Thursday, February 11, 2010

Make Me Wanna Holler

Heading downtown to Motown headquarters behind the wheel of his white Rolls, Marvin was deep in his mind. Used to be, everyone helped everyone. If I had to play drums for Smokey, I’d play drums. The Supremes would sing backup if that’s what it took. What were they called then? Now, it was all corporate, with Berry spending most of his time out in Hollywood, doing business, becoming a big shot, right. Even right here in Detroit, the sweet old Hitsville USA house had been replaced by a ten-story office building. No soul man, no soul. Adjusting his white-rimmed cap, Marvin rubbed his head as if pushing his brain to remember. The Primettes, yeah, The Primettes, that’s what they were called back then.

It was Friday, and Berry Gordy was flying in for the day to attend the Quality Control meeting. Marvin had been holed up, doing his thing on his own, making music, and the business side had heard it through the grapevine that it didn’t sound like Motown. Marvin certainly hadn’t gone about it the “Motown way,” checking each move with the higher-ups. He wasn’t playing that game anymore, no way. Still, it was up to these people, on this day, to decide, thumbs up or thumbs down on his record. He was always a good worker, did whatever he was told. He laughed to himself, usually did what he was told. Don’t I get to do my thing, my way, after all these years? He wondered whether that history counted for much anymore.

Marvin pulled his car up to the curb in front of the Woodward Ave. entrance, pushed through the heavy doors and, after being buzzed in by the receptionist in the interior lobby, headed to the elevator. He decided to keep his waist-length leather coat on. It made him feel protected.

On the way up, he thought about whether to fight or not. He believed in this record, believed in it more than anything he had ever done. This was really Marvin Gaye, singing what was important to him. Look at Sly Stone. He puts out whatever he wants to. Isaac Hayes? That man can’t sing to save his mama, but he’s allowed to be an individual. And I can’t? After all I’ve done. I’m a fighter though – I can whup Smokin’ Joe Frazier with this music!

Marvin was overjoyed to see Berry pacing outside the meeting room. They couldn’t be more different than they were right then. Berry was nattily dressed in his Los Angeles outfit, white sport coat, white pants, white shoes, silk shirt, sporting his dark sunglasses indoors. Marvin was right out of the ghetto, rough beard, Lions jersey, sweatpants and sneakers. Marvin hoped to catch BG alone before they got down to business. It would be different inside, all executive protocol.

“Hey, BG, what’s happening, brother? How’s L.A.?” Marvin greeted Berry with a soul handshake and a warm embrace. “I’m glad to see you before we go in.”

He was received with a slight coolness.

“Marvin, you know I don’t have a lot of time for this. I have to get back to L.A. this afternoon. When are you going to move out there?”

“Detroit is my home, my people. California, you can have it. What are we supposed to do, follow you out there like puppy dogs?”

“OK, OK. I hear you. What about this record? I gotta tell you, man, because we’re friends, I don’t like it, but we’ll let Quality Control make that decision.”

It hurt Marvin that BG didn’t like his new music. “Music ain’t cars, BG. You gotta let go of that Quality Control ‘product’ mentality.” Marvin pointed with both index fingers to his temples. “These songs, they came from God, not from some assembly line. They’re works of beauty, not Buicks.”

Berry shook his head. “Marvin, Marvin. Why are you always giving me such a hard time? Does Michael give me a hard time? No he doesn’t. And that boy is churning out the hits.”

“Michael? Michael Jackson? He’s a boy, BG, a kid. I’m a 32-year old grownup man. I don’t need any Quality Control telling me what’s good or what’s bad. Michael Jackson – he’s 10 years old.”

“He’s 12, actually, but he’s no kid. That boy is like an old man. He knows what he wants, and he’s straight as an arrow. Just wants to sing and dance. Nothing fancy, nothing weird. Not high all day, smoking jays and thinking he’s some kind of messenger from the Lord.”

“You don’t dig Divine guidance? Fine, I’m focused on sincerity, baby, love. I’m looking for a message of positivity for my audience. So, what about the record? You gonna let it out?”

“Marvin, you know it’s up to a vote, not up to me. If it was up to me, no. You have a nice image going. You make hit songs, you’re a sex symbol, and you should stick to that.”

“Did you listen to it, I mean, really dig it?” Marvin’s tone was subtly changing from feistiness to supplication.

“Yeah, I did, it grooves, for sure, but what are you so angry about. All this protesting about the ecology, Vietnam, the ghetto. What’s that one called?”

“Inner City Blues.”

“Yeah, who’s going buy a record about that, man? No one, that’s who.”

“Anna, this morning, before I left, she was like, ‘Baby-that’s it!’ Loved it”

“Don’t you throw my sister at me, Marvin. Ever since you married her she’s been hands off on these decisions. And with you stoned all day, and fucking around all the time, don’t play ‘My wife loves my record’ with me. Come on, let’s go in. They’re waiting.”

Even though he had been spending his time in California, Quality Control was Berry Gordy’s to run. There were only three rules, all set up by the big man himself – no producer could vote for his own record, anyone over five minutes late was locked out, and Berry alone could overrule a majority vote. It was an honest meeting, everyone expected to speak their minds.

Berry led off the discussion. “Alright people. Let’s talk about What’s Going On. Marvin, you’ve always been a challenge, wouldn’t go to our charm school, fought the producers, yelled at the sales department, but this, this I just don’t get.”

Marvin quietly answered. “It’s a protest album, a Spiritual album. This world has lost its way.”

“What are you protesting about?”

“I’m not happy with the world, BG. I’m angry and, through the power of the Lord, these songs were created.”

Berry shook his head. This was a business meeting, not a prayer meeting. It was time for others to chime in and comments began.

Voices sprung from around the table.

One said - “This mix is too confusing. I don’t understand the vocals. It’s just Marvin on top of Marvin on top of Marvin. The songs are too long and they have no form at all. It’s just not done.”

Another said – “This is a ghetto thing, too narrow for a big audience. You think white people are going to buy this?”

Another – “It’s crazy, trash, worst record I’ve ever heard. They won’t play this on the radio and you know it.”

Yet another – “Marvin, who the hell do you think you are? What, you’re your own producer now, your own Quality Control? That’s NOT how we do things at Motown. You should know better.”

One more – “It’s too political. Stick to what works, brother.”

Berry had heard enough. It was clear where this was heading. “Is everyone ready to vote?”

Marvin sat, subdued, eyes closed and hands together, his fingers touching at the points. Was he praying? His cockiness was gone for the moment, the fight taken out of him by the onslaught of negativity.

“How many think it’s a hit?” The key question was asked, and hung heavily over the room.

No hands were raised.

“How many think it’s not a hit?”

All hands went up. That was that.

“Sorry Marvin, looks like we won’t be releasing this one.”

Marvin stood up, and looked straight at Berry, his back turned to all the corporate decision makers.

“Same old bullshit. I have three years left on my contract, BG. You know where to find me. And I’ll tell you something else. I won’t make any music for you anymore.”

Berry Gordy, founder and head of Motown, as well as Marvin Gaye’s brother-in-law, wouldn’t release the single “What’s Going On” for six months, insisting Marvin stick with his sexy, crooner image. Marvin wouldn’t record until Gordy finally relented in January 1971. The record went to #1 on the R & B charts and #2 on the Pop charts. Despite being wrong on the song, Berry Gordy was still hesitant to release the LP. Marvin threatened to stop recording if his music wasn’t released. Gordy gave in on the full album as well and when it hit in May 1971, What’s Going On caused a sensation, spawning three Top Ten singles and becoming the biggest selling album in Motown’s history up to that time.

1 comment: