In April 1976, Marvin Gaye released “I Want You”, the title track from his album of the same name released a month earlier. It had been three years since his last solo project “Let’s Get It On” which to be fair, raised a few eyebrows with its content, and the album “Diana And Marvin” which also raised some concern in its conception. Anyway, let’s concentrate on the matter at hand – the album that prompted the much-respected British journalist and colleague Cliff White to write “it was almost a voyeur’s delight….like peeking through the windows of the Gaye residence in the wee hours. Perhaps that’s your kick, but personally I find it a mite frustrating.”
Like “Let’s Get It On” before it, “I Want You” was once again instigated by a third party, which may have indicated that Marvin was incapable of working alone now, or what he had toyed around with wasn’t sufficiently inspiring to record. He quickly fobbed this off saying he was stifled by the music industry: “The business I’m engaged in, outside the artistry of it, has not afforded me the opportunity to do any more albums than I’ve done.”
Whatever the reason, Marvin knew he needed to deliver new music but was unsure which path to take. “What’s Going On” stood on its own although there was plenty of scope for him to expand on the subject, while “Let’s Get It On” was from an artist who believed he was the ultimate lover, conquering hero and sexual fantasy. “I Want You” took that theme up to a different level and some of the resulting music appealed not at all to me because, in my opinion, Marvin had crossed the line. And believe me, I’m no prude.
Following several conversations with Berry Gordy, Marvin agreed to work with Leon Ware and Arthur ‘T-Boy’ Ross. The original intention was for Marvin to record the one song “I Want You” but he ended up recording several that were intended for their own personal albums. So, he worked with them on tracks like “Soon I’ll Be Loving You”, “Feel All My Love Inside”, “Since I Had You” and “After The Dance”. All the songs were already recorded and only needed Marvin to Gaye-ise them. Leon Ware told author David Ritz, “Berry played ‘I Want You’ for Marvin, just the one song, and the next day Marvin was ready to do the album. I’d written it as a vocal album for myself, but I was pleased to have Marvin sing my songs. I was rare for Marvin to let anyone produce him, so naturally I was honoured.”
In an interview with Steve Turner, Leon said, “We took my voice off and put Marvin’s on along with his spirit…the lyrics were already very sensual but Marvin would often change them as he was recording. He brought his own attitude to the songs.” It was an amazing period in his life, as Leon further explained, because he believed there was definitely something rather godly about Marvin. “He had this incredible magnetism. We all felt that, and we knew that to work for him meant serving him at his pleasure.”
Signed to Motown for some time, Arthur “T-Boy” Ross was planning his first album “Changes” on which “I Want You” was also earmarked as a track. “But Berry Gordy explained to me it would be better if I gave the project to Marvin because it would build up my reputation better that way. And I understood how hard it would be to break a new artist at the time so I went along with it….I was proud to hear him doing my songs, although he didn’t sing them exactly the way I wanted which is why I included ‘I Want You’ on my album.”
Perhaps it’s boring to know that the message is the same (and) some might feel that I’m not being creative enough to go somewhere else, but that wasn’t it,” explained Marvin at the time. “It’s just that I wasn’t doing anything and I didn’t intend doing anything.” His attitude was probably due to his crumbling personal life where wife Anna had filed for divorce, a move he never expected her to make so quickly. Yet he couldn’t have it both ways, as the new love in his life was young Janis Hunter, and it was to her he sang in the studio during the lengthy cocaine-fuelled sessions that took thirteen months just to lay down his vocals. Marvin had insisted she be with him while he was recording which was, she said, a magical feeling. “And it was more than the impossibly seductive music. It was the feeling of the family – Marvin, myself, Nona and Frankie – living (together) while his songs were sculptured into a form that was distinctively Marvin. The blending of Marvin’s many voices was mirrored in the emotional harmony between us.”
A typical recording day would either begin late in the morning or early afternoon, with games of basketball in between, followed by further recording from early evening until one or two in the morning. Leon Ware remembered, “We played games in the studio, made music in the studio, made love in the studio, ate in the studio and celebrated our birthdays in the studio. We lived in the studio.” Pieces of cocaine the size of baseballs were available to all to chip away at, with Marvin and Jan regular users.
