Monday, February 14, 2005

Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, Jessie Belvin, et al. They all wanted the credibility that singing the Great American Songbook would bring them. Not that there's anything wrong with “Bring It On Home to Me,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Higher and Higher,” and “Goodnight, My Love.”

Early in Marvin Gaye's career, he had a one-for-me, one-for-them arrangement with Motown, i.e. an album of standards, an album of soul, an album of standards. . .soul, etc. A rehearsal tape from that early period, when Gaye had visions of becoming the next Nat King Cole, has come into my possession. It's interesting and shows a strong feel for the material, but all that quickly fell by the wayside after the first couple of hits like “Hitchhike” and “Mickey’s Monkey.” Just as well; even with arrangements by the likes of Ernie Wilkins and Melba Liston, the Gaye standards albums (Hello Broadway, When I'm Alone I Cry, etc.) weren't very effective.

The most arresting example of this "schizophrenia" that befell most of the big male African-American non-jazz singers of that era is the posthumously released Gaye album, Vulnerable. On it, he sings standards, mostly double-tracked vocals, with arrangements by Bobby Scott. In a very schematic manner, one vocal track is done in a very conventional male crooner fashion, while the one layered over it is sung in Gaye's usual r 'n b style. Without realizing it, he had pioneered a new, hybrid, minor genre of American Pop. And a one-off at that! I wonder if Gaye ever fully comprehended, before he died, just how personally revealing this amazing document is.

In 1985, not long after Gaye was shot dead by his father, I was employed by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art when a new co-worker was hired; an attractive Latina woman. Not only was she the wife of a well-known Golden Era MGM producer-director, but, word quickly spread around the office, she had been Marvin Gaye's "last old lady." But hardly a day goes by in Lotusland where one doesn't run into some starry-eyed individual claiming just such a brush with greatness. Was this indeed the woman who cropped up in a lot of Gaye's obits; the one who was in the process of suing the singer, claiming that had beaten her in late 1982 and early 1983? In her deposition against the star, she had also said that on one of these occasions he had taken a diamond ring and carved a message in the windshield of her car.

And so. . .having nothing better to do with my hours after quitting time, I donned my deerstalker hat and shades and at a discrete distance followed Gaye's alleged inamorata to the parking garage to ascertain which was her car. She got into a nice, upscale late model car, which I now was able to inspect the next day. When I did, my heart skipped a beat as I gazed upon the grand, iconic gesture of one of undisputed giants of American secular music. Smack across the driver's line of sight, Gaye's rage resonated from beyond the grave in big, bold jagged letters: Fuck You.

Was she hanging onto the windshield for reasons of sentiment, or poverty? Or was it just a jury exhibit for a still-in-progress claim against Marvin Gaye's estate. I never mustered the nerve to ask.

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