Happy 40th Anniversary to Marvin Gaye’s fourteenth studio album I Want You, originally released March 16, 1976.
I’ve often viewed Marvin Gaye’s I Want You as the quintessential soundtrack to those impromptu, late night blue lights in the basement parties that some of us out there used to throw every once in a while. The subtlety of the lush and beautiful instrumentation paired with Gaye’s subdued but passionate vocals lets you know exactly what time it is or what time it is about to be.
When it was first released, I Want You’s brilliance was not lost on Gaye’s fans. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the music critics of the time. One example is Vince Alletti of Rolling Stone, who famously wrote this harsh and misguided rebuke of the album:
With Barry White on the wane, Marvin Gaye seems determined to take over as soul's master philosopher in the bedroom, a position that requires little but an affectation of constant, rather jaded horniness. The pose has already been established in Let's Get It On (1973), on which Gaye was hot, tender, aggressive, soothing and casually raunchy—the modern lover with all his contradictions. I Want You continues in the same vein but with only the faintest traces of the robust passion that shot through and sustained the earlier album.
As pillow talk this is entirely too limp, and in spite of the presence on several tracks of a woman's delighted sighs and moans (such a common effect these days that one is surprised not to find a background orgasm credit), the action here isn't much more than attractive but unenthusiastic foreplay. Gaye pleads and cajoles—"Baby please let me do it to you"—but too often he ends up sounding like a little boy whining for candy. All of this might have been more acceptable—or less disappointing—from a lesser performer than Gaye, but after a landmark album like What's Goin' On one expects something with a little more substance and spirit. But there's no fire here, only a well-concealed pilot light.
Alletti, like many other critics, all seemed to be waiting for What’s Going On, Part Two. If they were paying attention, they should have known it was never coming. Instead of embracing the growth of an artist, they were left in the dust, wanting. Rather than being content talking to the smart, intelligent woman standing in front of them, their eyes wandered all over the bar hedging their bets for something better looking to come along.
As I sat down to write this piece, I listened to I Want You all the way through over and over again. At first, I took no notes. I wanted to take it all in and listen as an adult and not as a teenager who had this LP in his mental rolodex of make out albums. Hearing it in its entirety for the first time in about twenty years, made me ask “How did Marvin get to this place.” The album is just pure raw emotion coming from an artist who had no shame in telling us how he was feeling at the time. Isn’t that precisely what we want from our artists?
To better understand where Gaye was at during the recording of I Want You, let’s look at the ten years prior to the album’s release. It’s 1966 and Gaye is in his duet phase. Motown paired him with Mary Wells (“Once Upon a Time”) and Kim Weston (“It Takes Two”). However, in 1967, he partnered up with his best known and longest lasting partner, 22 year-old Tammi Terrell. At the time, she was a lesser known singer on the Motown roster who previously performed in James Brown’s band.
The chemistry between Gaye and Terrell was instant. Their first single, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” entered the Top 20 that same year with a string of other hits to follow. For years, many suspected that the energy between Gaye and Terrell extended beyond being recording partners. Gaye insisted, up until the time of his death, that their relationship was purely a platonic one. Fellow Motown artist Brenda Holloway, who was Terrell’s closest friend and confidante, has stated otherwise. In Michael Eric Dyson’s biography of Gaye entitled Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves & Demons of Marvin Gaye, Holloway is quoted as saying the following:
With Marvin, it was on the down low, totally, and you would have to be with her to really know. People could tell, but they couldn’t pinpoint it.
…if you can be respectful in a relationship like that, then I think they were carrying it out with the utmost respect.
It was not blatant, out in the open. It was late at night. I knew she was in love with him and I knew he was in love with her. But, I didn’t say anything, because it was none of my business.
Please keep in mind at this time that Gaye was married to Anna Gordy, sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy. Anna was seventeen years his senior and their marriage was passionate and turbulent, leading to multiple infidelities by both parties. Terrell captured Gaye’s heart and vice versa. Their connection was evident on vinyl and to anyone who knew their secret. Listen to the songs they sang together. You can feel the bond through your speakers.
