Marvin Gaye was the man in 1971, having struck chart gold with ‘What’s Going On,’ an album laced with socio-political themes that Motown supremo Berry Gordy was initially reluctant to release, but which topped the US R&B LPs chart and spawned three hit singles in the shape of the pleading title track, ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),’ and ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).’ Life seemed good, then for the softly-spoken soul man from Detroit, and in 1972, he planned to follow up ‘What’s Going On’ with an album that continued his exploration of deeper and more meaningful concerns than the effervescent love songs that Motown had given him to sing in the 1960s.
The first fruit of his new post-‘What’s Going On’ project was a single, the funkafied ‘You’re The Man,’ released in May 1972, which was intended to be a taster of the parent album of the same name. Stylistically, in terms of its music and layered vocals, it continued from where ‘What’s Going On’ left off but had more bite. It was a sarcastic and sneering put-down of the US politicians competing in that year’s US presidential race but was unable to emulate the chart-topping exploits of his previous three 45s and stalled at No. 7 in the American R&B singles chart. That wasn’t a bad thing but the fact that it was not unanimously embraced by the US public (it failed to go further than No. 50 n the US pop charts) purportedly dented Gaye’s confidence and fearing it would be a failure, he put the planned ‘You’re The Man’ album on hold.
In its stead came the soundtrack album, ‘Trouble Man,’ issued at the end of 1972, followed by ‘Let’s Get It On,’ a return to old themes of love, sex, and romance, in 1973. Sadly, the ‘You’re The Man’ album never came out, though most of the tracks that Gaye intended to use on it trickled out over the years on various compilations. Now, though, to coincide what would have been the singer’s 80th birthday (on April 2nd), Universal have re-assembled, with the help of Gaye biographer and confidante, David Ritz, what they believe to be the original running order of the lost album and issued it on double vinyl complete with bonus material.
Certainly it lacks the thematic coherence, artistic cohesion and single-mindedness of vision that characterised ‘What’s Going On’ but that’s probably because of the diverse number of producers involved, which include Gaye, himself, on nine tracks, Willie Hutch on four, plus contributions from Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell, Gloria Jones with Pam Sawyer, Hal Davis. The album’s 17 cuts show that there was nothing wrong with Gaye’s creativity in 1972. Highlights include ‘Where Are We Going,’ a tune that jazz trumpeter, Donald Byrd, recorded as an instrumental on his ‘Black Byrd’ album. It’s written and co-produced by Fonce Mizell, one half of the Sky High team that he formed with his brother, Larry. Gaye fans who know their stuff will be familiar with this lovely track from its appearance on the 2005 career overview compilation, ‘Gold.’
Marvin fans will also know the cinematic ‘The World Is Rated X,’ another topical, socio-politically-slanted infusion of funk, which first appeared on Gaye’s ‘Anthology’ Motown compilation in 1995. The four tracks he cut with Willie Hutch – just before Hutch broke out as a solo artist at Motown with his soundtrack albums ‘Foxy Brown’ and ‘The Mack’ – bring a different feel to the album with bright horns and an earthier, more direct sound distinguishing the likes of ‘I’m Gonna A Give You Respect’ and ‘Try It You’ll Like It’ (which Hutch recorded himself for Motown). They show Marvin at his soulful best as an interpreter of other people’s songs.
Ballad-wise, the haunting ‘Piece Of Clay’ (helmed by Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer), is memorable for its pleading vocals, bittersweet gospel cadences, searing guitar lines, and lyrics that hint at Gaye’s domestic troubles. Controversially, perhaps – Motown fans can be a conservative bunch – Salaam Remi has remixed three cuts for the project. He treats ‘My Last Chance, ‘ the silky ballad ‘Symphony,’ and ‘I’d Give My Life For You’ with the utmost respect and doesn’t veer too far away from the originals. Appended to the album is a rare extended version of his superb 1972 Yuletide single, ‘I Want To Come Home For Christmas’ (where Gaye views the world as a US serviceman in Vietnam) and an unissued instrumental B-side, ‘Christmas In The City.’ An intriguing alternative version of ‘I’m The Man’ – which is smoother and features eerie warbling synth lines – is also included in the set.
Given that a lot of these tracks are spread over so many different Marvin Gaye compilations, it’s good to have them together all in one place on ‘You’re The Man.’ More importantly, the album brings to light a forgotten and overlooked chapter in Marvin Gaye’s creative life. 35 years after his death, these recordings (available to buy from March 29th) prove that as far as soul music goes, Marvin Gaye is still the man.