On this episode, host Alyse Lord discusses how Marvin Gaye influenced the history of music through his contributions that transfix genre. She interviews Marc Medwin who is an assistant professor at American University and a music journalist. Medwin who holds degrees in musicology, provides intriguing musical analysis of Gaye’s work.
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ALYSE LORD: Hello, everyone. I’m your host Alyse, Lord and welcome to On the Record, a podcast where we discuss the lives and work of musicians who changed history.
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ALYSE LORD: Welcome back to on the record. Today I’m here with Marc Medwin, who is an assistant professor at American University since 2008, and an active music journalist. He earned his Ma and PhD in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he completed his dissertation on the works of John Coltrane. Today we’ll be talking about Marvin Gaye as a musician who changed history. So, the reason that I wanted to choose Marvin Gaye for this episode is because Rolling Stone just updated their greatest 500 Albums of All Time list, and they replaced the previous number one which was “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” by The Beatles with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”, and “What’s Going On” is still considered to be one of the best soul albums of all time, it’s got distinct stylistic elements, where he’s layered several layers of vocals on a single track. And it’s his own vocals over top of each other. It was one of the most successful works of his career with top hits that included the title track, “What’s Going On” “Mercy, Mercy, M”e and “Inner City Blues”. It was really valuable as a concept album, exploring social and political themes like police brutality in the Vietnam War. And this was in 1971. So following the civil rights movement, the Kent State massacre had recently happened. And Gaye’s brother was in Vietnam, and he was really heavily influenced by these letters that his brother was sending him. And this is sort of where we start to see his music explore really big themes.
MARC MEDWIN: that’s the part that kills me is we’re told the same issues 50 years later,
ALYSE LORD: Right? It’s tragic. And you see that those themes with a lot of early early musicians, even a lot of Bob Dylan stuff, where they’re exploring these political and social themes, and, you know, it’s being presented as “Oh, this is what they were feeling about this time in history”, and you listen to the words and you’re like, “things are still that way”.
MARC MEDWIN:You know, it’s there, the differences are arguable, they’re debatable, and, and I am very glad that small steps have been made. But we have a lot of work to do.
clip of “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye plays
ALYSE LORD : First of all, this was released when he was at Motown, and Motown founder and record executive Berry Gordy was actually against it, because he felt it was too politicized. And it would alienate a lot of Marvin’s audience, especially his conservative audience, but Marvin Gaye really pushed for this…He said, I really believe in this. I think he actually went on strike for a bit and said, “I’m not going to record unless this is released”. And eventually, yeah, he released it. And it ended up becoming Motown’s biggest commercial success.
ALYSE LORD: And people were able to relate to those sentiments and a lot of ways they still can. So Marc, I know you’ve talked a lot about how this sort of Eurocentric gaze affects how people view black music. And it’s not always true or accurate. Do you think that berry Gordy’s initial rejection of this album was centered in in him sort of thinking? What, what are people viewing that from the Eurocentric gaze, going to think
MARC MEDWIN: Motown is, is a very interesting phenomenon.Just by way of a little bit of background it it is black music and it it is most assuredly, regional black music, at least in its beginnings. You know, in Detroit, if you listen, let’s say to the very early Motown singles, they have a very specific gospel tinge. I’ll say black music sound of the very late 50s and early 60s. And as you go, the arrangements become more lush, more orchestral. So there is a European element in Motown, although it is still black popular music, it kind of straddles this line. And it could be…I have no real proof of this. But it could be that Berry Gordy in looking at the very, very urban features of “What’s Going On?, and thought that maybe the the the European element would be missing. I mean, would he have said it that way? I tend to doubt it. Is that part of his thinking or was that part of his thinking and being reluctant to release it? It very well could have been.I’m thinking of “Inner City Blues” now, with yes, it does have strings in it. But the string sound more like what you would hear on a 1970s jazz record, or like even something on Kamasi Washington’s epic, which is much much later. It’s not classical sounding strings, they’re very atmospheric and a little bit raw at the same time. And the rest of the “Inner City Blues” arrangement is pretty…I guess raw is a good term for it, it’s got a lot of percussion in it. It’s got a lot of I would say, not necessarily fully African but at least African laced sentiment in the in the music itself. So yeah, I would think maybe Berry Gordy would have been a little hesitant and maybe even for the reasons you describe.
Yeah, I think, you know, he had to think about it. Unfortunately, as you know, from a marketing standpoint, and not so much the actual quality of the music and you kind of see this across Marvin Gaye’s career, he originally started off singing at church, like when he was really, really young, you know, and it’s gospel. And then jazz was saying in the very beginning, and eventually he switches to r&b and there was a little bit of disco. So you sort of start to see that theme within his own music. And it kind of goes along with sort of like the evolution of Motown.
MARC MEDWIN: Here’s an interesting thing. Sometimes when he would do concerts, even at the height of his fame, he would want to do standards. I remember hearing that an audience was very surprised that he wanted to do “Me and My Shadow”. It’s, it’s one of the things where, you know, they wanted him to do his hits, you know, heard it through the grapevine or whatever, you whatever is what’s going on. But he comes out, he wants to do, you know, Frank Sinatra type stuff. And so he there is always this very interesting conflict in what he wants to do and what they want him to do, whether it’s euro centric, Afro centric, or something in between.
ALYSE LORD: Right, yeah, he was really pushing for sort of more of a jazz style. And he does a tribute album to Nat King Cole, But you know, he had a ton of trouble with the success of those things, even though that was what he wanted to do, and ended up switching over to r&b where he was really successful, which kind of brings me to my next he eventually leaves Motown and this is after a decade after what’s going on is released, and he’s dealing with some addiction issues and some financial issues. He lives in Europe, then he makes a strong comeback and releases his first hit single, alone, “Sexual Healing” on the album, Midnight Love. And this was his eight number one hit, and won him his first two Grammy Awards. And there’s an interview where he sort of says, I don’t make music for my own pleasure anymore. I make it so that other people can feel better. Do you think this indicates responsibility for black artists that white artists didn’t necessarily have and still don’t have today?
MARC MEDWIN: This was the point… So we’re talking about the very early 80s. Now I’m thinking 82/83. Yeah, unfortunately, he dies in the middle of 84. So the the the success was short lived, but this is where his career comes back. And not only is he extremely successful bass, he’s writing he’s riding this wave of success on a hit. That is kind of reminiscent of what he did before. Like, “Let’s Get it On”. But it also has that new sound in it. It’s got a lot of, you know, what you might think of is electronic instruments. It’s got the drum machine going, and the synthesizer is going. Is it inspirational for black artists? I would guess that it certainly was.
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ALYSE LORD: That was my interview with Marc Medwin on Marvin Gaye, I hope you enjoyed this episode. Thank you for listening, and I’ll see you next time on, On the Record.
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Guest: Marc Medwin (email@example.com)
“Backyard Stories” by Sum Wave
“What’s Going On” and “Sexual Healing” by Marvin Gaye
purchased via Amazon Music