Had he lived, legendary Motown crooner Marvin Gaye would have turned 80 on Tuesday, April 2.
Sadly, on April 1, 1984, Gaye was tragically gunned down by his father Marvin, Sr. at his home in L.A. It happened on the eve of what would have been Marvin’s 45th birthday.
Thirty-five years later, djrobblog commemorates the singer’s 80th birthday this week by recalling those signature songs that placed him on a level that few other soul and pop crossover stars of any era could ever imagine.
Simply put, Marvin Gaye’s unique tenor, (sometimes baritone) and falsetto singing voice laced some of the most iconic songs in history, tunes that have remained prominently placed in the pop music lexicon for over five decades (in some cases).
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend’s 80th birthday was commemorated this week by a new “Prince of Soul Forever” U.S. postage stamp as well as a newly released album, You’re The Man, which contains 17 previously unreleased tracks and alternate takes of songs mostly recorded in 1972, between his “What’s Going On?” and “Let’s Get It On” eras.
One listen to You’re The Man – especially the standout tracks “Try It, You’ll Like It” and “Woman of the World” – will have folks wondering what might have been had that album been released in 1972 instead of remaining in Motown’s vaults the past 47 years.
Would there have even been a “Let’s Get It On” afterwards? Would Gaye’s career have taken a different course in the later years?
Fortunately, we don’t have to imagine a world without “Let’s Get It On” or “Got To Give It Up” or “Sexual Healing,” or the many dozens of chart hits Gaye blessed us with between the early 1960s and 1980s.
And it’s eight of those jams that are being celebrated in this article… the ones djrobblog believes are his most iconic – the best known and most loved songs by many generations of music fans decades after they first hit radio airwaves in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s.
This won’t be a funky space reincarnation – and if you get the reference, then you truly are among the anointed Gaye fans out there.
So here they are – in chronological order – Marvin Gaye’s eight most iconic solo songs (duets with Tammi Terrell discussed separately at the end of the article):
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” (1968)
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” is a great song in and of itself. Three different acts had No. 1 soul hits with it – Gladys Knight & the Pips (1967) and Roger Troutman (1981) were the other two. But Marvin’s remake was the biggest – topping both the pop and the soul charts for seven weeks each in 1968 and ‘69. The song is recognized in both the Grammy and the Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, as well as on several lists of the greatest songs of all time, including Rolling Stone, BMI (the music publishing company) and the Recording Industry Association Of America.
“What’s Going On?” (1971)
One of the songs that prevented the No. 2 Hot 100 chart peaking “What’s Going On” from joining Marvin’s list of iconic No. 1 hits was Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World,” which couldn’t have been a better corollary to Marvin’s iconic rhetorical musical question about some of the ills that were sapping the joy from his world.
“Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” (1971)
Interestingly, of the three consecutive No. 1 soul chart singles pulled from Marvin Gaye’s iconic What’s Going On album, “Mercy, Mercy, Me” is the only one included in the Grammy Hall of Fame, a recognition honoring recordings of lasting quality or historical significance (that are at least 25 years old).
“Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” (1971)
None of Marvin’s protest songs were more blatantly observant of the conditions dogging poor (and mostly black) America and the widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots than “Inner City Blues,” another iconic No. 1 soul (and top-10 pop) hit from the What’s Going On album. It remains one of Marvin’s most sampled, most covered tunes to this day.
“Let’s Get It On” (1973)
So ubiquitous is this “begging song” about getting it on, that ASCAP – the music publishing company that licenses it – in 2014 ranked it among the 100 top songs of all time composed by ASCAP members. Rolling Stone magazine also ranked it among the 500 greatest songs of all time. The song was so good it hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 twice during a rare (at the time) 13-week top-10 run in 1973.
“Distant Lover” (1974)
“Distant Lover” was one of those on-demand hits that Marvin originally wrote and recorded during the “What’s Going On” days and later included as the B-side to “Come Get To This,” the second single from the Let’s Get It On album. But the song took on a life of its own when Marvin began to include it in his live show. It was the live version that was released by popular demand in 1974 and became known as one of the greatest live recordings of all time.
“Got To Give It Up” (1977)
“Got To Give It Up” is easily Marvin’s best known party anthem and is among the first songs to pull the triple crown of hitting No. 1 on the pop, soul and disco charts (in 1977). The song’s legacy may forever be the court victory it gave the Gaye estate after it counter-sued Robin Thicke for his blatant rip-off of “Got To Give It Up” for the 2013 song “Blurred Lines.”
“Sexual Healing” (1982)
“Sexual Healing” is Gaye’s biggest soul chart hit, climbing to No. 1 there after less than a month of release in November 1982. It would spend ten weeks at the top before finally yielding to the first single off of Michael Jackson’s Thriller album, “The Girl is Mine.” Lyrically, “Sexual Healing” picked up where “Let’s Get It On” left off, with Marvin doing even more begging and pleading for some midnight lovin’.
“Sexual Healing” holds the distinction of being the only song to earn a Grammy for Best R&B Male Vocal and a separate one for Best R&B Instrumental (for the B-side). It is also among Rolling Stone’s 500 greatest songs as well as on ASCAP’s list of 100 top songs of all time.
Marvin Gaye sang with many different women over the years, but none of his partners was he more prolific with than the late Tammi Terrell. He scored ten top-20 soul hits with her between 1967 and 1970, with two of those going to No. 1: “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need To Get By”
Yet, no list of their duets would be complete without the first one, their original take on the Ashford & Simpson-penned “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” a song that easily belongs among Gaye’s iconic hits list.
So what do you think? Did you see a Marvin Gaye classic you didn’t think was so classic? Was there another tune you thought was more deserving of this list?
Please feel free to comment either here or on any of the blog’s social media pages.
In the meantime, you can enjoy this Marvin Gaye special playlist of the songs above and a few extras too.
Continue to R.I.P. Marvin!
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.