You’re The Man is simultaneously the greatest 'lost' soul album of all time and a fistful of fascinating but incongruent sessions by the “Crown Prince of Soul,” Marvin Gaye. It’s contents are brilliant and an indispensable record of Marvin’s prolific months following the release and transcendent success of his previous album, What’s Going On.
There’s a reason Marvin didn’t release these tracks before, aside from the titular “You’re The Man,” a single let loose like a shot across the bow of popular opinion after the unexpected success of What’s Going On. At this time, Gaye must have felt the weight of the world on his evolving political consciousness to deliver a follow-up that might equal or exceed the urgency, relevance and grooviness of the album that preceded it, which set a bar for soul music that has since lost none of its urgency or relevance. It’s no surprise, therefore, that many consider it THE greatest soul music album of all time.
You’re The Man is an album concept built on the single of the same name and a bunch of sessions recorded between Detroit and Los Angeles. Across these seventeen tracks (which let’s just recognize is way too long and disjointed to ever have been considered a proper Motown release in 1972), Marvin alternated between different styles, producers, synthesizers, coasts and weed strains, trying to find the right sound to anchor his much anticipated follow-up.
He thought he found it with the only song in this set that was actually released in 1972, “You’re the Man Parts 1 & 2” co-written by Marvin and Kenneth Stover, who sang backup vocals on What’s Going On and wrote the first draft of Marvin’s next hit single, “Let’s Get It On.” The wah-wah latin-funk vamp combined with very explicit political lyrics, literally outlining economic policies over the groove: “we don’t wanna hear no more lies about how you plan to economize / we want our dollar-value increased, and employment to rise / the nation’s taxation is causing all of this inflation.” He really ran with the political thing, riding that critical and commercial ego-boost from What’s Going On’ and stretching the limits of popular music and of the listener’s attention span at the same time. All this in the heady days leading up to Watergate scandal.
“You’re the Man” peaked at #7 on the R&B chart, but did a disappointing #50 on the Billboard pop charts and Gaye hastily retreated from the whole concept. Supposedly, Marvin took the poor showing on the pop charts as an indication of how the larger concept might be received, and pivoted hard to a vanity project: a soundtrack to the blaxploitation film Trouble Man. It would be the first of two albums where Gaye wrote and produced everything (the other is the sleeper classic, 1981’s In Your Lifetime). Evidently, what he was waiting for was the inspiration and focus that came in the form of his new muse, Janis Hunter, who, along with his new Los Angeles home base, inspired his next iconic album: the smooth, sultry, sexy and sweaty Let’s Get In On, released the following year in 1973. He made the right choice. The back-to-back hit albums of What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On stand as one of pop music’s greatest achievements, literally traversing from the sacred to the profane, or better said from the newsroom to the bedroom, the public to the private.
Enough material was recorded at the time for a full album of Marvin Gaye’s collaborations with the songwriters known as “The Corporation” (Freddie Perren & Fonce Mizell, in this case) who wrote and produced two of the best songs on this “lost” album: “Where Are We Going” and “Woman of the World” that use the J-5 bubble-gum funk base as a jumping-off point for a more sophisticated sound. If you’re a Marvin Gaye fan and you haven’t already fallen in love with “Where Are We Going,” prepare for the swoons. A year after Gaye declined to release these tunes, Freddie Perren and Fonce Mizell took them to their new client, Donald Byrd, who recorded them for his popular jazz-funk breakout album Black Byrd, kickstarting a tremendous run by this production team. They became Sky High Productions, synonymous with the midas touch of Blue Note Fusion Funk, “The Mizell Brothers.”
Even though they’re the least likely successors to the stylistic and thematic high-water mark of What’s Going On, the handful of tracks that rising Motown producer and solo star Willie Hutch delivered are also worthy of an entire album, if not a pair of smoking singles that never even had a chance. “He liked the fact that the Motown producers, for whom he had great respect, wouldn’t leave him alone,” Gaye’s definitive biography writer, David Ritz, writes in the liner notes to You’re the Man. Hutch delivered four top-shelf tracks like “You Are That Special One” with a guitar lick that’s sneakily similar to the that satisfying chicken-scratch that anchors the Jackson 5 hit, “I Want You Back,” and “Try It, You’ll Like It,” an irresistible pop-funk confection that saw light a year later as the B-side of a single by the little-known vocal group, Sisters Love, as well as on the song’s author’s 1974 album, Mark of the Beast.
