100 Essential CDs – Number 33– The Supremes – Sing Rodgers & Hart- The Complete Collection

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Sing Rodgers & Hart: The Complete Collection (Motown 2002)

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In 1967 The Supremes recorded their eleventh album, a twelve tracker made up of standards written by Richard Rogers and Lorenz Hart.  These were songs from a previous generation dating from 1925-43 and were all part of Berry Gordy’s plan to make the trio (and especially Diana Ross) have a large a fan base as possible.  The producers who had brought about their fame, Holland-Dozier and Holland, were for this album cast aside as Berry Gordy himself took control with musical arranger Gil Askey and produced an album which was both polished and sophisticated.  In the US it reached number 20 in the album chart which was their lowest placing since their non-charting 1965 Christmas album.  In the UK it reached number 25.

Producers Berry Gordy and Gil Askey

It is an album which has always been critically acclaimed.  It had been originally planned as a double album and in 2002 Motown dug out the other 13 tracks from the original recording sessions and topped things off with a live recording from The Copacabana, New York City – a venue which Berry Gordy saw as the epitome of just how far his Detroit recording artists had come.  These twenty six tracks stand up with the best of the Supremes’ output.  A number are the definitive versions of the Rodgers and Hart songs as far as I am concerned.

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Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart

To appeal to an older generation from those who bought Motown singles an old showbiz trouper was asked to write the sleeve-notes for the album’s original release.  Cue Mr Gene Kelly who tells how he was converted to the Supremes music by hearing his daughter playing their records.  Obviously, a performer of Gene Kelly’s standing was more familiar with the legendary songwriters who inspired this album than Motown’s leading girl group but he approved of the way The Supremes took to this task.  He writes;

“While maintaining the individuality of their own style, these clever singers have avoided the temptation to distort the beat or the music beyond recognition to conform to some far-out tastes.  Yet it is all as modern as this moment in time, and the music and lyrics remain as fresh as tomorrow morning.”

 

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Fifty-one years on from this album’s original release his words still ring true.  This would also be the last album before the group were retitled to “Diana Ross and The Supremes” and the last to feature the original line-up as just after the release of the album Florence Ballard departed and was replaced by ex Patti Labelle and Bluebelles singer Cindy Birdsong.  Listening to this album as a whole I tend to be more impressed by the tracks where Flo and Mary Wilson are less marginalised- a number really function more as Diana Ross solo tracks with a minimum of involvement from the other two.  I just love the harmonising of the three voices but that, by this stage, was becoming less and less Berry Gordy’s plan for the group.

Supremes-at-Brewster-Projects-1967-510x634The days were numbered for this line-up

 

The Rodgers and Hart songbook had been explored before by the trio.  “With A Song In My Heart” had been on their Essential 1965 album “I Hear A Symphony” and the girls had sung on a Rodgers and Hart TV special but for Top 40 pop artists to give over an album to songwriters of a generation or more before was an unusual move in 1967.

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Things get off to a rousing start with a traditional feel on “The Lady is A Tramp”.  This is one of the tracks where Diana largely goes it alone and of course it is no match to Ella Fitzgerald’s definitive version.  This is also the case with a couple of other songs strongly associated with Fitzgerald, “My Funny Valentine” and “Manhattan” the first of the bonus tracks.  On this opener, however, there’s lively piano work over a swinging orchestra and it’s all a lot of fun with Flo and Mary only evident in the closing moments as Diana holds a big note.  You can’t help feeling that this opening track is setting out the stall for the future- a time when Diana the solo artist is moved centre stage.

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The girls work more as a trio in the charming “Mountain Greenery” with those kooky lyrics “Beans could get no keener/reception in a beanery/Bless our mountain greenery home.”  I especially like the tracks where the hint of Motown merges with the show tune style.  “This Can’t Be Love” does this, going at a frantic pace with some “hey,hey,heys” from the back-up which works so well and this ends up as one of the stronger songs.  The gloss of sophistication is back on a lovely “Where Or When” with its tempo changes and leg-kicking Broadway- worthy finish.  “Lover” gets a 60’s girl-group work-out which one again illustrates that they are not playing things totally safe and are exploring different sounds within the remit, all of which are enriched by exemplary productions.

