Marvin Gay Jr. was born in Washington, D.C. His father was a minister in the House of God branch of the Pentecostal church. It was a faith that demanded strict obedience to the Bible and conservative behavior at all times. Unfortunately, Marvin Sr. took this to mean that he had the right to beat his children—but Marvin in particular—as often as he saw fit. Without music (and a compassionate mother) to get him through, Marvin said, he might have committed suicide as a youth. Fortunately, for him and for us, he left home as soon as he could, doing a brief stint in the Air Force and then returning to D.C. to join a four man vocal group called The Marquees. They drew the attention of Moonglows co-founder Harvey Fuqua, who took them on as his backing vocalists. Now called Harvey and the Moonglows, the group let Marvin take his first recorded lead vocal in 1959 with “Mama Loocie.”
The Moonglows broke up in 1960, and Harvey and Marvin relocated to Detroit, where they did some session work. Berry Gordy first heard Marvin sing at a Christmas party he was hosting. He was impressed, and signed Marvin to Motown subsidiary Tamla. The two labels were, for all intents and purposes, one company. But having two names meant D.J.’s wouldn’t be accused of playing too many songs from the same label; if they did, payola accusations would mean trouble for everyone.
The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye (Berry Gordy convinced Marvin to add the ‘e’ to his last name to avoid childish jokes; Marvin agreed because it created a bit more distance between him and his father) did not chart, but he was a given a second chance with 1962’s That Stubborn Kinda Fellow. In between albums, Marvin worked as a house drummer for Motown, earning $5 a week to drive hits like Martha and the Vandellas “Dancing In the Streets.” Berry Gordy was not known for his generosity. But the Vandellas returned the favor and backed him on the song “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” It did pretty well, going up to #46 in the pop charts and # 8 in the R&B charts.
Another song from that album went to #30 in the pop charts.—here’s “Hitch Hike,” one of Marvin’s performances in the The T.A.M.I Show, one of the best concert films ever.
It would take some time for Marvin to fully embrace R&B. His favorite songs were the jazz and pop standards sung by Ray Charles and Nat “King” Cole. He would eventually do a whole album of songs that Nat “King” Cole had popularized. But first, there was 1964’s When I’m Alone I Cry, featuring this solid rendition of “You’ve Changed.”
Marvin would record a huge number of duets over the course of his career. The first crop came from Together, an album of songs sung with Mary Wells. Here’s “What’s the Matter With You, Baby.”
Which brings us to the single in question. “Try It Baby” has a nice and easy swing to it, with The Temptations providing skillfully nuanced backing vocals. Marvin’s voice gets a little rough at times, a vocal shade that he was initially reluctant to adopt. Sounds good to me.
The B side is very Nat “King” Cole. Except Marvin had a three octave range and could hit high notes that Cole probably never could. It’s interesting that Marvin wanted to stay true to his hero, even though, as magnificent as Cole’s vocals were, he was able to sing with a more expressive sense of nuance and shade. See what you think. And dig those horns at 3:08. So nice.
And that’s where we stop with Marvin Gaye. A full career retrospective would take me all week to write, and the story of his death is almost too sad to tell. Suffice it to say, Marvin went on to record some truly incredible, ambitious music. If a single from that later era pops up, maybe I’ll choose that one and we’ll keep going. Until then, you are encouraged to listen to what you have by Marvin Gaye and explore what you don’t have via the internet. It will truly be time well spent.