If we could reverse the polarities of the radio waves and transport ourselves inside Marvin’s head as he was trying to sequence an actual, non-anachronistic, LP album to follow WGO, it feels like he would be trying to build on modern soul arrangements, and most importantly he would want to be part of the songwriting process and to claim his copyright. One thing that WGO, Trouble Man (1972) & Let’s Get It On (1973) all have in common are Gaye copyrights on every song. Among the seventeen tracks on this set, only a handful are Marvin’s babies. There’s the title-track, of course, and three new-to-most tracks here that are sure to please fans of “Distant Lover” style-Marvin ballads, monumental and fragile soul sermons sung in Marvin’s signature soaring style. “Symphony,” co-written with Smokey Robinson, sounds as good as you’d think from a duo like that, for those who might have missed it when it first appeared on a posthumous, cash-in LP from 1985 with very 1985-sounding production. Salaam Remi’s (Fugees, Nas, Amy Winehouse) production on these three tracks pumps up the rhythm track and highlights the melodic accents (chimes, strings, acoustic guitars, back-up vocals) giving the tracks a modern ear-feel while sounding almost as if they could have been mixed that way in 1972.
“Piece of Clay” is a particular highlight from this release. Written by Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones, the production is kitchen-table gospel where the kitchen in question accommodates a piano, organ and bongos and an occasional sax solo. The song’s introduction is blessed with a searing “Maggot Brain”-esque guitar solo that darts in an out of the mix throughout this phenomenal recording. And to think of the prophetic nature of the lyrics, where the song opens with the line, “Father, stop criticizing your son,” and twelve years later Marvin was shot dead by his own father after intervening in a fight with Marvin’s mother.
Marvin Gaye’s “lost” album was never actually lost, he just decided to never finish any of these erstwhile projects, but these coulda beens are getting a proper debut and that is a cause for celebration. This release is perfect for any Marvin Gaye fan who wants more of his early seventies political stuff, or his heart-on-strings ballads, as well as a peek towards his funkier side. Then we come to the previously unreleased on vinyl, “You’re The Man (version 2).” The Dr. Jekyll to the single-version’s Mr. Hyde, “Version 2” is a freakishly modern swamp-funk production, (Kanye-esque sped-up backup vocals, but 25 years earlier), and then there’s the eerily relevant references to our recent headlines that Marvin only sings in this version, like: “maybe what this country needs is a lady president?” or “demagogues and admitted minority-haters should never be president this time or later,” or where he adds “marijuana” in between “the young folks” and “peace in the land” in his outro list of what abouts? If the production weren’t already spooky enough, hearing Marvin sing those lyrics is enough to make your hair stand on end.
Creepier yet, there’s his Christmas song written from the perspective of an American prisoner of war in Vietnam, who yearns to “see Santa Claus.” Both “I Want To Come Home For Xmas” and the instrumental “Xmas In the City” are definitely worth hearing and should be considered for inclusion in your Christmas soul set, because you’ll get to hear Marvin getting freaky with his Christmas gift from Stevie, a Moog synthesizer. The point is, Marvin was extremely productive spit-balling sessions between Detroit and Los Angeles throughout 1972 as his marriage with his first wife, Berry Gordy’s sister, Anna Gordy was beginning to end. If it sounds like his stoniest record, it probably is.
Some of these tracks were his last Detroit recordings, before he moved to L.A. and began swimming in different circles. Most of the Detroit tracks sound raw, modern, experimental and fresh, while some of the tracks recorded in L.A. sound like old-Motown, by-the-books-Motown, but damned if they’re not catchy! Collectively, these songs present a spectrum of sounds, like Marvin changing musical-outfits like a self-conscious “Crown Prince of Soul” and newly-minted political spokesman for everyone who bought his album. There are some funky tunes, some classy ballads, some throwbacks, but surprisingly not a dud in sight, unless you don’t do Xmas songs.
Why’d you have to hold out so long, Motown? Let’s see some of those “lost” Stevie albums next? Pretty please.