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The Triumph of Marvin Gaye
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of Gaye's return to the live stage
Welcome music lovers to the latest edition of ‘Listening Sessions.’
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This edition’s essay looks at one of the great documents of live performance: Marvin Gaye’s concert at the Kennedy Center on May 1, 1972. It was the first time Gaye appeared live in about four years and while it’s full of tentative and nervous energy, Gaye breaks through to offer moments of pure transcendence that makes it an essential part of his legacy. It is, in its own way, triumphant music.
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“You know, Tammi Terrell and I recorded a lot of love songs. Tammi used to say, “Marvin, our message is to lovers, isn’t it?” And I said, “And our message is of love, isn’t it?” And that’s what we strove for. To sing of love and about love. We wanted to sing because we know, and we knew that love was what was happening. We want you to reminisce a little. See if you remember this.”
Marvin Gaye; Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts; May 1, 1972
With that short introduction, Marvin Gaye launched into a reworked ‘Your Precious Love’ as part of an opening medley of hits during a concert in Washington D.C. on May 1, 1972. It was one of a series of hits he had with Tammi Terrell which still define a pinnacle of the male-female soul duet.
It was also the song Gaye and Terrell were performing on October 14, 1967 in Virginia when Terrell collapsed into Gaye’s arms. She had been plagued by migraines for almost all of her life and soon after the concert, Terrell was diagnosed with a brain tumour. After eight surgeries, she succumbed to brain cancer on March 16, 1970 at the age of 24. Gaye gave a eulogy at her funeral. It was said that he never truly got over her death.
After Terrell's death, Gaye retreated from the public eye and his grief as well as his profound concerns over the social upheavals of the late sixties led to the creation of What’s Going On, a declaration of Gaye’s independence from the Motown formula and a key marker, along with the social consciousness of Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong, and Stevie Wonder’s own restlessness at continuing to adhere to Berry Gordy Jr.’s vision of record making, in Motown’s evolution into the seventies.
If Wonder has always presented a tale of genius largely unencumbered by the personal cost usually associated with channeling a higher artistic calling, Gaye, especially from What’s Going On until his untimely death at the hand of his father in 1984, presents the other side of the coin, an ongoing negotiation between the sacred and the profane. And thus it was on May 1, 1972.
It was a day designated as Marvin Gaye Day in his hometown of Washington, D.C. It would include a public motorcade ending at where he went to high school and other public festivities culminating in a show at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Since Tammi Terrell collapsed mid-concert in 1967, Gaye’s sorrow as well as stage fright and the belief that the studio was the medium in which he could best present his music as well as himself all contributed to his exit from the concert hall. Marvin Gaye Day was designed to change that: to get Gaye back before his adoring public, if just for one night.
The thought of a day-long celebration at the place of his birth filled Gaye with so much trepidation that his mom has entrusted with the vital task of making sure he would show up.
He did indeed show up and went through the program of celebrations. He later recalled it as such a draining experience that he could hardly recall the day at all. His sister, Jeanne, on the other hand, remembered her brother as joyful and happy as she had ever seen him.
It wasn’t until 11 p.m. that Gaye took the stage at the Kennedy Center. The concert was professionally recorded yet remained in the vault until 2001 when it was released as part of a deluxe edition of What’s Going On. In 2019, it was remixed and released as a stand-alone product, What’s Going On Live—a nod to the fact that at the heart of the show was a complete performance of the album. Most notably, and in a rare occurrence during Motown’s heyday, backing Gaye was the majority of the Funk Brothers—the moniker given to the musicians playing on just about every hit on the label from 1959 until its shift out west soon after this concert—as well as the Andantes on background vocals—another vital ingredient in the Motown sound—augmented by local musicians on strings and brass.
