He initially signed with Motown in 1961 as a session musician on piano and drums, intending eventually to become a jazz singer and musician, expressing no desire to become a R&B performer. He eventually became an R&B singer, and the rest is history.
Where he stood in his life was reflected in real time by his musical style at that time -- from such happy, seemingly carefree, church-influenced songs as "Pride and Joy," "Hitch Hike" and "I'll Be Doggone" in the early '60s, to his discovery of love and longing in his duets with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and especially Tammi Terrell in the mid to late '60s, to his own political and social evolution due to the Vietnam War, the War on Poverty and the deterioration of the environment in the late '60s and early '70s, to his dealing with his personal demons, desires and triumphs in the late '70s and early '80s.
To try to pick 10 of Marvin Gaye's finest songs, like picking the best songs of any legendary artist, can often be a somewhat arbitrary exercise and usually invites debate and argument. However, beneficially such an exercise often aids in not only exposing the quality of the work of the artist, but also gives one a deeper appreciation for his or her talent. There are many more of his songs, famous and obscure, that could easily be placed on this list. So consider this a template to start from. To put your own choices on this list invites you to further delve into his vast repertoire, which is truly a gift you can give yourself.
So, here they are, in no particular order. Add your own favorites in the comments!
"How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" (1964)
The title track to his 1964 Tamla LP, written by the famed Motown production team of Holland-Dozier-Holland. One of his earliest hit singles, peaking at #6 in early 1965, and became one of his signature tunes.
"Your Precious Love (with Tammi Terrell) (1967)
Marvin Gaye performed duets with fellow Motown artists Mary Wells and Kim Weston, but it wasn't until 1967 when he was paired with 22-year-old Tammi Terrell, and the chemistry was immediate and palpable. Many credit Terrell with making the somewhat shy, introspective Gaye more comfortable with live performing. Terrell had chronic problems with migraine headaches since childhood but she continued to perform in spite of them. On October 14, 1967, while performing with Gaye at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, Terrell collapsed into Gaye's arms and was helped off stage. Shortly afterwards, she was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor which ultimately claimed her life in 1970 at the age of 24. This video is the prime example of the chemistry between Gaye and Terrel, with a tune written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson and featured on their 1967 LP United.
"I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (1968)
This tune was originally recorded by Smokey Robinson & The Miracles in 1966, but that version was not released. Marvin Gaye recorded the tune the next year, but Gaye's version was shelved by Motown chairman Berry Gordy. Motown producer Norman Whitfield presented the song to Gladys Knight & the Pips, who performed a more up-tempo rendition of the song, and this version was released as a single by Motown in September 1967. The Gladys Knight version became a huge hit, peaking at #2. In 1968 the Marvin Gaye version came out of the mothballs and was released on his LP "In the Groove." It was subsequently released as a single and went all the way to #1.
"What's Going On" (1971)
The title track to his 1971 Tamla LP peaked at #2 on the charts. The song was co-written by Four Tops bassist Ronaldo "Obie" Benson, who was inspired to write the song when he witnessed an episode of police brutality while on tour with the Tops in Berkeley, Calif. Benson originally wanted the Four Tops to record it, but they refused on the grounds that it was a protest song. After unsuccessfully attempting to get Joan Baez to record the song, he presented the song to Marvin Gaye, who himself was in a place of conflict in his life, as he was torn by the social unrest around him as he was asked to sing his signature love songs. Of note is that the signature alto-saxophone intro, performed by Motown session musician Eli Fontaine, was not intended to be included in the song. Fontaine said at the time that he was just "fooling around," and Gaye liked it so much he used it.
"Sexual Healing" (1982)
This song was the very first release by Marvin Gaye after his departure from the Motown label. Released on the Columbia label in September 1982, it's the ultimate slow jam, and one which universally evoked smoky, wanton sensuality. For his effort, Gaye won the 1983 Grammy for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance.
"Let's Get It On" (1973)
The title track to his Tamla LP released in the summer of 1973. Reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in September 1973. Co-written by producer Ed Townsend, who originally conceived the song with religious overtones. A good friend of Gaye, Kenneth Stover, re-wrote the lyrics to give it more of a political bent; however, Townsend insisted that the tune was not intended to be political at all. Townsend and Gaye re-wrote the lyrics again, this time to evoke intense feelings of love and sex. Mission accomplished. This clip shows Gaye performing/lip-syncing the song on "Soul Train" in February 1974, preceded by Q&A from host Don Cornelius and the Soul Train Gang.
"Got to Give It Up" (1977)
Disco was starting to hit its stride in late 1976 and early 1977. Gaye was resistant in joining the trend until he was inspired by the tune "Disco Lady" by Johnnie Taylor, and he set out to record a musical response to that tune. Reminiscent of the chatter featured in the background of his 1971 hit "What's Going On," the party atmosphere was created by gathering friends and family during the recording. The result was a worldwide smash hit, with the tune peaking at #1 on the Billboard charts in June 1977.
"Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" (1971)
His follow up to "What's Going On" expressed concern about the environment, which was at a fever pitch at the time of the tune's release in 1971. Gaye captured it perfectly and beautifully in this tune which peaked on the charts at #4 for two weeks in August 1971.
"Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" (1971)
The third hit single off of his 1971 LP "What's Going On" was another shining example of Gaye's evolving social consciousness. This track captured the feeling of hopelessness brought about by the abject poverty in the ghettos of America. It peaked at #9 on the pop charts and #1 on the R&B charts in late 1971.
"The Star Spangled Banner" (1983)
In 1968, at Game 5 of the World Series in Detroit, Jose Feliciano became arguably the first performer to give an individually stylized rendition of the National Anthem, which at that time resulted in a firestorm of controversy. Since that time, performers were obviously resistant to singing the anthem in any other fashion other than the stiff, formal, straight-laced traditional fashion. That is, until the 1983 NBA All-Star Game at the Forum in Los Angeles. Marvin Gaye was asked to perform the anthem, and perform it he did, stamping his signature smoky, sensual, sweat-inducing bad self all over it. He not only broke tradition, he destroyed it for good. For better or worse, the anthem has never been performed the same way since.
KDHX presents "How Sweet It Is: A Tribute to Marvin Gaye" on Friday, November 15 at Off Broadway.