MARVIN GAYE: April 2, 1939 – April 1, 1984
Originally published April 2, 2015.
When I try to describe the way I sing, I tend to refer to the singers I emulate. I deprecatingly say that my voice sounds like a weaker, less soulful version of Joe Cocker or Otis Redding. Interestingly, one of the comments I regularly hear is that I sing “like a black guy”. It’s a roundabout way to call me a soul singer, which has always been a name that we don’t easily assign to white males – particularly white males raised in privileged surroundings. We regularly diminish or qualify that designation, often calling it “blue-eyed soul”. Even I am uncomfortable calling myself a soul singer, because my earliest exposure to soul music was songs in which the voice and emotions of the singer resonated with me. But it was Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On that first brought me to understanding why soul music was widely-considered a black genre. In one album, Marvin Gaye – known before the album’s release for silk-smooth love songs and moody remakes of earlier Motown hits – walked America through the dramatically-shifting landscape of African-American protest. More importantly, he created an emotional portrait of the depth and breadth of a marginalized culture. What white America saw as an indistinguishable group, Marvin Gaye showed as varied and complex, reacting to different types of threats in different ways. Some argue that What’s Going On is the quintessential protest album. Others label it the quintessential soul album. Either way, when I first heard What’s Going On, I remember wondering if I could ever reach into myself and communicate that broadly, yet honestly. I remember wondering if anyone raised like I had been could. Thirty years later, I still wonder.
- Rolling Stone names What’s Going On the #6 album of all time