This seven-disc boxset – the first in a planned series of three – gathers together the soul legend’s earliest albums
s you’ll already know if you’ve got your copy of issue 3 of the Songwriting app – on sale now, so click here if you haven’t! – Marvin Gaye: 1961-1965 is the first of three vinyl boxsets that will chart the soul legend’s entire career. All the albums have been remastered, with the result that several are available on stereo vinyl for the first time.
This set comprises Gaye’s first seven full-lengths, and reveals an artist who was still struggling to establish his musical identity. Those who know him mostly for I Heard It Through The Grapevine or What’s Going On may be somewhat taken aback by his 1961 debut The Soulful Moods Of Marvin Gaye, which is made up mostly of covers of tunes by the likes of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and Rodgers & Hart. It’s patchy, and it sold poorly at the time, but it’s not without its attractions – notably Never Let You Go, co-written by Gaye’s wife Anna Gordy Kaye, and the album’s most R&B/soul moment proper.
A more recognisable Gaye begins to emerge on 1962’s That Stubborn Kind Of Fellow, an album whose songs were co-written by Gaye with Motown stalwarts Mickey Stevenson, Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield. It was from this album that Gaye’s first hit single Hitch Hike was taken, along with Wherever I Lay My Hat, later an 80s smash for Paul Young.
“1964’s ‘When I’m Alone I Cry’ saw Gaye again presenting as a jazz crooner”
1964’s When I’m Alone I Cry, however, saw Gaye again presenting himself as a jazz crooner… again to an underwhelming commercial reception. Included on this album was I’ve Grown Accustomed To Your Face from My Fair Lady, which in retrospect was a foretaste of Hello Broadway, an album of full-on show tunes released later that same year.
But we’ve skipped an album, because sandwiched in-between those two was Together, an album of duets with Mary Wells – the first of several such partnerships Gaye would form. Together gave Gaye his first Top 50 album, and while jazz standards and show tunes still comprise the bulk of the material, they’re handled in much rawer R&B fashion. The Late Late Show is a particular highlight here.
1965’s How Sweet It Is To Be Loved By You saw Gaye back in R&B/soul mode. With Stevenson, Strong and Whitfield joined on songwriting duties by Holland-Dozier-Holland and Smokey Robinson, How Sweet It Is… is far and away the standout album in this set, with one side of ‘stompers’ and another of ballads. Contemporary buyers evidently agreed, with the title track giving Gaye what was then his biggest hit single. And for our purposes today, that only leaves 1965’s A Tribute To The Great Nat ‘King’ Cole, an album which surely doesn’t need a great deal of explaining!
Overall, it’s difficult to see exactly who this set is aimed at, especially with a price tag of nearly £100. Fans of Cole, Frank Sinatra or (latterly) Jamie Cullum and Michael Bublé will love the albums of show tunes, while for the soul fans Together, That Stubborn Kind Of Fellow and particularly How Sweet It It Is… offer plenty to enjoy. It’s just hard to imagine any one buyer enjoying both… except Gaye completists, of course. And wouldn’t they have all these albums already?
For the rest of us, more consistent pleasures surely await in boxsets two and three.
Verdict: An historically interesting, if slightly schizophrenic, portrait of the artist as a young man