When Tammi Terrell died on 16 March 1970 in The Graduate Hospital, Philadelphia, Marvin Gaye vowed he would never have another singing partner. The year was also one of celebration, being Motown’s 10th anniversary, but Marvin wouldn’t be joining in any party games: “Her death hurt so much. Not because she and I were lovers, I wish we had been, but the relationship was platonic. I was hurt because such a talented and beautiful human being died so young.” In a later interview, he sadly remembered, “It’s not easy to lose in this life someone you love and someone who you like and get along well with. And we were both relatively young…it really affected me tremendously. So much so, that I didn’t perform for a couple of years….She was a singer who was still developing and her talent was denied her and so many others. I loved her very much.”
However, Marvin was due to change his mind, or, rather, have his mind changed by Berry Gordy, when he was asked to record with Diana Ross. And the resulting “Diana & Marvin” was released and now celebrating its fiftieth birthday this month. The reception it received was mixed as reviewers erred on the side of it being mundane, while fans were split but the majority rushed to buy a copy. So let’s take a step back to remember how this rather controversial album was conceived and, indeed, ask was it a musical combination made in heaven?
When Berry Gordy came up with the idea late 1971/early 1972, Marvin was still in a euphoric state, thanks to the response to his “What’s Going On” milestone project, but frustrated with his inability to finish his next planned recording, “You’re The Man”. He turned that frustration into positivity by writing the score to the poor-selling “Trouble Man” film released December 1972, leaving Berry desperate for a decent follow-up album to “What’s Going On”. Diana Ross, on the other hand, had completed filming “Lady Sings The Blues” which, of course, took up all her working hours. While she basked in her new career, Berry was anxious to get her back into the studios to resurrect her recording career, so hit upon the idea of recreating the success of Marvin and Tammi with his two hottest singers.
Marvin and Diana had always been on friendly terms, but when he was asked to record with her, he initially refused for obvious reasons. Then he added, he didn’t need the unnecessary diversion from his future recording plans as an independent artist. Yet he was fiercely jealous of Diana’s acting achievement and the attention lavished on her by Berry Gordy. While mulling over this dilemma, his wife Anna intervened on behalf of her brother Berry. The combination, she felt, made commercial and artistic sense. She was very persuasive because Marvin caved in to her wishes on the understanding his name would be first on the record label and he was paid half the producer royalties. Neither happened.
He also believed his singing partners were cursed: Mary Wells left Motown after recording their “Together” album, Kim Weston likewise took flight after their “Take Two” sessions, and Tammi tragically died. However, pushing that to one side, Marvin secretly hoped the duet album would increase his popularity with Diana’s more mainstream audience. Follow the dollar!
The first tracks to be recorded was Ashford & Simpson’s “Just Say, Just Say” and “I’ve Come To Love You So Much” (the latter song unreleased until 2001 when the album was issued in CD format), so it was assumed the duo would be responsible for the whole project. Not so, as they left Motown to sign with Warner Bros, whereupon Berry recruited Hal Davis to take over. Other producers were hired, including Margaret Gordy, Mark Davis and Berry himself.
About eighteen or so tracks were recorded but only ten released on the original album. Berry personally selected the repertoire and asked Hal Davis to produce the bulk of them. “It was an album that had to happen,” Hal told author J. Randy Taraborrelli. “These were two of Motown’s biggest superstars and I was laying down something that’ll go down in history because they’ll probably never get together again…I would get my artistic points of view across without hurting either one….They had their individual opinions and I had to be the mediator…. We had some touchy moments in there.”
Motown staff engineer, Art Stewart told writer David Ritz, “The chemistry was all wrong. It was extremely tense in there. Marv would wander in, sipping wine and smoking a joint, ready to sing, while Diana was much more formal. Then, adding insult to injury, he sang circles around her. She just couldn’t keep up with him, and finally they wound up recording their parts separately.”
Yes, it was true, there was conflict right from the start. However, with Diana being pregnant, she understandably didn’t want to record in a limited-space booth with a smoking Marvin. She told David Nathan, writing for “Blues & Soul” at the time, “We did a couple of things together, and then I wouldn’t record with him in the studio, so we started singing separately…he used to smoke grass and I didn’t want to be there. I remember distinctly saying ‘ If you want to do this, do it outside.'” Hal Davis added. “Because (Diana) was…sitting down, she was having trouble singing and breathing correctly. The smoke from the marijuana wasn’t helping. But Marvin just told her, ‘I’m sorry, baby, but I got to have my dope or I can’t sing.” At this point, Diana reputedly got up and stormed out of the booth, saying, “What kind of crap is this?” She looked towards Berry, sitting behind the sound board, but he did nothing. So, she pulled a bunch of grapes from a nearby fruit bowl and lobbed it in his direction, then left the studio.
From this point onwards, it was clear recording schedules had to be amended! “I’m not sure I handled the situation very well. Musically I may have overplayed my hand. I was too cavalier,” Marvin told David Ritz. “I should have done everything in the world to make Diana comfortable….I could have been a little more understanding. But I’m afraid I went the other way. It’s hard for me to deal with prima donnas. We were like two spoiled kids screaming for the same cookie. It was definitely not a duet made in heaven.”
