the seeming ubiquity of the title cut is no reason to underrate its triumph as a textbook study in Motown finesse, but it’s the songs following it that insure success; “Baby Don’t You Do It” is a gem finding Gaye completely comfortable with a bolder, near rock ‘n’ soul orientation, “Need Your Lovin’ (Want You Back)” flaunts piano-driven groove-stomp, and “One of These Days” and “Me and My Lonely Room” compare well to Sam Cooke.

It’s loaded with notable assistance; The Supremes on “You’re a Wonderful One,” The Temptations on “Try It Baby,” Martha and the Vandellas on “Now That You’ve Won Me,” The Miracles on “Forever,” The Andantes on four selections, and most productively The Spinners on six, their contribution injecting a hint of vocal group soul to come. Altogether, How Sweet It is to Be Loved by You is an impressive soul/R&B long-player from an era mostly dominated by classic singles.

Gaye had a little more MOR to get out of his system, for A Tribute to the Great Nat King Cole is exactly what its cover states. And for a couple of reasons it’s the best of the singer’s non-soul releases. Its unifying theme caresses the ear much better than Hello Broadway, in part because of the depth of influence Cole had on Gaye.

Additionally, the esteem for Cole’s artistry in the title (Great is no exaggeration; check out Cole’s ‘30s-‘40s piano trio for evidence) seeps into the wax, predicting the sort of elaborate musical salutes that started arriving in the 80s; Gaye’s gesture is strengthened by sincerity, an absence of hubris, and rising ability.

Volume One: 1961-1965 isn’t for the casual Marvin Gaye fan, but its contents are assuredly of worth to more than completists. It chronicles the formative and indeed digressive motions that foreshadow the brilliance (and troubles) to come, setting the stage exquisitely for Volume Two.

The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye
B
That Stubborn Kind of Fellow
B
When I’m Alone I Cry
B
Hello Broadway…This is Marvin
C
Together
B+
How Sweet It is to Be Loved by You
A-
A Tribute to the Great Nat King Cole
B+

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B+

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