All was going well with the duo until October 14, 1967. Terrell collapsed into Gaye’s arms as the two performed at a concert at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. Soon after, Terrell was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Terrell could no longer perform on stage with Gaye and eventually could not complete what would be their final album, Easy. Uncredited, Valerie Simpson finished Terrell’s vocals on the album. After eight unsuccessful surgeries, Terrell passed away at the age of 24 on March 16, 1970. (Coincidentally, I Want You was officially released on the sixth anniversary of her death.)
Gaye was devastated and went into seclusion. In 1971, Gaye emerged with the self-produced What’s Going On, a drastic and stark departure from his previous output. Musically, it was a sign of things to come. Berry Gordy called it “the worst thing I’ve ever heard.” Of course we all know Berry was dead wrong and luckily Gaye stuck to his guns and fought for his album. For his art. That’s what true artists do.
Gaye’s career trajectory mirrors that of Richard Pryor. Both were mainstream artists in the sixties, but once 1970came upon us, they sought the truth. Their truth. A “let me tell y’all what’s really happening out there and with me” narrative was being crafted by these two geniuses simultaneously. It was beautiful to behold. Their respective audiences loved it. After What’s Going On, it was as though Gaye was free. Or so we thought. In the throes of a crippling cocaine addiction, grief over a love lost and thoughts of suicide, Gaye was at a crossroads. The chaste, sweet Gaye was doing battle with the man that just wanted to be himself. The PK (Preacher’s Kid) Gaye was losing to the “let my freak flag fly” Gaye, and selfishly we were and still are the better for it.
In 1973, Gaye went into the studio to record Let’s Get It On. Co-writer for the title track as well as three other tracks, Ed Townsend, told Gaye about the inspiration for these songs. Gaye thought that he couldn’t sing those songs with feeling because he never met a woman he felt that way about. That all changed when Townsend invited his muse/love interest, Barbara Hunter, to the recording studio and she brought along her 17 year-old daughter, Janis Hunter. After meeting Janis, Gaye became inspired. He improvised new lyrics to “Let’s Get It On” and sang the rest of the album as if he were singing only to Janis. Shortly thereafter, the two began a secret relationship.
In the ensuing couple of years leading up to the recording of I Want You, Janis gave birth to two children, Nona and Frankie. Between spending time with his new family and appearing at divorce court with Anna, the sessions for I Want You progressed very slowly. Luckily, the material was already in place. The album’s eleven tracks were originally written by co-producer Leon Ware.
Gaye’s divorce from Anna was finalized in 1975, but he was hit hard in the settlement and had to file for bankruptcy. It left him devastated. Still battling a heavy cocaine addiction, Gaye went back to work with a vengeance. He worked with Ware to revise five of the album’s songs including “After The Dance.” What emerged was a transformative classic that has been referenced by artists like Mary J. Blige, D’Angelo, and Todd Rundgren.
The album-opening title track clearly states the theme and premise of the album: desire and mutual satisfaction. The lyric “Don’t play with something you should cherish for life” is an old-fashioned plea for commitment, but when sung by Gaye, it becomes so much more. In the hands of another singer, it simply would not work.
“Come Live With Me Angel,” “After The Dance” (Instrumental), and “Feel All My Love Inside,” the tracks that follow “I Want You,” combine to further tell the story of a seduction, complete with strings and percussion. Possibly the sweetest and most tender moment of the album appears on track 5, “I Wanna Be Where You Are.” It acts as a pause in the proceedings for Gaye to profess his love for his children, Nona, Frankie and Marvin Jr. (from his first marriage). Although the song only lasts for an abbreviated one minute and eighteen seconds, it’s plenty of time for you to hear the love and joy in Gaye’s voice.
The remaining tracks, including two short instrumental versions of “I Want You” pick up where “Feel All My Love Inside” leaves off. The amazing aspect of this album is that Gaye is able to convey his desire forcefully while exhibiting a degree of insecurity. That’s a tightrope he manages to walk with ease and very little difficulty.
This masterpiece concludes with the timeless “After The Dance.” The line “I want and you want me, so why don’t we get together after the dance” is delivered with a quiet power that only a few could achieve. Us mere mortals would get slapped or laughed at if we ever tried it.
With all of the personal turmoil swirling around him, it’s a miracle that I Want You even came to pass. It’s a testament to Gaye’s genius. Do yourself a favor. Get yourself a good bottle of wine, turn the lights down low, and play this album all night long.