 

The harmonies are to the forefront in “My Romance” another of the strongest tracks which has a great back-up performance from Ballard and Wilson.  The 6o’s feel is certainly present on “My Heart Stood Still” which has a feel of a Holland-Dozier-Holland song and production and would not have been out of place in the pop singles charts of 1967.  The decision was made not to release any of the tracks here as a single but this could have given them a big hit.  The most unusual track comes next.  Unusual, because Diana shares the lead vocal with Mary Wilson whose rich tones on “Falling In Love With Love” make this one of the best tracks on the album.  We don’t hear enough of this voice until the latter years of The Supremes when Mary was the only original member left. Both “Thou Swell” and “Blue Moon” are good versions but are eclipsed by the lovely “Dancing On The Ceiling” a less familiar Rodgers and Hart song which dates from the 1930 musical “Ever Green”.

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These first 12 tracks make up the original album but there are many pleasures to be found in the thirteen bonus tracks which were part of the plan when a double album was scheduled.  These include a revisit of “With A Song In My Heart”, an unusual appearance of a verse on “Little Girl Blue” which I was not familiar with from the Nina Simone version.  There’s also a couple of tracks taken from “Pal Joey” , the show which propelled its lead and this album’s sleeve-note compiler Gene Kelly to stardom, a great uptempo version of “I Could Write A Book” and “Bewitched Bothered and Bewildered”.  The strongest moments for me come with the sultry and accomplished “Spring Is Here”, the ultimate feel good factor of anticipation in “Wait Till You See Him”.  Perhaps my most favourite track of all is hidden amongst the bonus tracks the frantic “Johnny One Note” where the girls offer the best version I have heard of this song from the 1937 musical “Babe In Arms”.

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If I was a big Supremes fan in 1967 (I was far too young) waiting for a follow-up to their chart-topping “Love Is Here And Now You’re Gone” single I am not sure how I wold have felt about the release of this album but with history to help us seeing it as a launch-pad for The Supremes becoming Diana Ross & The Supremes and then eventually Diana becoming the consummate all-round solo entertainer and Motown not writing off the group but continuing it without her this is actually a significant release.  And those Rodgers and Hart songs are just great and have certainly stood the test of time.  If I’m looking to listen to a legendary songwriter’s output Ella Fitzgerald may be my first port of call but the versions on here by this Detroit trio are essential recordings.

The Supremes Sing Rodgers & Hart: The Complete Collection seems to be currently not easy to find on CD in the UK.  Amazon have it used and new from £44.72.  A £7.09 download is available consisting of the original 12 tracks.  In the US the CD is available used from $34.22 but the complete recordings are available to download for $12.49.  The original 1967 version is also available to stream on Spotify in the UK.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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100 Essential CDs – Number 21– The Supremes – Where Did Our Love Go/I Hear A Symphony

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Where Did Our Love Go/I Hear A Symphony (Motown 1986)

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Back in the mid 1980’s the Motown label began a series of releases to capitalise on the vibrant back catalogue CD market.  These releases put together on one CD two albums by one artist giving those of us replacing our vinyl copies with CDs great value for money.  This 1986 release was the best of the lot.  

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The CD was credited as being by Diana Ross and The Supremes yet when the original vinyl recordings were released the trio were just known as The Supremes.  This two in one put together their 1964 second album, which very much marked their breakthrough,  a superb girl-group album containing three of their five consecutive number one singles alongside their eighth album released just two years later (boy, these girls were being worked hard in the recording studio) which gave them another US number 1 with the title track.  Chartwise, on original release the album “Where Did Our Love Go?” reached number 2 in the US and “I Hear A Symphony” reached number 8.  The innocent girl group sound of chirpy three minute tracks had over those two years evolved into a more sophisticated sound which combined the tracks written to appeal to Young America with cover versions of standards which might appeal more to their parents.  This was all part of Berry Gordy’s strategy to make his acts appeal to as wide an audience as possible.  Occasionally, on some recordings this acted as little more than filler around the hits but here sublime Holland-Dozier-Holland productions ensure that this is a top-notch pairing alongside the first classic Motown album.  Neither albums were UK hits but that says more about the UK album chart of the mid 60’s rather than the quality of either of these recordings.

