Saturday, May 14, 2011

Second Thoughts

Tamla LP 285 (cover of first issue)
True, I am not an overly ardent fan of Marvin Gaye, some of his earliest songs, several of his duets and the masterful album »What's Going On« (1971) excepted. His 1968 LP »In The Groove«, released August 26, is not among the exceptions. It was Marvin's first solo LP since about two years, as during that period he was primarily recording duets with Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell. In August 1968, Tammi had been gravely ill and unable to sing or perform for ten months, but right then their duet-album »You're All I Need« was released alongside Marvin's solo LP. The stuff on the album »In The Groove« is a curious hotchpotch, putting moderately funky songs (»Chained«) and pop tunes (»You«, »Every Now And Then«) together with seemingly out-dated r&b standards of years past (»Some Kind Of Wonderful«, »There Goes My Baby«). In other words: A classical pre-1970s-album with no obvious inner concept or aesthetic integrity.

And you know what? Despite the fact that the two songs from this LP that initially charted were »You« and »Chained« (two slick, mainstreamish productions that to me sound awfully dated now) the ones I like most on this album are those two produced and co-written by Marvin Gaye himself, viz. »At Last (I Found A Love)« and »Change What You Can«. As far as I can see, they have not been given the least attention by anyone were it not for the fact that they were penned, in part, by the singer. Yet these two songs are neither too much in the pop-mould nor do they sound out-dated, rather they appear as nitty-gritty pieces of 60s-r&b. You can hear The Andantes (Marlene Barrow, Jackie Hicks and Louvain Demps) as backing vocals. And I would like to venture here the heretical opinion that these two songs are the best on the album ... with the exception of ... well, this brings us to the point towards which I am meandering. But before arriving there let's listen to the first of the two songs:

Marvin Gaye: »At Last (I Found A Love)« from the Tamla LP # TS 285 (1968):

Marvin's album, as it appeared in August 1968, was entitled »In The Groove«. It may be true that it had »an awful cover design« (as someone remarked on a webpage, but the link's dead by now), yet it reached # 63 on the LP chart, Marvin's best position ever. On the front cover, several songs were spelled out in full so as to give the buyer some idea of which great songs he could expect. Missing from the front cover was ... »I Heard It Through The Grapevine«, the great mystery song of this LP and by far the outstanding one. Of course, you know it all and it need not be divul- ged here. It was Marvin's first # 1 pop song, and Motown's as well. It is frequently said to be Marvin's foremost signature song. It sold four milion copies in its day, more than any other Motown single, and I won't go here into the many awards and honours the song has reaped since.

Tamla LP 285 (cover of second issue)
The story of that song, written by Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong, is quickly told (for details, see also here): It was first recorded by Marvin on April 10, 1967, but shelved by the order of none less than Berry Gordy himself. It was then recorded by Gladys Knight & The Pips in June and released in September 1967. In reaching # 1 r&b and # 2 pop, it was Motown's most successful release to date. This had obviously demonstrated the hit potential of the song, but now its very success spoke against releasing Marvin's older version. Indeed, it wasn't released for the time being, and Berry Gordy had to be sourly convinced to at least have it find its place on Marvin's 1968 LP »In The Groove«. Only when the DJs started playing the song from the LP while more and more ignoring Marvin's recent singles, Gordy gave in and had the song released as a single towards the end of October 1968. With the song overshadowing all other tunes of the LP by now, Motown even changed the cover of Marvin's LP, deleted the former title »In The Groove« and now sold it to the public with »I Heard It Through The Grapevine« written in red ... and adorned by an exclamation mark.

Soul aficionados will forever be divided of whether Gladys's or Marvin's versions, which are not very similar, are to be preferred. To those who have not already guessed it I can say that I am a diehard enthusiast of Gladys's version. However, the song is not the point here. The point is rather that once and again record companies sent the wrong horse on the race course and then tried to remedy the error, once they had come to realize it, by quickly putting another horse out. In doing so, the covers of LPs were re-done, following the unexpected success of a particular song. It had happened to Betty Everett before and to several others after 1968. I will return to it, time permitting.

The last detail to mention are the labels. I am somewhat at a loss in this respect, especially as the two records of the Tamla LP 285 in my possession (one each of the first and second issue of the LP) show the following labels:

Left: label of first issue / Right: label of second issue
The thing to confound me most is that the label shown on the left is commonly referred to as the »fourth« Tamla LP-label while the one on the right shows the previous, »third« LP-label. Yet the later label has the first-issue title of the LP (»In The Groove«) printed on it, while the older label was used for the second issue (»I Heard It Through The Grapevine«). And as it is commonly understood that the later »fourth« label was introduced at some time in late 1968, probably in November or December, the question remains: Why does the first issue of the LP show the »fourth« LP-label that was, as far as we know, introduced only towards the end of 1968? And more complicated still: Why does the second issue that wasn't released before the end of 1968 show the earlier »third« label? I have no answer to this.

Since the label change was made right during the time when Marvin Gaye's LP was marketed in the last months of 1968, in both the first and second issues, it is likely that the pressing plants used both labels indiscriminately for a certain period. In any case, the record producers at Motown in general didn't proceed much with criteria. And it shows on the record as well which is anything but finely manufactured; not the only one on Motown's long list of less-than-perfect output. Especially annoying is the fact that the fade-out of the songs is frequently too short and abrupt, with the sound being cut off before it has actually faded. Never mind. Let's hear the second of Marvin's songs from the album:

Marvin Gaye: »Change What You Can« from the Tamla LP # TS 285 (1968):

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