Ah, things ain’t what they used to be

Periodically, I use this space to pay homage to artists whom I believe are worthy of focused attention — artists with an extraordinary, influential, consistently excellent body of work and/or a compelling story to tell.  In this essay, I delve into the work of a man with one of the most stunning voices the world has ever known, a man who played a pivotal role in defining the Motown Sound, a man troubled by inner demons and a broken relationship with his father that ultimately killed him:  Marvin Gaye.


220px-Marvin_Gaye_in_1973The lively world of popular music — rock, rhythm & blues, country, jazz, you name it — has been plagued by intermittent chapters of tragedy.  Abuse of drugs and alcohol have caused the self-destruction of far too many talented musicians; plane crashes have prematurely taken a dozen or more giants from us; cancer and other diseases have claimed the lives of a few major artists as well.

Among the most tragic deaths are those involving violence.  Most prominently, John Lennon’s death was especially shocking for many of us because it was essentially an assassination.  The gruesome end of the great Marvin Gaye came just as suddenly, and just as shockingly:  He was fatally shot by his own father.


To try to make some kind of sense out of such an unconscionable act, you have to understand the complicated mind of Marvin Gay Sr.  A preacher in the Hebrew Pentacostal Church, Gay was a strict disciplinarian who ruled his household with an iron fist that included regular incidents of physical abuse of his four children.  Gay was also known to be a cross-dresser with repressed homosexual feelings, and his inability to deal with this apparent contradiction was often taken out on his wife and children.

Gay was a heavy drinker and eventually lost his preaching position, ending up chronically unemployed.  He never approved of his son’s decision to become a singer, and when Gaye became successful, he emerged as the de facto breadwinner in the family, making the father-and-son relationship ever more tense and uneasy.

Gaye had his own problems, including depression, paranoia, cocaine abuse and an addiction to various kinky sex activities, all of which exacerbated the lifelong psychological battle between the two men.  Insiders say they felt it was only a matter of time before the father or the son would do irreparable harm to the other.


In between the stormy childhood and horrendous end, Marvin Gaye achieved dizzying heights that won him international fame as a recording artist and performer.

He first sang publicly in his Washington, D.C. church at age four, where he developed a images-155deep love of singing gospel music.  He was encouraged to think about pursuing a career as a professional singer when, at age 11, he brought the house down at an elementary school play with a exhilarating performance of Mario Lanza’s “Be My Love.”  He was a featured soloist of his junior high glee club and also sang in several doo-wop groups during his high school years.

When life in his parents’ home became unbearable, Gaye left school and enlisted in the Air Force, but his refusal to follow orders made him a poor candidate for military life, resulting in a general discharge.  Upon his return to D.C., he formed The Marquees, a vocal quartet with his friend Reese Palmer, working periodically with rock and roll pioneer Bo Diddley.  The Marquees were then hired by Harvey Fuqua to be his backing group in Harvey and the New Moonglows, relocating to Chicago in 1959, where they


Gaye (second from left) with The Moonglows

recorded several tracks on Chess Records, including “Mama Loocie,” Gaye’s first lead vocal recording.  He also sang backing vocals on a few Chuck Berry records including “Back in the U.S.A.” and “Almost Grown.”

Gaye had also learned drums and piano, which won him some session work, and he began dabbling in songwriting as well.  In 1960, he moved to Detroit with Fuqua and ended up singing at a party at Motown founder Berry Gordy’s house, which resulted in Gordy offering Gaye a contract.  (It was around this time the singer officially added the “e” to his last name, to silence the rumors of his sexuality and to further distance himself from his father.)

Gaye, blessed with a four-octave vocal range, envisioned himself a singer of jazz and Nat King Cole-type standards, with little interest in the R&B music Gordy wanted him to sing.  They eventually negotiated a compromise, and his 1961 debut album, “The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye,” contained both genres.  Nothing came of his first few singles, and he soon concluded that R&B would in fact prove more lucrative for him.  His first hit was not as a singer but as co-writer of The Marvelettes’ “Beechwood 4-5789.”  That same year, he had his own first chart hits with the prescient “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and “Hitch Hike” (#8 and #12 on the R&B charts) followed by his first Top Ten pop hit, “Pride and Joy,” in 1963.

images-156For the next seven years, Gaye enjoyed a nearly non-stop residence at or near the top of the R&B charts, scoring 25 singles in the Top Ten and earning the moniker “The Prince of Motown.”  He was a major presence on the Motown performing circuit, sharing the stage with Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, The Temptations, Stevie Wonder and others.  He did almost as well on the pop charts during this period, securing 13 Top Ten hits between 1964 and 1969.

