With the recent deaths of Barry White and Sam Phillips, a hard truth has become that much clearer: No matter what you do in your life, when you die, your accomplishments will be summed up in a fragmented sentence, fleshed out by a cliché. Then the next news cycle sweeps you into the dustbin of history.
Barry White apparently did nothing else besides inspire the disco generation to make love. Sam Phillips discovered Elvis. (Hell, Bob Hope's entire slapstick and vaudeville career was even dismissed in favor of a focus on his "service to the troops.") The summations are a function of the diminished reputation of popular culture. After all, these people are here to entertain us, so who cares if they were multidimensional artists with a richly engaging worldview?
Fortunately, some artists are able to reclaim their reputation through the virtue of time. At his death, Marvin Gaye was "Motown star, shot by cross-dressing preacher dad." Occasionally, that cliché allowed the amendment of "sexy crooner behind 'Let's Get It On,'" or, if things were getting deep, "socially aware, but emotionally troubled." All of which were individually true. But with the 1986 publication of David Ritz' illuminating biography, "Divided Soul," and the 1995 release of a gold-standard box set ("The Master"), a more complete picture has emerged in the nearly 20 years since Gaye's death.
Shedding even more light on his creative facility, a series of "Deluxe Edition" CDs of Gaye's most important albums -- "What's Going On, Let's Get It On" and "I Want You" -- have expanded 35-minute albums into double-disc cavalcades of music. Like Barry White, Gaye's penchant for overt sensuality meant that he was routinely viewed as a purveyor of make-out music. And he was. But everyone who's ever heard Marvin Gaye has taken something different away from the experience. All the dimensions of his character were on display on these three landmark albums: The energy of Motown's hit factory being transformed into a personal vision, the social malaise of the time, the egomania, the druggy paranoia, the smiling groove perfectionism, the fuck-till-the-bed-breaks melancholy that accompanied his pining loneliness ... all of it was Marvin Gaye.
"I Want You" was the last of those three albums to be released, coming out in 1976. It's also the most recent recipient of the "Deluxe" treatment and, as a result, the posthumous personality of Marvin Gaye is still unfolding. Not only is the fidelity of the original album increased (engineer Art Stewart's warm and fluid mix is as organically sensual as the Ernie Barnes artwork on the cover), but the work-in-progress second disc is revelatory. Expansive jams, alternate mixes and outtakes explode the boundaries of the original album, which was a sprawling meditation on love and sex. As evocative musically as it was explicit lyrically (did Marvin just say he wanted to give Janis head?), "I Want You" was a honey-dipped love letter as emotionally charged as its follow-up (1978's divorce decree, "Here My Dear") was emotionally draining.
Further expanding the story, this reissue of "I Want You" is hitting the market in tandem with a long overdue reissue of Leon Ware's "A Musical Massage." Ware had been part of the Motown stable for years, but had found success working as a producer and composer for Quincy Jones and Minnie Riperton. Gaye was inspired by what he heard in the formative sessions for "Massage," Ware's debut Motown solo album; in fact, he was so inspired that Marvin corralled Leon Ware -- and his songs -- to make "I Want You." Thus, the man who hated to collaborate (Gaye) and the man who was tired of writing other people's hits (Ware) got together to make one of the best R&B records ever. But "Massage" is still telling on its own, and speaks volumes toward Ware's influence on Gaye.
Released six months after "I Want You" (and then largely forgotten), it's a raw and overtly sexual record. Stripped of the subtleties that made "I Want You" such an elastic and erotic album, "Massage" is back-arching funk. Several of Ware's contributions to "I Want You" appear in their original forms as bonus tracks ("Comfort," with Minnie Riperton, became "Come Live With Me, Angel," and is the highlight of the whole 15-track set), while the rest of the material basks in that album's afterglow. Four tracks were left over from Ware's initial sessions, while the other six were recorded immediately after work on "I Want You" was finished. It's a perfect companion piece.
Though Marvin Gaye's obituary is still being written, poor Leon Ware is unlikely to warrant much notice upon his passing. Despite his phenomenal backroom influence on modern R&B (probably more so than Barry White, to be honest), the very fact that it took more than 25 years for his input to be recognized doesn't speak well for how history will embrace him. With this reissue, his work can be celebrated while he's still alive.
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