Let’s Get it On
Friday, June 15, 2007.
By Mark Anthony Neal
Ask any of them. Ask any of the current crop of Chocolate Boy Wonders, who they listened to as up-and-coming shorties trying to get at the panties — with weak game and a soulful warble — there’s no doubt that Marvin Gaye will be the first name out of their mouths.
Not too long ago, in a British poll, respondents were asked to name their “soundtrack for sex” and two Marvin Gaye songs, “Sexual Healing” and “Let’s Get It On” topped the list.
First it’s that brief “wah, wah, wah, wah” intro by guitarist Melvin “Wah Wah” Ragin (bruh fo’ sure earned his rep) and then there’s Marvin, naked with emotion, “I’ve been really tryin’ baby/Tryin’ to hold back this feelin’ for so long…Let’s Get it On.” When the single “Let’s Get It On” dropped in June of 1973, black sexuality had never before been expressed so passionately and so brilliantly to mainstream audiences.
Though Marvin Gaye had long had the reputation of being Motown’s leading “love man,” it was with the release of Let’s Get It On 30 years ago, that the late Soul Man became synonymous with “blue light in the basement” sexuality. But “Let’s Get it On” was never a song just about sex (“getting’ it on”), but a song about the spirituality of the sex act — the proverbial sermon in the sheets.
This was a territory always hinted at in the gospel music of Sam Cooke (hell, there were woman who wanted to toss their panties up at the pulpit when he sang) and was later articulated in the music of his soulful sons, like Al Green (ya gotta hear his “Belle” to know what we talkin’ about here), Eddie Levert, and later Prince and R. Kelly.
These were the men who had voices given from the most high, but who lamented in song, the fact that they could only sing of the flesh. This was the crisis of spirituality, and at times sexuality, that has defined the “Soul Man”— that legendary figure, often tragic (would you like some hot grits with that Bible?) who is arguably just as influential, if not more so, than the “Race Man” (who no doubt in his hour of need, found a blue-lighted basement, filled with the sounds of the “Soul Man” to salve the pain of speaking for the race.)
As Teresa L. Reed notes in her important book The Holy Profane: Religion in Black Popular Music, the tragedies associated with some of these figures “tend to conjure images of the Robert Johnson legend. In exchange for their stardom, some would say, the Devil had come to collect his due.”
The first side of Let’s Get It On is essentially a suite of music that was largely written by Ed Townsend, who had written and produced for the likes of Etta James and Nat King Cole. The opening track, “Let’s Get it On,” in one of the landmarks of sound-recording technology from that era as three distinct Marvin Gaye voices (and at times a fourth, with his falsetto) were layered on top of each other creating a cascading, ethereal choir of Marvin Gaye, that as many witnesses may testify, comes as close to sonic orgasm, as a pop recording ever has.
Initially audiences were deprived of the song’s third verse, which was deleted for the single release. But the full version of the song was included on the album release and that verse was worth the price of admission alone as Gaye gleefully coos, “I know you know what I been dreaming of…(my body wants it, my body wants it, my body wants, my body wants it…).” And then there is the song’s climax, where Gaye just riffs “girl you give me good feelin’, something like sanctified.” Religious Sex.
According to Townsend, who had just returned from rehab for alcohol addiction at the time he was tapped to work with Gaye, “Let’s Get It On” was initially as an inspirational song — one intended to reflect his own desires to get on with life. (Linear notes Let’s Get It On Deluxe Edition)
There’s a demo version of the song on the Deluxe Edition of Let’s Get On (2001) that bears out this truth. But when Gaye finally laid down the vocals for the version of the song we know now, he had been smitten by 16 year-old Janis Hunter (mother of the actress and singer Nona Gaye), and the passion, energy, and improvised sensuality of the song was largely a tribute to her impact on Gaye, who turned 34 a week after laying down the song’s vocals. (This is where Gaye and R. Kelly are powerfully linked, but we ain’t goin’ there now)
Though “Let’s Get it On” is one of Marvin Gaye’s best known tracks, the songs that follow it on the side one suite of Let’s Get It On, including the extended riff of the lead single called “Keep Gettin' It On,” are arguably some of the most exquisite recordings of his career. The verses to “Please Stay (Once You Go Away)” prominently feature Gaye’s overdubbed vocals and essentially comprise two distinct songs — two totally different listening experiences — dependant on whether the listener is focused on his lead vocals or Gaye’s background “punch-ins.”
It remains a tribute to Gaye’s craftsmanship, that he was so concerned with the quality of the background vocals, an art that has been lost on this generation of artists, save Luther Vandross and Dave Hollister.
But it is the haunting and eerie “If I Should Die Tonight” that is the signature performance of the opening side of Let’s Get It On. Townsend’s simple opening lyrics, “Oh, if I should die tonight, though it be far before my time, I won’t die too blue, ‘cause I’ve known you” express a depth of romantic love that even the most sexual of pop songs barely hint at.