Gaye’s voice, which songwriter-producer Eddie Holland called “one of the sweetest, most versatile I’ve ever worked with,” was perhaps the most distinctive of the many soul artists to dominate the pop airwaves, vying for chart success against The Beatles, The Beach Boys and a multitude of imitators.  His biggest single yet, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” was in regular rotation across the country in 1965, as were “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar.”


Gaye and Terrell

I think my first exposure to Gaye’s music came in 1967 when he began recording duets, first with Kim Weston and then Tammi Terrell.  My older sister bought all these 45s and played them incessantly:  “It Takes Two,” “Your Precious Love,” “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing,” “You’re All I Need to Get By” and, most notably, Ashford & Simpson’s brilliant song/arrangement “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.”  I was only 12 then, but that marvelous tenor voice, alternately smooth and gospel raspy, grabbed my attention and held it for years to come.

My family always had “The Ed Sullivan Show” tuned in on Sunday nights, and I have a vivid memory of being completely floored as I watched Gaye, in a voice almost desperate with angst, sing a riveting rendition of his 1969 #1 hit “I Heard It Through the Unknown-279Grapevine.”  Holy smokes, what a performance.  The record held a vise grip on the #1 slot for six weeks, and its followup, “Too Busy Thinking ‘Bout My Baby,” proved to be another classic.

This kind of success, curiously, didn’t sit well with Gaye.  He loathed touring but was required to be on the road constantly, which triggered what became a long struggle with cocaine.  He also grew disillusioned with Gordy and the business side.  “He felt like a puppet in the Motown circus, and he wanted more freedom in determining his creative direction,” said his late brother Frankie Gaye in his 1998 memoirs.

Gaye thought the next single, “That’s the Way Love Is,” was way too derivative of “Grapevine,” but he was intrigued when Gordy approved his release of a cover version of Dion’s socially relevant “Abraham, Martin and John.”  When it reached #4, he had something of an epiphany.  The time had come, he determined, to make a major shift in his perspective.

The world was in a period of profound upheaval in 1970 and Gaye wanted to be part of the growing voices of dissent and commentary.  “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” he asked.  Gordy, who had little use for material with a political edge, was angry when Gaye told him he wanted to make a protest record.  “Marvin, don’t be ridiculous.  That’s taking things too far.  Your fans aren’t going to like it.”  Gaye held firm. “I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people.  I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”

Otis Benson of The Four Tops had collaborated with Al Cleveland on a powerful piece called “What’s Going On,” and when the other Four Tops said no thanks, they offered it to Gaye.  He put his own stamp on it, adding a few lyrics, modifying the arrangement, and ended up producing the song himself, with bassist James Jamerson and percussionist Eddie Brown from Motown’s Funk Brothers and recruiting a few others like sax man Eli Fontaine.  Gaye also invited a few friends to the recording sessions, giving the place a chill party vibe that was recorded and used in the background.

Unknown-278Gordy’s reaction to the finished track was blunt:  “It’s the worst thing I ever heard in my life.”  When he declined to release it, Gaye went on strike, refusing to record any other material until Gordy relented.  Gaye enlisted the help of sympathetic sales guys, who forwarded copies of “What’s Going On” to key radio stations and record stores in defiance of Gordy, and the result was almost immediate.  It vaulted to #1 and became Motown’s fastest selling single ever at that time.  Convincingly persuaded, Gordy gave the green light to the album, and Gaye and company assembled eight more tracks written or co-written by Gaye, including the pointedly political hits “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler).”

To say it was well received is a gross understatement.  If you look it up today, you’ll find Gaye’s “What’s Going On” LP is ranked in the Top 100 Albums of All Time in numerous publications and websites.  Some rank it in the Top Five.  Reviewers were and still are rightly ecstatic about it.  Critic David Simon called it “a creative and commercial triumph images-158and one of the greatest albums ever attempted by a popular artist.”

Having won creative control, Gaye grabbed the brass ring again in 1973 with the suggestive “Let’s Get It On,” another #1 smash commercially and critically.  Almost concurrently, he gave in to requests for “Diana & images-159Marvin,” a more conventional collection of Ashford & Simpson songs on a duet LP with Diana Ross.  By 1976, when disco began influencing just about every artist who put out a new record, Gaye countered with “I Want You,” which rivals anything Barry White ever released as a soundtrack for lovemaking.  “Gaye seems determined to take over as soul’s master philosopher in the bedroom,” said Rolling Stone‘s Vince Aletti.  “This is an adult album of private intimacy and sensuality.”  Cliff White of New Musical Express called it “a voyeur’s delight… like peeking through the windows of the Gaye residence in the wee hours.”