The album’s title track opened the work with its intricate vocal interplay where the singer pleaded for an affair, making demanding suggestions, presumably cementing his growing affection for Jan. “Come Live With Me Angel”, on the other hand, a repetitious, barely audible track, was a more direct approach, goading her to live with him to enjoy his sexual adventures. In her book After The Dance she noted that the song flashed back to their early days “when he asked me to leave my mother’s home… so he could explore all my ‘treasures’ and indulge in ‘freakish pleasures’.”
A profusion of guitars and keyboards dominated a four-minute-plus instrumental of “After The Dance”, before “Feel All My Love Inside” opened the bedroom door with Marvin simulating intercourse, highlighting his voyeuristic tendencies, and yet airing his serious intention of proposing marriage once his divorce from Anna was confirmed. He opened the song by asking for another joint before painting the picture of sweet passion and eroticism. Then, his paternal side suddenly presented itself with the one-minute-something “I Wanna Be Where You Are” aimed directly at his children which could be played to them in his absence. He never did explain why this song remained unfinished.
As I’m playing the original vinyl album while writing this, side two kicked off with a taster of “I Want You”, leading into “All The Way ‘Round” about which Jan wrote, “He sang about ‘getting down to the skin’, exciting himself at the thought that I might be promiscuous.” The song is quite complex yet repetitious. Marvin’s love of the spoken word conflicted with his multi-tracked vocals on “Since I Had You” where once again the writhing moaning of passion interrupted the song’s flow. I found his obsession with the vocalizing of intercourse rather irritating by now and I felt I was being dragged away from listening to the actual lyrics.
A liberal use of the bongos kicked off “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again” which drummed (no pun intended) home again the message of the preceding tracks. The only deviation this time had been muted, where Marvin howled like an animal in pain. And all too soon, the final track “After The Dance” during which, Jan wrote, he fantasized “about seeing me on Soul Train. It didn’t matter that I was never a Soul Train dancer. He invented the scenario.” Yes, Marvin was obsessed with this woman in her late teens, and directed this album at their all-consuming relationship that played to their strengths and weaknesses, yet their eventual marriage barely lasted three short years.
As for the singer’s thoughts on the project, well, all I can tell you is that he one time explained, “I didn’t know where to take the album conceptually but found that the music lent itself to sex more than any other subject. Really, that was the only reason for tainting it in a sexual way. There had been a couple of other possibilities but I had exhausted them.”
Then in another interview he claimed “I Want You” was a quick album, one that he had recorded without much enthusiasm as he had bowed down to Berry’s bullying tactics. “Motown [would] keep me mad all the time by not treating me properly. I’m like a fine race horse, but they don’t treat me like one. At least a race horse gets a rub down after a race. I don’t even get that. I had no plans to produce anything on myself because ninety per cent of the time, when I get mad I get unproductive.”
Despite his feelings, Marvin later back-tracked on these comments during a different conversation, saying he was actually pleased with the album, particularly the tracks “After The Dance”, “Come Live With Me Angel” and “I Want You” which he believed sold the album, particularly in America where it originally passed one million copies, thanks to the success of “I Want You” which shot to the top of the Billboard Soul Singles chart and number 15 on the Pop Singles listing. The album peaked in the British chart at number 22, while the single sold poorly.
Although Leon Ware produced the actual album, Berry Gordy and Marvin were afforded the courtesy credit of executive producers, while “T-Boy” Ross and Hal Davis were acknowledged as associate producers. In fact, “T-Boy” worked on very little as, following a clash of words during the early stages of the sessions, Marvin banned him from the studio.
So, in a quick summing up, I think it’s fair to say the album was often recorded in a drug-fuelled state of euphoric imagination and resulted from the uninhibited world in Marvin’s mind that could only focus on the young lady sitting opposite him. However, I still maintain he went too far this time. Barry White gently opened the bedroom door but it was Marvin who pulled back the bed sheets.