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It had taken quite a while for the career of The Supremes to get off the ground and it would have been likely that had they been with a larger record company they would have been dropped.  But the early days of Motown were very much a family affair, with all the acts supporting one another and schoolgirls Diane Ross, Mary Wilson and Florence Ballard had just hung around at the Hitsville studio until they got noticed and continued to hang around until they were offered songs that could become hits. They had been recording singles since 1961.  Berry Gordy, fascinated by Diane (soon to change the last letter of her name) had seen them as his pet project but hadn’t had a hit with the singles he had written and produced for them and neither had Clarence Paul or Smokey Robinson.  People were referring to them as the “No Hit Supremes”.  It took the genius of Holland-Dozier-Holland’s writing and production skills to ensure that within the space of a few months The Supremes had become one of the world’s top recording artists and it all began with the tracks on this album.

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 Lamont Dozier and the Holland Brothers at the piano

In fact, the game changer was the title track which kicks off this CD.  An H-D-H song and production which was reputedly turned down by the top Motown girl group of the day, the Marvelettes (who to this point had scored five US Top 40 hits including the #1 “Please Mr Postman”) but before it might be offered to the second group in line, Martha and The Vandellas , the Supremes stepped in.  It’s a simple song, distinguished by a stomping beat and set the pattern of Supremes recordings with Diana as lead vocal and Mary and Florence reduced to little more than “baby-baby – ing”. Although early Supremes releases had switched lead vocal duties once the hit pattern was established it became very much Diana Ross’ group.  The song reached the top of the US charts.  In a UK, obsessed with everything Liverpool in 1964 it got to number 3.  The album was released just a couple of months after the single and it did give fans the opportunity to catch up with previously released singles and B sides together with some new tracks.

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The new track that caused the most attention was put out as the follow-up single, something of a rush release in the UK where its predecessor was still in the charts but “Baby Love” just could not be contained.  One of the finest girl group singles ever, it retains the simplicity of “Where Did Our Love Go” and is not so rhythm dominated and just has an extra little sparkle which makes it a phenomenal track.  It topped the charts on both side of the Atlantic and is perhaps the song most strongly identified with the group.  A further US chart-topper “Come See About Me” was less successful in the UK where it stalled at number 27.

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Other first class Holland-Dozier-Holland recordings on show here include the track which marked their first actual appearance on the US pop charts the #23 hit “When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes” an excellent but unexpectedly raucous sing-along track for the ladies who would be known for their sophisticated cooing.  On some of the earlier tracks there are male voices (apparently the producers themselves and The Four Tops) and this is certainly the case for the rather startling male grunt which explodes mid-way through.  “Run Run Run” has a honking brass and piano sound and male voices in the back-up and a great rough edge to it.  There’s a much softer edge to the subtle soul ballad “I’m Giving You Your Freedom”, “Standing At The Crossroads Of Love” is a charming piano backed mid-tempo number and “Where Did Our Love Go”’s closer is one of the finest tracks Motown never  released as an A-side.  “Ask Any Girl” sounds like a monumental hit that never was with its flamenco feel, dramatic intro and perfect girl-group feel with a nod towards the best of the Phil Spector groups, the Shirelles  and the Shangri-Las.  The couplet “It’s heartaches without number/ Many nights without slumber” is one of the greatest girl group lines.  It’s a stunning track which has that heady combination of youth and sophistication. 

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 Smokey Robinson

Other song-writing and production teams do get a look-in.  Smokey Robinson was one of those that had tried and failed to give the Supremes a hit and it is rather amazing that he missed out with the sultry “A Breath Taking Guy”, which is unusual in that it features all of the girls having a stab at lead vocals.  The other Robinson track “Long Gone Lover” is a nod back to earlier doowop tracks given a girl group slant.  Norman Whitfield would go on to produce some classic tracks for The Temptations but here his “He Means The World To Me” is an attractive Mary Wells-style track.  Label boss Berry Gordy gets in on the action with “This Kiss Of Fire” without challenging the best tracks on the album.

supremes7Berry Gordy hiding from The Supremes

 

It is likely that “Where Did Our Love Go” with its range of very good quality songs and performances and that great trio of HDH hits would have made it alone onto my 100 Essentials list but here we’ve certainly got more for our money with the other twelve tracker “I Hear A Symphony” on the same CD.

