A Tribute to the Great Nat "King" Cole (Tamla, 1965)
What's Going On (Tamla, 1971)
Trouble Man (Tamla, 1972)
Let's Get It On (Tamla, 1973)
Live (1974; Motown, 1998)
I Want You (Tamla, 1976)
Live at the London Palladium (1977; Motown, 1998)
Here, My Dear (Tamla, 1978)
Midnight Love (Columbia, 1982)
Every Great Motown Hit of Marvin Gaye (Motown, 1983)
Dream of a Lifetime (Columbia, 1985)
Romantically Yours (Columbia, 1985)
18 Greatest Hits (Motown, 1988)
Seek & You Shall Find: More of the Best (1963-1981)
Motown Legends: I'll Be Doggone (Motown, 1995)
The Master 1961-1984 (Motown, 1995)
Midnight Love & the Sexual Healing Sessions (Columbia/Legacy, 1998)
The Millennium Collection: Best of Marvin Gaye, Vol. 1 (Universal, 1999)
Lost and Found: Love Starved Heart (Motown, 1999)
The Millennium Collection: Best of Marvin Gaye, Vol. 2 (Universal, 2000)
The Millennium Collection: Best of Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell (Universal, 2000)
The Final Concert (The Right Stuff, 2000)
What's Going On [Deluxe Edition] (Universal, 2001)
Let's Get It On [Deluxe Edition] (Universal, 2001)
The Very Best of Marvin Gaye (Universal, 2001)
The Complete Duets [with Tammi Terrell] (Universal, 2001)
Love Songs: Bedroom Ballads (Motown, 2002)
Love Songs (Sony/Legacy, 2003)
Love Songs—Greatest Duets (Motown, 2003)
From R&B star and soul-music giant to pop icon, the stature of Marvin Gaye has risen steadily over the years. Others had greater vocal range; there were certainly better performers (Marvin never did fully vanquish his stage discomfort); and for one who is regarded as a creative visionary, his genius often needed to be kick-started by collaborators. Yet few artists in any genre can approach Marvin Gaye's breadth of accomplishment. Following the failure of an album of standards aimed at establishing him as a black Sinatra, Gaye submitted to the conventional Motown hit-making machinery. (He would never lose his desire to become a "serious" singer, as evidenced by his affectionate 1965 tribute to Nat "King" Cole.) His first couple of successes, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" and "Hitch Hike," were not at all how he saw himself, but they got him in the door and on the charts.
Most of Gaye's early albums are out of print, but the string of hits he recorded between 1962 and '69 with the label's bottomless pool of writers and producers—including Smokey Robinson ("Ain't That Peculiar"), Holland-Dozier-Holland ("You're a Wonderful One"), and Norman Whitfield ("I Heard It Through the Grapevine")—made him Motown's premier male singer and have been the basis of countless compilation packages. What impresses is not only the endless excellence of Motown's production line, but the ease with which Gaye's voice accommodated the very different demands of each piece, from the gospel exhortations of "Can I Get a Witness" to the breezy swing of "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)."
He maintained a parallel and almost equally successful career as a singer of romantic duets with labelmates such as Mary Wells ("What's the Matter With You Baby"), Kim Weston ("It Takes Two"), and his most significant other, Tammi Terrell ("Ain't No Mountain High Enough"). Greatest Duets collects the highlights of all his associations (except, curiously, "Ain't No Mountain"), including a session with gospel singer Ona Page. The Complete Duets gives you everything recorded by Gaye and Terrell, arguably the most romantic singing partnership in pop history. (After Terrell's death, Marvin vowed he'd never sing with another partner. Judging by his tepid 1976 album with Diana Ross, it was a vow he should have kept.)
Having worked all these wonders, Marvin Gaye then did something no other Motown artist had ever dared. With What's Going On (1971), he started a revolution. Although it spawned three hits—the antiwar title song, the ecological plea "Mercy Mercy Me," and "Inner City Blues"—this was Motown's first true album. Its blend of unembarrassed spirituality and unflinching social realism, as well as relentless percussion set against lush orchestration, was unlike anything that came before it in both form and content. For Gaye, it was a self-produced declaration of independence. (The 2001 Deluxe Edition adds an earlier and substantially different mix and a rare live performance of the album from 1972.) After a detour to score the film Trouble Man, he followed his masterpiece with the almost equally magnificent Let's Get It On in 1973. From the title-track opener to the closing "Just to Keep You Satisfied," it is as unashamedly sexual as its predecessor is spiritual. (Its Deluxe Edition bonus disc illuminates Marvin's many false starts with multiple collaborators before he settled on the final framework.)
I Want You boasts the seductive title song and "After the Dance" but is otherwise slight, a disappointment after the twin peaks of What's Going On and Let's Get It On. Live is from a 1974 concert that was his first in two years, and it shows, though the sparks that fly on "Distant Lover" are eternal. Live at the London Palladium catches a better show and contains the 12 studio minutes of "Got to Give It Up," proof positive that disco and genuine soul could coexist in a single slab of wax. Here, My Dear (1978) was not a successful album saleswise, but it may be his most fascinating. Forced to give up the royalties to his ex-wife in their divorce settlement, Gaye's album brutally chronicles the breakdown of the marriage—no hits, but plenty of bruises.
After a European exile and a divorce from Motown, he reappeared in 1982 with Midnight Love on Columbia. Its slinky single "Sexual Healing" intertwines his two major themes—sex and salvation—and is as seductive as anything in Marvin's overstuffed little black book of song. That said, the rest is smooth and superficially pleasing but leaves little lasting impression. What was a welcome comeback would prove to be his final album.
Since the tragic shooting death of Marvin Gaye in 1984, collections, compilations, and unissued material have rained down on an apparently insatiable marketplace. Pick of the litter is the two-CD Very Best of Marvin Gaye, though it is not quite up to the double Anthology it replaced in the catalogue. The 1995 four-CD set The Master is excellent, as well as being a marked improvement over a botched box attempt earlier in that decade. Every Great Motown Hit of Marvin Gaye ain't all that, but its 17 songs make it an acceptable sampler; ditto 18 Greatest Hits, but I'll Be Doggone is just a Motown mishmash. The two best-of volumes in the Millennium Collection series, split between the '60s and '70s, contain only 11 songs each.
Steer clear of the countless packages of bootleg-quality live material drawn from his erratic 1983 comeback tour, issued under titles like Greatest Hits Live, Performance, and In Concert. Even the best of these, The Final Concert, offers only marginally improved sound on a performance that is charitably characterized as adequate.
There are no less than three packages trading under the title Love Songs: 1) the aforementioned Greatest Duets; 2) a Sony comp that again reshuffles the Midnight Love material; and 3) Love Songs: Bedroom Ballads, assembled by biographer David Ritz to combine the singer's most amorous slow songs with the handful of standards arranged for Gaye by Bobby Scott (previously available as Vulnerable). In the same vein as the Ritz collection—imagine an update of Jackie Gleason's Fifties albums of makeout music—is Romantically Yours, which was compiled by Marvin's mentor and sometime producer Harvey Fuqua.
Love Starved Heart is a true rarity: an album of vault material that doesn't waste your time; Gaye rivals Bob Dylan in the quantity of quality material left on the shelf.
Portions of this album guide appeared in The New Rolling Stone Album Guide (Fireside, 2004).
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