It would be hard to believe that Stevie Wonder and Prince did not have “If I Should Die Tonight” somewhere in their consciousnesses when they wrote their grand romantic opuses “As” and “Adore.” Townsend notes that initially Gaye couldn’t wrap his mind around the idea of loving a woman so much, that he could accept a premature death simply because he had known her in the biblical sense.
But after meeting Janis Hunter, Gaye purportedly told Townsend, “Get that tape. I can sing that son of a bitch now” (linear notes Let’s Get It On Deluxe Edition). In the initial mastering of Let’s Get It On, the final verse of “If I Should Die Tonight” was “accidentally” deleted. The original version of the song stood on its own for more than twenty years until, the deleted verse was re-inserted in a re-mastered CD of the recording in 1994.
The missing verse captures the depth of love, infatuation, passion and obsession that Gaye felt for Hunter, who he would later share a volatile four-year relationship and marriage with. It is hard to not imagine Gaye on his knees, damn-near driven to tears in the studio as he openly queries “How many eyes have seen their dreams? /How many arms have held their dreams? /How many hearts (oh, darling) have felt their world stand still?” only to respond, “Millions never, no never, never, never and millions never will.”
Ed Townsend was not involved on any of the tracks that appear on side two of Let’s Get It On and would only work once more with Gaye on the latter’s 1978 double-disc recording Here, My Dear (the recording was done in part to pay alimony to Anna Gordy Gaye, Gaye’s first wife and sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy, who incidentally was nearly twice Gaye’s age when they were married in the early 1960s.)
As hyper-sexual as the song “Let’s Get It On” seemed, side two’s “You Sure Love to Ball” (“ball” was slang for sex in the 1970s) took it to another level. Built around a smoothed-out Jazz groove (featuring the Detroit Hard-Bop heads known as “The Funk Brothers,” who were Motown’s house musicians. They are given tribute in the film Standing in the Shadows of Motown) the song opens with a women’s voice feigning orgasmic pleasure. This was straight-up adult music.
Anybody could dig “Let’s Get It On,” but “You Sure Love to Ball” was the song you broke out when you were “gettin' grown” (folks just slept on Cee Lo). Gaye later revisited the simulated orgasm that opened “You Sure Love to Ball” on his album I Want You (1975) and former Delphonics lead Major Harris had his only hit with “Love Won’t Let Me Wait,” which upped the ante on the strategy.
The remaining three cuts on side two, were all songs that Gaye conceived of at an earlier point in his career. The Doo-Wop inspired “Come Get to This,” “Distant Lover” and “Just To Keep You Satisfied” were all songs that Gaye initially recorded while working on the legendary What’s Going On (1971). Regarded as one of the most important protest recordings of all time, What’s Going On marked Gaye’s transition from Motown’s “Sepia Sinatra” (as Nelson George describes him in The Death of Rhythm and Blues) to “serious” artist.
In some regards Gaye’s travels from What’s Going On to Let’s Get It On mark his transition from protest to climax. The presence of these three What’s Going On era tracks on Let’s Get It On suggest that the transition was more seamless than most of us thought. Though the studio version of “Distant Lover” is fine in its own right, Gaye’s live version of the song, which was featured on his Marvin Gaye Live (1974) is arguably one of his best performances ever and one of the greatest live recordings in all of black pop, rivaled only by Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry,” Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Reasons,” and Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace.”
Ultimately though, it is Let’s Get It On’s closing track, “Just to Keep You Satisfied,” that makes the project, a recording that you have to listen to, thirty years after it’s release. Gaye’s first wife Ann Gordy Gaye is given writing credit on the song, largely on the basis that she was the inspiration for the song.
Men of Gaye’s generation were very familiar with the “Dear John” letters that war veterans received while serving abroad during World War II and the Korean conflict. “Just to Keep You Satisfied” was Gaye’s “Dear Anna” letter, where he essentially detailed the basis for their break-up and impending divorce. In a performance that is sparse and tragic, Gaye sings of wanting to keep his wife satisfied despite “all the jealousy, all the bitchin’ too.”
In one particularly poignant moment he admits that he’d “forget it all, once in bed with you.” What makes listening to “Just To Keep You Satisfied” such a bone-chilling experience is that Gaye performs the song largely in a falsetto voice and though he gets little credit for it, he was one of the great falsettos of his generation (Eddie Kendricks, Ted Mills, Smoky Robinson, Russell Thompkins, Jr, please take a bow).
What’s Going On was the most important recording of Marvin Gaye’s career and rightfully so. But none of Gaye’s recording was as heartfelt, both in his performance and in the lives of those who have listened to it, as his Let’s Get It On. This was a recording that got at the very spirit of the man that was Marvin Gaye and thirty years after its release, it remains in the very spirits of all those who have been touched by his genius.
Mark Anthony Neal is an Associate Professor of African and African-American Studies at Duke University where he also serves as the Director of the Institute for Critical U.S. Studies. He is a columnist for Vibe Magazine and also writes for other reputable publications. Mark blogs at New Black Man.
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