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We fast forward to 1966 and the Supremes are known worldwide.  Berry Gordy, always the businessman has begun, especially on albums, to extend the fanbase and not just bring in the young, the traditional 45RPM single buyers but also their parents and grandparents and has his eye on the world’s most prestigious night spots for his acts to perform in.  By this time all the exciting rough edges have gone from the music and the girls themselves, smoothed out by formidable Deportment Coach, Maxine Powell, a Motown employee, who both Diana and Mary today would credit for turning them into ladies and who took the “girls from the Brewster Project” and enabled them to mix with VIPs and Royalty – all part of Berry Gordy’s plan for his leading act and, especially, Diana Ross.

supremes10Smokey Robinson salutes Maxine Powell

supremes11The Supremes meets The Queen Mother

 

“I Hear A Symphony” reflects this as alongside the four Holland-Dozier-Holland compositions we get show tunes, standards and recent pop hits.  Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier get to produce all the tracks bar one from Norman Whitfield, where the girls tackle the Beatles’ “Yesterday”.  Album-wise since “Where Did Our Love Go” the trio had put out a run of themed long players, tackling the Lennon-McCartney songbook with “A Bit Of Liverpool” (1964 US#21), Country and Western (1965 US#79) and a Sam Cooke tribute album (US#75).  There had also been a non-charting Christmas album all of which showed that the heady days might be over as these albums garnered only a fraction of the sales of “Where Did Our Love Go”.  A more traditional studio album “More Hits By The Supremes” had been a success, reaching number 6 in the US as it featured two more number 1 US singles.

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 The more sophisticated style can be seen in the title track which became their 6th US chart-topper with its classical musical imagery of symphonies and rhapsodies, it feels more complex than some of the earlier hits.  That had been released a few months before the album, which was very much built around the sound of the hit single.  Thus we get the girls’ intepretations of “Stranger In Paradise”, “Unchained Melody” “Without A Song” together with a touch of Rodgers and Hart and “With A Song In My Heart” an idea which would spawn a whole album of these songs in the future.  Earlier Pop hits Johnny Mathis’ “Wonderful Wonderful” and the Toys’ Bach-influenced “A Lover’s Concerto” are also present.  This might sound a little hackneyed and it does veer dangerously close to the middle of the road at times but the performances and productions are exemplary.  I know the people can be critical of Ross’ distinctive slightly nasal voice but given the right song and production and boy, can she shine as a song stylist.  The back-up work by Florence and Mary also works sublimely on these tracks with both the versions of the Mathis and the Toys hits eclipsing the originals. 

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Amongst these you also get the Holland-Dozier-Holland numbers (helped out on two of the tracks by one James Dean).  “My World Is Empty Without You” followed the title track up the charts (US#5) and perhaps better than all these is another of those Motown tracks which should have been a single, the excellent “Everything Is Good About You” which just must have been an influence for Barry White as it sounds so much like Love Unlimited’s “It May Be Winter Outside”.

 The album “I Hear A Symphony” reached number 8 on the US pop charts and is a perfect accompaniment to the earlier album on this CD to show just how good these girls can be.  It revitalised the trio’s career and there would be another 6 US number 1 Pop hits before they hung up the matching sequin gowns and Diana Ross went on to solo superstardom.

The two-on-one CD “Where Did Our Love Go/I Hear A Symphony is available used on Amazon UK from £14.99 and in the US from $7.99.  Both albums are available separately and as a download.  In the UK they are also both separately available for streaming on Spotify. 

