"I idolized Sinatra," Marvin Gaye told biographer David Ritz. "I liked Perry Como's cool. I wanted to sit on a stool and sing soft love songs. But it was not to be. Fate forced my hand." By that Gaye meant that Motown forced him to sing funky numbers such as "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," "Ain't That Peculiar" and "Got to Give It Up" when he really wanted to be the black Tony Bennett. In Ritz's biography, "Divided Soul," Gaye pictures himself as a frustrated jazz singer, stifled by his record company's philistine demands.
Our sympathies usually side with the artist against the company, but in this instance the company was right and the singer was wrong. As a pop crooner, Gaye had a splendid voice and a smooth delivery, but he was so intent on imitating his idols -- Sinatra and Nat King Cole -- that he never imposed his own personality on the tunes. It was as a rhythm and blues singer that he produced his great art -- performances so original and so emotionally charged that no one but Marvin Gaye could have done them.
The failure of the four-CD box set "The Marvin Gaye Collection" (Motown) is its doomed attempt to support Gaye's contention that he was really a gifted crooner trapped in the guise of a soul man. This retrospective tilts heavily toward the sentimental ballads and away from the earthier soul songs. Ritz wrote the liner notes for the 32-page booklet, but as much as he tries to convince us that the real Gaye was a balladeer, Gaye is far more impressive singing Smokey Robinson's "I'll Be Doggone" than he is singing Johnny Mandel's "The Shadow of Your Smile."
"The Marvin Gaye Collection" is divided into four themes. The first disc is devoted to "20 Top 20's," a greatest-hits collection of Gaye's R&B chart-toppers. This is great stuff, but even this disc is frustrating, for it omits such memorable Top 20 singles as "Pretty Little Baby," "One More Heartache," "Take This Heart of Mine" and "Distant Lover." The second disc is devoted to "The Duets," 25 of Gaye's collaborations (11 of them previously unreleased) with Tammi Terrell, Diana Ross, Kim Weston, Mary Wells and Oma Page. The six duets with Terrell rank with Gaye's best work ever, and a few of the Wells and Weston duets also click. Gaye never established any chemistry with Ross or Page, and most of the unreleased tracks fall prey to the heavy-handed string charts of Gaye's supper club ambitions.
The third disc is titled "Rare, Live and Unreleased," and it's typical of the whole box set. These rarities -- like the unreleased duets -- will please the Gaye fanatic who already owns everything else, but they will merely be a distraction to the fan seeking an anthology of Gaye's best work. The fourth disc is called "The Balladeer," and offers 10 show tunes from 1964-65 (three of them previously unreleased) plus all seven songs from Gaye's unreleased 1978 album "Vulnerable." Ritz calls this album of pop standards and Bobby Scott arrangements Gaye's "best work," the equivalent of Sinatra's "In the Wee Hours" or Billie Holiday's "Lady in Satin."
Ritz is wrong. "Vulnerable" was a noble experiment that didn't quite work. Gaye multi-tracked his own voice to create duets and trios with himself; the effect is atmospheric, but there's no center to the performances. From the five albums that truly are Marvin Gaye's "best work," this box set offers one song from "In the Groove," two songs from "M.P.G.," three from "What's Going On," one from "Let's Get It On" and none at all from "In Our Lifetime." A far better selection of Gaye's best work is Motown's 1986 two-CD "Anthology."
'Soul Hits of the '70s' Artists such as Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield and the Temptations were the best known exponents of the progressive-soul renaissance, but they influenced hundreds of unknowns who had a hit or two and then disappeared. Rescuing these latter artists from obscurity is the aim of Rhino Records' "Soul Hits of the '70s."
The first five volumes of a projected 10-volume series cover rhythm and blues hits from June 1969 through September 1971. Singers such as Eddie Holman and Brook Benton may not have been geniuses on the order of Gaye or Wonder, but they did create thrilling moments -- "Hey There Lonely Girl" and "Rainy Night in Georgia," respectively -- that deserve to be remembered. Remembered they are, along with two of the Vietnam era's best anti-war songs (Edwin Starr's "War" and Freda Payne's "Bring the Boys Home") and two of the earliest feminist anthems (the Honey Cone's "Want Ads" and Jean Knight's "Mr. Big Stuff").
The most revealing aspect of "Soul Hits" is the post-Motown production work of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland. After writing and producing 33 Top 10 hits for Motown, the H-D-H team left the company over royalty disputes in 1968 and formed its own label, Invictus/Hot Wax. The Honey Cone ("While You're Out Looking for Sugar") became its new Supremes; the Chairmen of the Board ("Give Me Just a Little More Time") became its new Four Tops; Freda Payne ("Band of Gold") became its new Martha Reeves. These singles and more in the series prove H-D-H didn't lose its talents when it split with Berry Gordy.