Following the album’s release, Marvin was prepared to listen to his critics despite bemoaning the fact that in the past he was depressed when the media and his fans failed to grasp the full meaning of the subjects he wanted to share with them. And “I Want You” similarly seemed to confuse reviewers, he said, because the delicate melody and lyric was lost on them. Instead they longed for his past music with its basic ‘Motown Sound’ and straight forward approach. “People in the arts should be listened to, particularly if they’re legitimate. They visit…a lot of people and pick up a lot of energies and vibes, and somehow the truth seems to filter through because of their association with so many people and situations.”
Vince Aletti wrote in Rolling Stone the production was too low-keyed, and when he compared the album with Marvin’s previous work, wrote, “Gaye seems determined to take over as soul master’s philosopher in the bedroom, a position that requires little but an affectation of constant, rather jaded horniness.” The reviewer further believed the singer had more or less covered all bases in “Let’s Get It On” where he came across as a tender yet hot lover, with a casual type of raunchiness. With this new release, while the subject matter remained the same, the enthusiasm behind robust passion was missing – “There’s no fire here, only a well-concealed pilot light.”
While he accepted that the music could have been better, Marvin had been very excited by the album sleeve, as he gushed. “As part of the package one has to consider the cover; one that will be interesting because I like to bring something into people’s lives. I didn’t simply want to use a photo, so I went to great lengths of buying a painting. I even held up (the production) of the cover because I wanted the picture to be right. It had pretty good connotations, it was ethnic and was something that people who are not coloured or black, can look at and say ‘here’s a study of us.'”
However, not everyone shared Marvin’s enthusiasm. Motown’s marketing department, for instance, would have preferred his likeness to adorn the front cover at least. Marvin stuck to his guns. He was first introduced to neo-mannerist artist Ernie Barnes by colleague Barbara Hunter. This meeting led to him purchasing eight Barnes’ originals including one titled “The Sugar Shack” which he wanted to use as the cover to the album. Marvin’s request inspired the painter to augment certain bits by adding references to the album with banners hanging from the ceiling announcing a dance contest, a welcome to ‘The Sugar Shack,’ highlighting “Big Daddy” Rucker, the new hit “I Want You” and Radio WMPG. The finished artwork depicted a Saturday night ‘hop’ with dancers and musicians cavorting their elongated bodies across a dance floor. None had their eyes opened as they sang, drank and danced through a rather dull, dark background of gaudy colours, yet it transmitted to the viewer how African-Americans use rhythm to alleviate physical tension. The Oakland Tribune called Ernie Barnes “the Picasso of the black art world”, and other art critics believed he was one of the best black painters of his time.
The original version of “I Want You” has been re-issued a few times on CD: a 2002 version with bonus tracks and a year later a two-disc expanded edition that included the original album and unreleased material. It was also one of four CDs marketed in the box set “The Marvin Gaye Classics Collection” with “Let’s Get It On”, “Trouble Man” and “Love Starved Heart”. However, I spotted that on the outside packaging, the picture advertising “I Want You” shows a different radio banner reading “620 on your dial – WSRC”. Funny the things you notice!
Another thing that came to mind about the artwork – the men have shaved heads. Well, before 1975 ended, Marvin stunned his audience at a San Francisco concert by appearing in public for the first time with his head shaved. It was, he explained, his protest against the incarceration of Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, who was serving a prison term for a murder he insisted he did not commit. “I don’t know why I shaved my head. I’m as crazy as any of us artists, I suppose. Most of us are a bit touched” he said at the time. His shaven head look lasted for as long as it took his hair to re-grow.
And I’ve often wondered if he was inspired by Ernie Barnes’ painting. Now I’ll never know.
(Acknowledgements: “After The Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye” – Jan Gaye with David Ritz: “Trouble Man: The Life And Death Of Marvin Gaye – Steve Turner: “Divided Soul” – David Ritz: my own “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”, and an unidentified interview with Marvin Gaye)