His private life, meanwhile, was unraveling.  He endured a messy divorce from his first wife Anna, who happened to be Gordy’s daughter, and dove ever deeper into drug abuse to help him with crippling stage fright and periodic suicidal tendencies.  The stress of a Unknown-280huge tax debt to the IRS also weighed heavily on him, eventually causing him to relocate to Europe for a spell.  Although American listeners started to look elsewhere for new sounds, British audiences still clamored for Gaye, which resulted in a timeless performance and hugely popular concert LP, “Live at the London Palladium,” and yet another #1 hit, the influential “Got to Give It Up.”

During his European stay, and with the help of his mother Alberta, he made significant progress in curbing his addiction issues in 1981 and earned some renewed confidence and self-esteem from the rabid response to a tour of Europe.  He turned in his final album owed to Motown and promptly severed ties with Gordy.  Approached by several labels, Gaye went with CBS Records, who agreed to settle his back debts and heavily promote his next LP, “Midnight Love” (1982).  The platinum, Grammy-winning single, “Sexual Healing,” put him back on the radio in a big way.

images-165Now back in the States, he appeared in high-profile events like the “Motown 25:  Yesterday, Today, Forever” TV special, and sang an iconic rendition of the National Anthem at the NBA All-Star Game in L.A.  After one final U.S. tour, marred by illness and drug-fueled attacks of paranoia, Gaye moved into his parents’ L.A. home to care for his mother, who was recovering from kidney surgery.

Gaye and his father struggled to keep their distance from one another, but the writing was on the wall.  Gay and his wife had been estranged for years, sleeping not only in separate bedrooms but separate houses located a few blocks apart.  He resented the fact that his son was much closer to his mother and had also become their primary source of financial support.

Gaye, meanwhile, had continued to contemplate suicide and, perhaps to that end, he gave his father a .38-calibre pistol as a Christmas gift, ostensibly for his own protection.  To his sister, it appeared more like a way to provoke his father into doing what Gaye couldn’t bring himself to do on his own.

On April 1, 1984, after Gaye shoved his father into a wall to prevent him from approaching Alberta, Gay took out his pistol and shot Gaye twice in the chest at close range.  As he lay dying in his brother Frankie’s arms, Gaye whispered, “It’s good.  I got what I wanted.  I ran my race.  There’s no more left in me.”

He would have turned 45 the next day.


images-154Despite his inner struggles, despite the hideous way his life ended, Gaye’s musical legacy remains intact.  All those Motown classics, the brilliance of “What’s Going On,” the provocative music that followed and, most of all, That Voice are what we all want to remember about this man.  His reputation as a maker of sensual bedroom songs earned new life when, in 2015, award-winning pop singer-songwriter Charlie Puth made his debut with the single “Marvin Gaye,” with these lyrics:  “Let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on, you got the healing that I want, just like they say it in the song, until the dawn, let’s Marvin Gaye and get it on…”


Didn’t I do the best I could, now didn’t I?

How strange it is, and unfortunate, when the people who put in the hours and do the bulk of the work aren’t given the credit or the glory for what they’ve contributed.

In pop music, this has happened fairly often.  The superstar singer basks in the spotlight while the session musicians or touring band work their wonders largely in the background.

In the 1960s, there was a loose confederation of hip studio musicians in Los Angeles who came to be known as The Wrecking Crew because they were “wrecking the industry” for the button-down guys who came before them.  I’ve already written about The Wrecking Crew in Hack’s Back Pages, most recently when drummer Hal Blaine passed away last year.  He and players like Larry Knechtel, Tommy Tedesco, Carol Kane and others worked in anonymity while laying down the amazing bass, drums, keyboards and guitars on hundreds of hit singles by dozens of famous artists from The Fifth Dimension 6628fe59f4b3c3726ed3d13631b78733and Frank Sinatra to The Beach Boys and Neil Diamond.

Over in Detroit, where Berry Gordy established his Motown Records “Hitsville U.S.A.” juggernaut, the same thing happened, only more so.

The hundreds of hit records that millions of us danced to — back then and still today — were sung by widely known stars like The Supremes, Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, The Temptations.  But who played the bass, drums, keyboards and guitars that were the crucial foundation bubbling along under the singers?

Most people, even most fans of Motown music, have no idea.

These 13 men (give or take) liked to call themselves The Funk Brothers.  Why, you ask?  Legend goes, at the end of one enthusiastic all-night recording session, drummer Benny Benjamin paused as he was heading out, turned and said to his colleagues, “You all are The Funk Brothers!”  The moniker stuck, even if it was unknown to the public at large.

