Wow In Music – Here, My Dear / Let’s Get It On
Kobus Cilliers | On 17, Apr 2019
I have another theory. One I’ve had for a long time, but have never had the chance to really explore. Mainly because, outside the world of art, music and literature I wouldn’t know where to go find the data, and within those worlds, I don’t know that it would ever be possible to compile enough empirical evidence to be convincing. Anyway, in true, ‘all theories are wrong, but some are useful’ fashion, here goes…
…people are at their most creative, and most likely to create great works of art when they are in one of two states:
- They are in the depths of a crisis and are determined to come-out-fighting and stick it through in order to avoid falling off ‘the cliff’
- They are in the first throes of trying to attract a mate and are in ‘the chase’
The two can be seen as polar opposites in many ways, and as such it’s rare to see both present in the work of a single artist. We tend, if we’re going to be good at either, to be better at one than the other. A rare exception, I believe, is Marvin Gaye. Two of his albums – 1973s Let’s Get It On and 1978s Here My Dear – are regularly featured in ‘best album of all time’ listings. I’ve played my copies consistently for the last forty years and never tire of them. I rarely use the word ‘genius’, but I think both qualify for the honour.
Here My Dear was the ‘cliff’ album. Gaye was terrible with money, often investing in bogus schemes and blowing untold sums on Class A drugs, so when his first wife, Anna asked for $1 million to settle their divorce, he simply didn’t have the funds. In a bizarre piece of creative thinking, his lawyer proposed a novel solution: Gaye would pay $600,000, half of which would come from the advance for his next album, with the other half coming from that album’s royalties. It was an insane idea. So, of course Gaye agreed to it. That’s what being on the edge of the cliff does to you sometimes.
Recorded in 1977, around the time Gaye’s divorce became final, the singer originally planned to produce something quick and mediocre, but the subject matter and the crisis proved to be too rich. The result was a 73-minute epic and the only double-LP he would ever make. Though birthed from contentious circumstances, the album still retains its power because it’s not just a heated diatribe, a peeved he-said to infinity. Unlike some of Gaye’s real-life actions, the album is nuanced, thoughtful, progressive.
After a scene-setting intro – “I guess I’ll have to say this album is dedicated to you” – the story begins in earnest with, fittingly, a doo-wop song. “I Met a Little Girl” boasts all the longing and vocal stacking of Gaye’s beloved ’50s music, but with the perspective flipped—he’s singing not as a green teen but as a man in his late 30s who has tried and failed at love (Principle 37), and is no closer to figuring it out. Gaye exquisitely sings all of the parts himself, creating an echo chamber of hurt. Though the singer spoke out against the women’s liberation movement of the era, there’s a generousness to his voice and sentiments, and a shared blame. “Then time would change you,” he squeals, “as time would really change me.” The song is nearly zen in its wistfulness, with a sumptuous arrangement and languid pace. Later, on a track called “Anger,” Gaye still takes the long-view, condemning the soul-destroying properties of rage rather than giving into them.
Like much of Gaye’s ’70s work, Here, My Dear is a groove album. Voices, instruments, and hooks don’t jump out as much as they lay in the cut waiting to be discovered. Though it can sound redundant at first, its (Principle 20) unvaried instrumentation and tempo strengthen the thematic bonds within. Three tracks called “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You,” are worked into the suite, all with the same easy sax funk, as if Gaye keeps returning to the question in hopes of a definitive answer. Spacious jazz backgrounds make tracks like “Sparrow” and “Anna’s Song” luxuriate in memories and idylls gone by—even when Gaye breaks character by screaming “An-na!” the vamp barely breaks its stride, acting as something of a calming agent.
Let’s Get It On, on the other hand sees Gaye at the peak of his ‘chase’ period. Especially the title track. And especially the vocal performance.
Nine days after the initial session to cut the instrumental parts of the track, Gaye was back in the studio to record his final lead vocal and, according to Ben Edmonds, author of Marvin Gaye and the Last Days of Motown Sound, that day Gaye had extra inspiration in the studio: One of Townsend’s friends, Barbara Hunter, brought along her lovely 16-year-old daughter, Janis, and as Edmonds writes, “The presence of this young girl compelled him to perform the song to her, and in so doing, it was transformed into the masterpiece of raw emotion we know so well.” (The Chase!) Indeed, Marvin and Janis fell in love, almost on the spot, and were married a few years later (after his messy, acrimonious divorce from wife number one, the one who was the inspiration behind Here, My Dear… a complicated crisis indeed!). So, some of the urgency and exhilaration in Gaye’s vocals came from his new muse, but some of the other vocal ad libs that Gaye tacked on came from conversations he had with Townsend. “They were Ed’s ideas really,” notes Harry Weinger, who produced the Deluxe Edition set and helped mix some of the bonus tracks. “Marvin was saying, ‘What should I do here? What kind of vibe do you want?’ And Ed said, ‘You know, something like “sanctify”…’ So Marvin then sang ‘something like sanctify,’” he laughs. “What Marvin did was find something that appealed to him and he went with it. It was not just a casual ad lib. Marvin overdubbed background vocals on that line several times. He added to it and augmented that phrase.”
The amazing vocal shouldn’t detract from the song’s music. Some of L.A.’s finest jazz and R&B players were assembled for the March ’73 sessions at Motown’s new Hitsville-West studios. Ernie Watts and Buddy Collette on reeds; Joe Sample and Wilton Felder of The Crusaders on piano and bass, respectively; drummer Paul Humphrey; Victor Feldman on vibes, and various other local luminaries. There were also extra percussionists and a small string section on hand on March 13, 1973, when the song was cut live in the studio by Motown engineer William McMeekin. What we end up with is another great illustration of the meaning of a band playing ‘in the pocket’. The rich, interweaving tapestry of different parts (Principle 40) belies the feeling when listening to the song that there’s as much empty space as there is music (Principle 31). It’s a masterclass in how to be both rich-and-sparse.
But then, if we look at Gaye’s mature career as a whole, we should expect nothing less. He left behind one of the world’s greatest music portfolios by the time of his too-early death. He was a man who oozed musicality. These two high points, I’d say get to be a cut above the rest of his work because of Inventive Principle 38, ‘Enriched Atmosphere’. Whether it be the Cliff or the Chase, Let’s Get It On and Here, My Dear are living testament to the idea of occasionally turning the emotion up to eleven.