Friday, February 5, 2010

Give the Drummer Some: Marvin Gaye

As I prepare a couple of J Dilla compilations to be released on the 7th and on the 10th – anniversaries for the day he was born and the day he passed away, respectively – I’m mesmerized yet again by the lush musical tradition held by Detroit, Michigan, a.k.a. Motown, U.S.A. The richness of the legacy is as vast as it is dense. There are so many untold tales from that glorious time capsule of Americana. One such chapter is the story of the Funk Brothers, a fraternity of musicians who contributed to some of Motown’s greatest hits as uncredited session instrumentalists. Their story was told in 2002’s documentary film Standing in the Shadows of Motown (recommended). Since I was very young, I knew all about Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson 5 and the like. I grew up on their music. But the film also taught me about Joe Hunter, Earl Van Dyke and others, including James Jamerson, dubbed “the greatest bass player of all time” by my dad – also an MI-bred bass musician. I intend to write a bit more about The Funk Brothers in future posts, pointing out not just the hits they provided to Motown Records, but their drum breaks and piano and guitar riffs that were later spliced and diced by hip hop’s great producers. It’ll be an ongoing investigative quest, but I’m game for the challenge. Stay tuned for that – and feel free to join in.

Indeed, the stories of these Motown artists lie in the “shadows” of big names like Marvin Gaye; but Marvin began as an uncredited session musician too. He’s got a lot more in common with Benny Benjamin and Richard Allen than you might think! Beginning as a doo wop artist, Marvin Gaye soon found himself filling in on the drums for some important songs. Once Berry Gordy absorbed Anna Records – founded by his sister, Gwen – Marvin Gaye was working as a session drummer for Motown artists like Martha and the Vandellas, The Spinners, The Contours, The Miracles and more. One of the biggest hits that Gaye drummed over was The Marvelettes’ first single “Please Mr. Postman”, later covered by The Beatles and The Carpenters. “Please Mr. Postman” was the first Motown single to reach the number one spot on the Billboard pop charts.

Marvin Gaye contributed to two more landmark Motown tracks: Stevie Wonder’s “I Call It Pretty Music” and “Fingertips.” Released in 1962, “I Call It Pretty Music” was the twelve-year-old prodigy’s first single – a non-album track that achieved modest chart success. The following year, Motown struck it big by releasing “Fingertips – Part 2”, Stevie Wonder’s first hit single and the label’s second #1 hit overall. Again, Marvin Gaye had his (uncredited) hand in this important piece of history.

Here are a couple more tracks featuring Marvin Gaye on the drums. Feel free to add some more in the comments section… I’m eager to find as many of them as possible!

"Dancing in the Street" by Martha and the Vandellas

"That's What Girls Are Made For" by The Spinners

“I hope to refine music, study it, try to find some area that I can unlock. I don't quite know how to explain it but it's there. These can't be the only notes in the world, there's got to be other notes some place, in some dimension, between the crack.” - Marvin Gaye