It was conceived as an album about spiritual and sexual salvation titled Sexual Healing, after the song that eventually became one of the biggest hits of Marvin Gaye's three-decade-long career. But the singer's new record company, Columbia, wasn't thrilled with the title, and ultimately neither was Gaye, who worried that such a provocative title would spoil what he hoped would be his comeback.
Gaye dropped the idea but kept the song "Sexual Healing," which he correctly believed from the start would be a hit (it reached Number Three on the Billboard pop charts). "They'll be jamming all over the world to this," he told his biographer David Ritz, who collaborated with him on the lyrics of the song.
While Midnight Love is not Gaye's masterpiece — that honor goes to the landmark album What's Going On — it is an inspired, mature work from one of the greatest soul singers, and it is certainly one of the best soul albums of the Eighties. Loaded with infectious dance-floor grooves, sophisticated guitar work, third-world rhythms and seductive vocals, Midnight Love did indeed prove to be Gaye's comeback. Sadly, it was also the last album he made before he was shot to death by his father in April of 1984.
"Marvin had been living in Europe, and he was influenced by both reggae and the synthesizer work of groups like Kraftwerk," recalls Larkin Arnold, a former CBS Records vice-president who was the executive producer of Midnight Love. "He took the rhythm of reggae, the new technology and American soul and came up with something fresh and unique."
Although Midnight Love has an urbane, high-gloss feel, the album was actually conceived and created while Gaye was living in Ostend, a quiet seaside town in Belgium, where he had retreated to escape the excesses of Hollywood and London. At first he worked with his brother-in-law the multi-instrumentalist Gordon Banks, at Studio Katy, in Ohaine, a small town not far from Brussels. Later the veteran Motown producer Harvey Fuqua (who had discovered Gaye and added him to the historic doo-wop group the Moonglows in 1958] was brought in to keep things on track.
Gaye worked sporadically on the album over a nine-month period. "He was stubborn," says Arnold. "He enjoyed the role of the tortured and spurned artist. He would pout and go off. Two or three times he stopped working on the album. It was nerve-racking." Columbia's financial cost for getting Gaye into the studio and keeping him there was high — more than $1.5 million to buy his contract from Motown, a $600,000 advance for the singer and more than $1.5 million in recording costs, according to Curtis Shaw, Gaye's attorney at the time. But Arnold, who masterminded the deal, puts the cost of recording Midnight Love closer to $2 million.
Whatever the cost, the album was a hit, selling 2.7 million copies worldwide, more than 2 million of them in the United States. Gaye saw his album — which followed two unsuccessful records for Motown — as a commercial endeavor designed to win back a mass audience. In a typically frank interview, he even dismissed a couple of the album's songs as "contrived."
Although he told the writer Nelson George in 1983 that his "mission" was to "tell the world and the people about the upcoming holocaust and to find all of those of higher consciousness who can be saved," Gaye felt the need to draw everybody's attention with a hit before returning to message music. "For legitimacy, I need worldwide exposure," he said. "This is a chance for the world to recognize Marvin Gaye, so that ultimately I can get my message across."