Afternoon Snack: Marvin Gaye, “Let’s Get it On”

When I was first really nailed by the radio, in 1962, Marvin Gaye’s Hitch Hike and Can I Get a Witness were the hits of the great Motown singer.

Old Marvin kept producing, but by the mid-70’s, when I finished college, I got my first “real” job as a social worker working for the Oakland Housing Authority.

My work day was in the midst of the African American community in Oakland, a culture that is both rich in custom and heritage, yet sadly overlooked and dismissed.

Well, Marvin was at his peak over the decade I worked in West Oakland, producing such great songs as Mercy Mercy MeGot to Give it Up, and for sure Let’s Get it On.

These songs were great, and they come up once in a while, but I stuck a Motown greatest hits collection on my Playlist, sort of randomly–that is without looking at any of the titles, since I could guess, and liked most–and the other day Let’s Get it On came on and reminded me not just how great Gaye was, but how fantastic the Funk Brothers and Motown musicians and arrangers and producers were.

Let’s Get it On sort of typifies this for me, with a great song and melody, fantastic production (listen to the Wah Wah guitar fills through the verse till the drums come and and the horns phatten the sound duplicating the guitar line).

And, everything just builds, sort of like the song, sort of like the subject of the song.

Great stuff from a great, albeit troubled artist. Why are these things so often linked?  Sigh.  BTW, there were a lot of takes of the song out, but somehow this vid, from Soul Train, seemed the right way to go.

Obit: Don Covay (1939-2015)

covayAnother pioneer of the rock’n’soul scene left us last week with the passing of Don Covay.

My first memory of Covay was when his hit Popeye Waddle was released in 1962, but his legacy and influence actually date half a decade earlier, and lasted a lot longer than the Waddle, which peaked at #75 on the  Billboard charts.

Covay started his pop music career with the Rainbows, a singing group that also featured Marvin Gaye and Billy Stewart, and in 1957, joined Little Richard as both his driver and opening act. Richard also produced Covay’s first single, Bip Bop Bip.

Covay then formed the band The Goodtimers, and also began songwriting in the Brill Building, penning songs for Solomon Burke, Gladys Knight, and Aretha Franklin (Chain of Fools).

But, his best know song is probably Mercy Mercy, recorded with the Goodtimers, released in 1964, which peaked at #35, and was covered by a number of artists including the Stones (on Out of Our Heads) and which featured Jimi Hendrix.

Covay continued to work with some big names: Steve Cropper and Booker T., Paul Rodgers, and Ronnie Wood (who organized a tribute album for Covay) and others.

Similarly, his songs were recorded by a large and varied crowd, including The Small Faces, Gene Vincent, Wanda Jackson, Peter Wolf, Steppenwolf, and Connie Francis.

Covay died of a stroke last week, but he leaves some good stuff behind.

Afternoon Snack: Smokey Robinson, “Ooh Baby Baby,” & Captain Beefheart, “I’m Glad”

Today I brought my Rickenbacker along to my guitar lesson (as opposed to my bass) just because I felt like playing some guitar, and Steve pulled up this wonderful Captain Beefheart cut, I’m Glad from the album  Safe as Milk.

I have that disc, as well as the seminal Trout Mask Replica, though I have not listened to either of them in years, so I sort of forgot about them. We were working on the arpeggios within the cool progression (played here by Ry Cooder) and at one moment, I stopped dead, looked at Steve, and said, “this is Ooh Baby Baby,” and Steve quickly nodded and said, “yeah, I couldn’t put my finger on it.”

Both are great, and different in their own way, but the crossover is unmistakable; however, you be the judge.

And now the inimitable Smokey Robinson and the Miracles.

Breakfast Blend: Norman Whitfield by Proxy

In 1970 Motown masterminds Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong (Money, among many others) wrote a song called War for the Temptations that was not released because it was deemed to be too radical.)

Whitfield and Strong then wrote Ball of Confusion, which is psychedelic and strong (like Sly Stone’s stuff), but politically ambiguous. Certainly radical, but hard to pin down. The Temps had a No. 3 hit with that.

At the same time, Motown released a version of War sung by Edwin Starr (who coincidentally wrote Shades of Blue’s great song, Oh How Happy!), that went to No. 1 on the Billboard chart.

Whitfield then recorded a version of Ball of Confusion with his younger and more political group, the Undisputed Truth. Not that Ball of Confusion is a radical song, but Whitfield and Strong, two of the greatest songwriters of the pop era, were always trying to do something bigger. Good for them. What’s interesting is that all three groups, the Temptations, Edwin Starr, and the Undisputed Truth, were signed with Motown. It’s like Berry Gordy knew he could channel Whitfield and Strong’s creative energy into more sales and profits! Different strokes, and all that.