100 Essential CDs – Number 53 –Marvin Gaye – The Very Best Of

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The Very Best Of – Marvin Gaye (Motown 1994)

UK Chart Position -3

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Following on from my appreciation of The Four Tops I would like to stay with the Motown label to take time out to celebrate one of the all-time great soul singers, whose life came to a premature end at the hands of his father on 1st April 1984 (on the eve of his 45th birthday).  This was a man with a story to tell and an intense, disturbed story it is as well but let’s not let his life (or death) overshadow the phenomenal creative talent.  I’m sure Marvin Gaye would not have been easy to live with but when on form he is almost peerless in the field of American popular music. I say on form, because this was not always the case.  Marvin released some albums which challenged the patience of even his greatest fans and for me, even his most celebrated albums have the odd dodgy track or have not aged well.  This is why I have opted for a Best Of compilation to join my Essential CDs list.  A lot of people would agree with me as this CD, released ten years after his death reached his highest ever UK album chart position, even though it was the 7th compilation album of his to chart since 1968’s “Greatest Hits”.

In the US, however, Marvin was more consistent as an album artist with a run of four Top 20 studio albums in the early 70’s.  His highest charting album “Let’s Get It On” reached number 2 in the US in 1973 yet only scraped to #39 in the UK.  Perhaps his most famous album “What’s Going On?” which is now seen as a milestone in pop music history got to #6 (US) in 1971 but has never made an appearance in the UK Top 40 album charts.  We seemed to love Marvin over here more as a singles artist and this collection of 22 tracks shows why.

Marvin came to Motown hoping to be the “Black Sinatra” crooning standards.  To begin with Berry Gordy was not that impressed,  using him as a session player and drummer.  Gaye’s ambitions were bigger than this and a marriage to Berry Gordy’s sister, Anna,  seventeen years older than him,  cemented his relationship with the Motown family .  His first break came with “Hitch Hike” (US#30 1963) with backing from Martha and The Vandellas –a typical Motown call and response type track which started off a run of hits with a similar feel.  Of these only the gospel-esque stomper “Can I Get A Witness” (US#22) is included on this CD.

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Someone at Motown had the good idea of pairing this good looking, growing in popularity male singer with their most successful female singer, Mary Wells and the two recorded an album together.  The single“Once Upon A Time” got to #15 (US in 1964) and made a very brief appearance in the UK Top 50.  Wells had recorded a string of US hits but was just coming off her worldwide smash “My Guy”.  This track turned Mary’s head.  She thought she was indispensible as Motown’s female star and became one of their first casualties – leaving the label at the height of her fame and finding little success elsewhere.  It was a hard lesson, no-one was indispensable to Motown, especially with the ambitious Diana Ross waiting in the wings.  The Gaye/Wells pairing was so well-received that it set a precedent for pairing him with other female artists over the years and eight of the tracks on this album are duets and are amongst his finest work.

Partner number 2 was Kim Weston and they also sounded good together.  The highlight of their association “It Takes Two” is an all-time classic and in reaching number 16 in the UK in 1967 (US#14) became his biggest British hit to date.

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Tammi and Marvin

Partner number 3 followed hot on the heels of Kim .  Marvin Gaye’s recordings with Tammi Terrell show such chemistry that they are probably the greatest duet act of all time. There are five Marvin and Tammi duets on this CD and three of them are outstanding tracks .  All are written by Nicholas Ashford and Valerie Simpson and are great examples of duet-songwriting.  Ashford and Simpson of course went on to score duet hits of their own (biggest hit “Solid” in 1985) and they knew just how to pitch the songs for two voices and as a life-long couple themselves could certainly write love songs.  Perhaps the best of all is “You’re All I Need To Get By” (1968 UK#19, US#7) closely followed by “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” (1968 UK#34 US#8) but I have a huge affection also for the UK only hit “The Onion Song” (1969 #9).  A rather heavy-handed metaphor for the state of the world telling us to “plant love seeds” this is just performed so beautifully and moves along at a great lick.  What was not known at the time is much of the female vocals are actually Valerie Simpson’s as Tammi was too ill with a brain tumour to finish the recording.  The single was actually released posthumously.  Surprisingly absent is their other essential duet the original of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, which when reworked became a massive solo hit for Diana Ross.  I think I would have preferred this on the CD to the lesser “Good Lovin’Ain’t Easy To Come By”.  Albums of just Marvin and Tammi’s duets (they recorded three together) as well as CDs with all of his duets are available and very well worth considering should you like this aspect of Gaye’s work.  Tammi’s death sent Gaye into a spiral of depression which affected his life and his career.

