Singer Marvin Gaye was unquestionably one of R&B’s biggest stars. But very early in his career, Gaye embraced the music of the Great American Songbook, and held onto these songs throughout his entire varied career. This hour, we’ll hear Marvin Gaye’s interpretations of jazz standards by Jerome Kern, Harold Arlen and more, stretching from his very first album in 1961 all the way through his final posthumous album.
The Soulful Moods Of Marvin Gaye
You might call Marvin Gaye a reluctant R&B star. He was born in 1939 in Washington D.C., the son of a very strict minister, and developed a love for singing at an early age. When he was old enough to leave the house, he got involved in doo wop, finding himself under the wing of Harvey Fuqua. Fuqua was one of the founding members of the Moonglows, who had a hit with “Sincerely” in 1954.
Gaye briefly sang with Fuqua’s “New Moonglows” in the late 1950s, and by 1960, he followed Fuqua to Detroit. It was in Detroit where he met Berry Gordy, his future brother-in-law, and the founder of the newly-formed Motown Records. Gordy was impressed by Gaye’s singing, and signed him to Motown’s subsidiary Tamla. Instead of recording R&B like the rest of the Motown lineup, Gaye insisted on performing jazz in the style of his idol Nat King Cole.
Gordy didn’t seem too keen on the experiment. In his first session, Gaye recorded one song by Berry Gordy, another by Harvey Fuqua, and ten other jazz standards, including “My Funny Valentine,” ‘How High The Moon,” “Love For Sale,” “Always,” and “Easy Living.’ Gaye was his own accompanist on an out of tune piano, with an unidentified rhythm section woefully inept at backing a jazz vocalist.
The album was called The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, masquerading its jazz contents, and it was a tremendous flop. Its only single was ”Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide,” the song that Gordy wrote. However, even in these early recordings, the beauty in Gaye’s tenor voice is evident, so it’s no wonder Gordy wanted to keep him in the Motown family, despite their creative differences.
When I’m Alone I Cry
After this very unsuccessful first record for Gaye, he began to work as a session drummer for Motown, performing on songs with the Miracles and the Marvelettes. He had no real intention on becoming an R&B star; Gaye felt that his singing future was in the music of the Great American Songbook. But eventually, he started writing his own music, and Berry Gordy convinced the stubborn singer to record an R&B album.
The lead single and title track from Gaye’s next album was “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” a song that Gaye co-wrote, and a song that embodied his relationship with the Motown executives. It became a breakout hit, as did many of the other songs on the album, like “Hitch Hike” and “Pride And Joy.”
To Berry Gordy, the success of That Stubborn Kinda Fellow was proof that Marvin Gaye should be singing R&B. To Gaye, his success was leverage to convince Gordy to record another record of standards. The 1964 album When I’m Alone I Cry upped the production value, with jazz bonafides like Melba Liston and Ernie Wilkins brought in to do some of the arrangements.
Gordy tried to make the best of Gaye’s stubbornness by trying to tap into the jazz-pop market on the publishing side. He created a new publishing house for newly-composed tin-pan-alley-type songs, written by his Motown songwriters. He called the company “Stein and Van Stock,” an old-sounding European name. The title song “When I’m Alone I Cry” was the first entry for this publishing company, written by Motown songwriter Mickey Stevenson under the white-sounding pseudonym “Avery Vanderberg.” “When I’m Alone I Cry” never became a pop standard, but another Stein and Van Stock song “For Once In My Life Did,” recorded by Motown’s Stevie Wonder AND Tony Bennett in the 1960s.
Hello Broadway, Nat King Cole, and the Copa
For the next few years, Marvin Gaye flip-flopped between pop standards and R&B hits. Weeks after releasing the song “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” in 1964, a song which would become his highest charting single to date, Gaye recorded an album of Broadway standards for the album Hello Broadway, including songs like like “On The Street Where You Live” and “Hello Dolly.” These songs were usually part of the repertoire of older artists Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, and Billy Eckstine. This was likely a bit of a compromise from Berry Gordy. The music here was at least more current and commercially viable in the 1960s, at least compared to the songs of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter. Even Smokey Robinson and the Miracles sang “On The Street Where You Live” in 1962 for Motown records.
Marvin Gaye’s next venture into the Great American Songbook would prove to be his last full-fledged effort supported by a record label. It probably would have never happened, except that in February of 1965, Gaye’s idol Nat King Cole unexpected passed away. Gaye’s next album was A Tribute to the Great Nat King Cole, and featured Gaye’s interpretations of Cole’s most well-known numbers. The singing style was positioned somewhere between his soulful sound he was beginning to cultivate for Motown, and Cole’s jazz-pop crooning that had been established since the 1940s.
After 1965, Gaye’s experiment with the Great American Songbook more or less came to an end. He abandoned to songs of Rodgers and Hart and the Gershwins, to sing the songs of Holland-Dozier-Holland, and Ashford and Simpson, a new generation of songwriting teams more in line with Motown’s vision for pop music in America. He managed to sneak one standard, the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer song “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road),” onto his next album, as the final track on The Moods of Marvin Gaye. It’s perhaps his best interpretation of a standard, a perfect blend of Gaye’s bluesy soul with the music of an earlier era. And what better way to put the past behind you than a closing night saloon song like “One For My Baby (And One More For the Road).”
His pop standards records did not please his young audience, and were mostly ignored by the older audience. However they did give him enough clout to perform at the famed Copacabana, the same venue that once saw the likes of Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr. Gaye’s 1966 performance at the Copa was not released until 2005. You’ll hear that even in this performance, the singer could flip effortlessly between jazz crooner and R&B superstar, performing songs like Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You” alongside his R&B hit “Ain’t That Peculiar.”
The Posthumous Releases
The 1970s saw Marvin Gaye blossom as an artist. His own songwriting took on more political importance with “What’s Going On” from 1971; he had his biggest hits with “Let’s Get It On” in 1973 and “Sexual Healing” in 1982. But in the background, he was still transfixed by certain songs from the Great American Songbook.
In 1967, Marvin Gaye met up with arranger and producer Bobby Scott to work on another session of all ballads from the Great American Songbook, including “Fly Me To The Moon” and “The Shadow of Your Smile.” He recorded many of these charts in 1968, but was mostly disappointed with the results. When “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” came out that same year and quickly rose to the top of the charts, the sessions were buried. He finally returned to these charts in 1979, recording them again with a decade’s worth of maturity, only to shelve them again.
Neither the 1968 nor the 1979 sessions of the ballads saw the light of day until after Marvin Gaye died tragically in 1984. The 1968 sessions found their way onto the posthumous release Romantically Yours from 1985, and the 1979 recordings were released on the posthumous album Vulnerable from 1997.