Whereas some of The Wrecking Crew went on to fame (Glen Campbell, Leon Russell), none of The Funk Brothers achieved any kind of celebrity status, either during or after Motown’s glory years (1961-1972), at least until recently.

“It was bigger than we thought it was gonna be,” recalls keyboardist Joe Hunter, one of the early stalwarts of The Funk Brothers.  “We didn’t know it was gonna be that big.  At first, we didn’t notice what was going on because we were too busy creating the music and the magic.  Finally, you know you’ve played on all those hit records, on jukeboxes and radios everywhere, and everyone says, ‘Oh, that’s Motown.’  But they never knew us.  Nobody ever mentioned too much about us.  After a long time goes by, finally it gets to you.  When the dust cleared, we realized we were being left out of the legacy.  We wondered, will anyone ever know who we are and what we did?”

61pAjXGCGzL._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_The Funk Brothers can thank Allan Slutsky, a musician/arranger and music historian, for his efforts to increase awareness about The Funk Brothers and their monumental contributions to popular music.  In 1989, he wrote “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” an award-winning best seller that told the fascinating yet tragic story of the late James Jamerson, The Funk Brothers’ influential giant on bass guitar.  The book doubled as a bass instruction book, detailing Jamerson’s game-changing bass lines on iconic tracks like “I Was Made to Love Her,” “My Girl,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “Nowhere to Run” and “What’s Going On.”

Then, in 2002, Slutsky produced the Grammy-winning documentary of the same name, which broadened its scope to tell the story of all The Funk Brothers, offering first-person accounts of their backgrounds and their recollections of the many sessions where their 220px-Sitsomlegendary music was created.  Slutsky’s narrative put it this way:  “The Funk Brothers were an overpowering lineup of veteran groove masters and trailblazing virtuosos… An irresistible tapestry of instrumental hooks and counterrhythms that defined the Motown sound.  The dance floors of the world didn’t stand a chance.”

It’s a compelling narrative, and I urge you to check it out on DVD or various streaming sources.

In 1959, when Gordy was just getting started, he knew he needed really great musicians to work in his recording studio, and he knew where to find them.  He went to the various night clubs around Detroit and scouted the jazz musicians performing there.

“Berry came in to the club — I think it was Chappy’s, or Baker’s Keyboard Lounge — and said he wanted to set up a record company and needed good musicians,” said Hunter.  “He knew (drummer) Benny, and he got a bunch of us to come over for a rehearsal at Smokey Robinson’s house.”

Guitarist Robert White and keyboard great Earl “Chunk of Funk” Van Dyke were among the early recruits, as were percussionist Eddie Brown and guitarists Eddie Willis and Joe Messina.  This original gang of players added a few more names over the next couple of years:  Uriel Jones and Robert Allen on drums, Johnny Griffith on keyboards, Bob Babbitt on bass and Jack Ashford on percussion.

Gordy bought a small house at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, and while he and his wife lived in second-floor quarters, the lower level was converted for use as Studio A, lovingly R-8199027-1456997255-5370.jpegknown as “The Snake Pit” because of all the cables running down from the ceiling.  It was in this relatively cramped yet mystical place the Funk Brothers called home where all those hundreds of Motown songs were created, sometimes in an hour or less.

Numerous tracks by various aspiring artists were recorded in the first year or two but without much success on the Billboard Top 40 chart, although several records like Barrett Strong’s “Money (That’s What I Want)” did well on the lesser R&B charts.

The musicians who made up The Funk Brothers still did gigs in their old haunts around Detroit, and that camaraderie and time spent together jamming on various jazz tunes hatched new ideas, new riffs, new techniques that eventually made their way into The Snake Pit and onto pop records.

In 1960, Robinson and his vocal group, The Miracles, became Motown’s first crossover chart success with the #2 hit, “Shop Around.” They scored big again in 1962 with “You Really Got a Hold On Me,” as did The Contours with the timeless “Do You Love Me” and The Marvelettes with Motown’s first chart topper, “Please Mr. Postman.”  Playing the instrumental foundation on these records?  The Funk Brothers, of course.

From 1964 to 1969, Motown ruled the airwaves as The Supremes, The Temptations, The FunkBros-NiceFour Tops, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Smokey and The Miracles, Mary Wells, Martha and The Vandellas, The Contours, Kim Weston, Junior Walker and The All-Stars, Gladys Knight and The Pips and Brenda Holloway took turns dominating the pop charts with records that are all still enormously popular 50 years later.  Accompanying them on every one of their records was one combination or another of The Funk Brothers.