The finished product makes plain that we have a band that is under-rehearsed; in particular, the Funk Brothers and other musicians are occasionally out-of-synch and out of balance. And yet… We have Gaye, outwardly nervous, jittery, unashamed to bring things to a halt to re-start an unsatisfactory performance of ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).’ And yet… We have What’s Going On performed out of sequence; the second side played first and the tape running out just as ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ begins. And yet… In short, we have a document of what might be considered an off night. And yet…
And yet…the crowd forgives Gaye for whatever musical transgressions may have been committed. The music gels in moments of powerful and forceful communication and triumph, and Gaye powers through to defeat, if just for one night, the demons besetting him. We are able to bear witness to the struggles of Marvin Gaye, recall that he was mortal endowed with a gift that granted him a form of immortality.
The opening medley, a suite chronicling in reverse chronological order a selection of thoroughly recomposed hits from the sixties that goes from ‘That’s The Way Love Goes’ all the way back to the very start with ‘Stubborn Kind of Fellow’ is an exercise in contemporary nostalgia, commenting on Gaye’s earlier persona as a soul crooner utilizing the sound and approach of What’s Going On. It’s the table setter to the main event of playing What’s Going On in its entirety. If the inadvertent reversal of album sides was the result of Gaye’s ambivalence surrounding the hubbub of Marvin Gaye Day, it’s actually the happiest of accidents, a mistake instrumental to forming the narrative of the concert.
‘Right On’ starts tentatively, the groove hazy and unsure, but bear with it until the fourth and final section, and witness it transform into something razer sharp and formidable. The bursts of brass add an emphatic thrust of satisfaction. After a simply transcendent ‘Wholy Holy,’ we hear another drama unfold for ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).’ After Gaye summons some cheerful cordiality to restart the song, we hear everyone finding their footing as it progresses, laying down a stone cold groove for the “make me wanna holler” refrain and then transitioning to the hushed, sacred coda introducing the main thematic material of ‘What’s Going On.’ Someone in the crowd yells “Say It Marvin” and he does.
The anticipation mounts as Gaye segues directly into ‘What’s Going On’ for an ace performance, and then it’s on to the suite that comprises the heart of the album.
We hear Gaye offer guidance (“not too loud”) on ‘Flyin’ High (in the Friendly Sky),’ hit the heart of ‘What’s Happening Brother’ and in the two-part ‘Save the Children,’ Gaye and band run the gamut from barely together to a fierce groove into the transition to ‘God is Love’ for Gaye to preach from the stage. The song is a powerful testament of Gaye’s faith, so sorely tested, longing to cling to it and be cloaked in its strength. Gaye here is both minister and congregation. It is mesmerizing to hear Gaye transformed, singing a song as deeply affecting as any biblical psalm. Herein is why What’s Going On Live is such an important, moving document of Marvin Gaye. Herein is the Marvin Gaye who longs to be saved, but may only offer that promise to others through the power of his song. It’s almost fitting that the tape runs at the song’s end just as ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ was to begin. The sudden drop in sound is an invitation to briefly meditate on Gaye’s words.
When the tape begins again just as ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ ends, Gaye addresses the audience. He acknowledges the performance has been challenging, but even so “I feel pretty good about it.” Still, he asks the crowd if they want to hear anything again. The response is emphatic: they want to hear everything again. The love for Gaye is palpable. He meets his devoted following halfway and offers reprises of ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ and ‘What’s Going On.’ Here, the concert begins to take on the feel of a religious service, individual moments approximating elements of the church liturgy. Gaye offers a Blessing (“God bless you and the Lord keep you…”), a final Hymn (‘What’s Going On’) and a Dismissal (“God bless you all”) to send everyone back out into the world.
There are those who may say that What’s Going On Live misses the mark. It’s an assessment that results from engaging the music solely on the surface, ignoring what it tells us about Marvin Gaye the singer and Marvin Gaye the man. In that light, What’s Going On Live is a triumph and a profound peek into the heart and humanity of one of the greatest of American artists. He continues to give us a love that we long to receive.