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Diana and Marvin

By `1974 Motown were ready to pair him up again.  This time with Diana Ross.  For me the album they recorded together is a commercial triumph rather than a creative one.  There’s a little too much sweetness in the tracks chosen for the UK market “Stop Look (Listen To Your Heart) (1974#25) and even “You Are Everything” (1974 #5), both Thom Bell and Linda Creed songs which had been previously recorded by The Stylistics.  The duo had a couple of completely different US Top 20 hits released from this duet album – but they do not appear on this CD.

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I heard it through the grapevine it might be worth visiting the launderette

Marvin’s most famous solo single kicks off this CD.  “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” topped the charts on both sides of the Atlantic in 1968/69.  In the UK it became Motown’s third chart-topper.  The song had previously got to number 2 for Gladys Knight and The Pips the year before and their version is something of a mid-paced gospel shouter.  Norman Whitfield decided to transform this song that he had co-written with Barrett Strong to turn out a completely different production.  Gaye’s version is chilling.  From the opening chords and the snare drum beat Marvin sounds like a doomed man as he lament the fact that gossip told him that his love had found someone new.  That ominous beat, excellent use of backing vocals and the tortured vocals make this an all-time classic.  If someone wants to know what Soul Music is all about this makes a perfectly good introduction.  A certain Levi jeans advert and a stripping Nick Kamen revitalised this track and on re-issue it gave Gaye a posthumous UK#8 hit in 1986.  There’s more classic soul in “What’s Going On?” the title track from a protest concept album that Berry Gordy did not want to release and in the title track from the follow-up album which went from protest to the bedroom with the sublimely sensual “Let’s Get It On”.  There’s the original and perky version of the track which became a huge debut hit for Paul Young “Wherever I Lay My Hat” which is full of charm.  Another high spot is the elegy for Lincoln, Luther King and Kennedy “Abraham, Martin and John” another Whitfield production which ranks amongst Marvin’s best.

Marvin Gaye did not just sing a track, he coloured it in and there were cases where there was more colouring than song.  Some of his post “Let’s Get It On” work could seem a little self-indulgent.  This was the man who was ordered by a judge to give royalties to his next album to Berry Gordy’s sister Anna as part of their divorce proceedings.  The result “Here My Dear” is an intense, brooding listen which many fans gave up on (was that the intention all the time?) .  From this we get the best track “When Did You Stop Loving Me When Did I Stop Loving You”.  This was an album which tried my patience although it is now recognised amongst his classics by some.  Gaye’s second of this two US number 1 hits was the funk workout “Got To Give It Up (1977 UK#7).  I’m a little ambivalent about this party-in-the-studio track but it certainly remains influential.  The biggest song of 2013 “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke with Pharrell Williams and T.I found itself in breach of copyright infringement by not acknowledging the debt to Gaye’s track.

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After years in the doldrums and a departure from Motown to CBS including a period of rehabilitation in Ostend, attempting to put his life back together Gaye co-wrote and produced “Sexual Healing” a track which proved a thrilling comeback and happily sits there amongst his best recordings.  A UK#4, US#3 hit in 1982 gave Gaye his long-awaited Grammy award and with the big selling “Midnight Love” album it looked as if Gaye was back for good.  I’m very pleased that Motown have put this non-Motown track on this CD.  It all ended for Gaye just a couple of years later in tragic circumstances.

For twenty two tracks which shows the breadth, range and talent of this artist I think this is an essential CD to have in your collection.  Marvin Gaye may have been a troubled soul but just listening to his music his importance shines through.

“The Best Of Marvin Gaye”  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £1.99.  It can be downloaded for £5.99. In the US it is available for $8.99 and used from $1.94.  It is also available to stream from Spotify.