So the album of ‘mock duets’ ploughed on, with three in particular verging on the lacklustre – “Pledging My Love”, “Love Twins” and “I’m Falling In Love With You”. Others were very familiar to record buyers, like the pair of tried and tested Stylistics’ ballads, “You Are Everything” and “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)” both Linda Creed and Thom Bell compositions, and both high in melody and hooklines. Another was Wilson Pickett’s recorded and co-penned “Don’t Knock My Love”, a rather low funk track by comparison.
These aside, the album was rifled for singles, with the first being the marvellous, rather impassioned love song “You’re A Special Part Of Me” written by members of devilishly talented The Devastating Affair, Diana’s one-time backing group and later artists in their own right. Check out “That’s How It Was (Right From The Start)”. Erm, despite the excitement surrounding Marvin and Diana singing together on record, their debut duet single bombed, a situation not expected or catered for. Not a good start for an album poised to make Motown history.
While I grasped “You’re A Special Part Of Me” to my heart in sheer joy, it was the chirpy, mid-paced Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones’ slice of magic “My Mistake (Was To Love You)”, that really hit the spot. The song was liberated during January 1974, to peak in the US top twenty pop chart. However, Motown/UK opted for familiarity with “You Are Everything” in March: the gamble paid off when the single raced into the top five.
To the educated ear, when Diana’s opening verse was quietly delivered, followed by Marvin’s injection of louder soulful moments during the second verse, it was obvious they weren’t sharing the same microphone, let alone the same studio! The third US single, “Don’t Knock My Love” in June 1974 hit the top fifty, while the UK, flushed with success, lifted the second Stylistics’ cover, “Stop, Look, Listen (To Your Heart)”, a top thirty entrant. This was then followed by the second US single “My Mistake (Was To Love You)” in October, and finally, in July 1975, “Don’t Knock My Love”. The rather mediocre “Pledging My Love” remained at home base.
In the end, it took a year for “Diana & Marvin” to hit the stores. By this time Marvin was riding high with “Let’s Get It On” which surpassed the sales of “What’s Going On”, peaking at number two in the US chart. The album’s title hit the pole position, while two further tracks “Come Get To This” and “You Sure Love To Ball” peaked in the top thirty. Over here the album and first single hit the top forty. Meanwhile, Diana was once again enjoying the big time thanks to the wonderfully successful “Touch Me In The Morning”, with the album’s title giving her a second US chart topper. It reached the UK top ten, likewise a second album track “All Of My Life”, while the album itself reached number seven, was certified gold, selling in excess of 100,000 copies. The boss was back!
The “Diana & Marvin” front sleeve showed two unsmiling singers back to back, indicating to fans the project was not an unamicable association, while Motown’s publicity machine cranked into action with idyllic stories of the two recording together. The picture painted was entirely harmonious and we lapped it up. Marvin was pleased with the public’s support as he later told Paul Bernstein in a “Crawdaddy” interview, “Diana and I have known each other since the outset of Motown. This is a good duet album. We liked to think we could do it better than most people…I’m hoping the album will be a classic one day. I’d like it to stand for several years.” Despite his enthusiasm at the time, he insisted “Diana & Marvin” was a one-off album: “I never had any thoughts that my singing with anybody could possibly injure my progress…It’s always enjoyable to work with someone. It’s something new…but I don’t follow my footsteps and my shadow. Singers are afraid to branch out and try something new and exciting, but I wasn’t.”
It goes without saying, the album was promoted without the artists directly participating, leaving Motown’s marketing team to rely on its novelty element to sell copies. The delayed time span between recording and releasing this album, also led some to question its relevance because the tracks weren’t anything special, and both artists were again enjoying superstardom in their own right. Others believed it to be a huge money spinning cash-in. Either way, Marvin wasn’t worried because he knew Motown would “do a big promotional thing”, while adding “I might even be talked into doing a duet number in one of (Diana’s) shows.”
As a footnote, “Diana & Marvin” was re-issued in 2001, with four extra songs, including three out-takes from the original recording sessions, including “The Things I Will Not Miss”, “Alone” and “I’ve Come To Love You So Much”. To be fair, apart from their historical value, the tracks aren’t that spectacular, so it’s clear why they were omitted from the original album. Also, Marvin and Diana were in fact destined to sing together again, but this time for a very special reason. With other artists, they were featured on the 1978 release, “Pops, We Love You”, a tribute album for the late Berry Gordy Snr. They contributed to the title track, and recorded “I’ll Keep A Light In My Window” together in the same studio! Written by Leonard Caston and Theresa McFaddin, this wonderful slice of magic was recorded by said Leonard Caston and Carolyn Majors for their self-named CD, a release I’ve probably bored you with over the years.
While writing all this, I’ve been playing the vinyl “Diana & Marvin” which is rather scratchy after all these years, but it adds to the attraction I think. Those minor scratches are like lines on a face, each tell a story, and besides fifty years is a long time in the life of a record – and a face. I don’t really care how old the album is, or how mundane, I’ve enjoyed my trip with you down Motown’s memory lane.
(My thanks to: “Divided Soul” – David Ritz; “The Life And Career Of Diana Ross – J. Randy Taraborrelli, with other quotes from my “I Heard It Through The Grapevine”. Please note: No copyright infringement is intended with visuals)