By the late ’60s, the psychedelic soul of Jimi Hendrix and Sly and the Family Stone made its mark, and Motown took notice.  Producers like Norman Whitfield lobbied to bring in additional guitarists like Dennis Coffey to perform the wah-wah on tracks like The Temptations’ “Cloud Nine.”

But no musician credits were ever listed on Motown releases, at least not until Gaye insisted on it on his trailblazing 1970 LP, “What’s Going On.”  From then on, The Funk Brothers’ individual names started appearing in the liner notes.

d28df399c3e294d2ca11bc5f7cb9b48aThe Funk Brothers often moonlighted on the sly for other labels, recording in Detroit and elsewhere, in bids to augment their Motown salaries.  It became a worst-kept secret that Jackie Wilson’s 1967 hit “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher” did not have a Motown influence by accident; the Funk Brothers migrated to do the Wilson session. Various Funk Brothers also appeared on such non-Motown hits as “Cool Jerk” (by the Capitols), “Agent Double-O Soul” by Edwin Starr, “(I Just Wanna) Testify” by the Parliaments, “Band Of Gold” by Freda Payne and “Give Me Just A Little More Time” by Chairmen of the Board.

“They were just really, really good jazz musicians,” noted Don Was, bass player and influential producer in the ’80s and ’90s.   “They could swing like crazy, and that’s not something that’s always present in pop music.  When there’s a groove like that, the subliminal effects, everybody just feels good.”

“No disrespect to any of the great artists who sang on them, but truthfully, anybody could’ve sung on them,” claimed producer/drummer Steve Jordan, “because the


James Jamerson and Benny Benjamin

instrumental tracks underneath were just so incredible.  They were musical entities unto themselves.”

Many observers singled out Jamerson for his bass playing.  “He represented the height of creative freedom and experimentation on bass,” said multi-instrumentalist and singer/songwriter Ben Harper.  “West Coast, East Coast, any coast you name, the man absolutely changed the course of the bass, not just holding down a steady bottom, but adding countermelody and riffs.  No one else knew, but savvy musicians knew.  Paul McCartney kept asking Beatles producer George Martin, ‘I want my bass lines to sound like the ones we hear on the Motown tracks.'”

It’s almost criminal that it wasn’t until decades later that these guys received any kind of funk_brothers_45th_grammys_87256676industry recognition.  Jamerson was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2000, and Benjamin in 2003.  The Funk Brothers received a collective Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2004 Grammys and were inducted into the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2007. A star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame was instilled in 2013.

Martha Reeves recalled a session that was hastily called together, and a few faces were missing.  “Where’s James?  He’s out of town?  Call the other guy.  Get ’em in here.  Ain’t no images-63one recording nothing without The Funk Brothers!”

Drummer Asher said, “For years and years, players and producers tried to find that magic Motown sound, as if it was some sort of a formula or something.  It wasn’t the artist, or the producers, or the way the building was constructed, the covering on the walls, the wood on the floor.  It was the musicians, plain and simple.  Without them, you’re nowhere.  As Marvin sang, ain’t nothing like the real thing, baby.”

Claims Paul Riser, Motown arranger/producer, “Without The Funk Brothers, there really wouldn’t be a Motown.  They were the sound, the essence of Motown.”

Shall we recap?  Here it is, a comprehensive but incomplete list of classic songs on which The Funk Brothers played their anonymous (until now) role:

“Stop! In the Name of Love,” “Do You Love Me,” “The Tracks of My Tears,” “Ooh Baby Baby,” “My Cherie Amour,” “Can I Get a Witness,” “I Can’t Get Next to You,” “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” “My World is Empty Without You,” “I Was Made to Love Her,” “My Girl,” “Shotgun,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” “Hitch Hike,” “Cloud Nine,” “Dancing in the Street,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On,” “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “Don’t Mess With Bill,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “My Guy,” “Get Ready,” “Baby Love,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “(I Know) I’m Losing You,” “Baby I Need Your Loving,” “Nowhere to Run,” “Love Child,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” “Uptight (Everything’s All Right),” “What Becomes of the Broken Hearted,” “It Takes Two,” “I Hear a Symphony,” “Bernadette,” “Going to A Go-Go,” “I Wish It Would Rain,” “(Love is Like a) Heat Wave,” “Tears of a Clown,” “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” “Someday We’ll Be Together,” “What Does It Take (To Win Your Love),” “This Old Heart of Mine,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Where Did Our Love Go,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You),” “Roadrunner,” “Reflections,” “Just My Imagination,” “Pride and Joy,” “The Way You Do the Things You Do,” “I Can’t Help Myself,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “I Second That Emotion,” “For Once In My Life.”


Good Lord, can I hear an “amen” for the wondrous talent of The Funk Brothers??!!