Happy 45th Anniversary to Marvin Gaye’s thirteenth studio album Let’s Get It On, originally released August 28, 1973.
Marvin Gaye is the archbishop of seduction. To say otherwise would be like arguing the existence of gravity, but while Let’s Get It On continues to tug on heartstrings and bra straps, his 1973 classic urges you to remember the late singer as more than just a sex symbol.
One thing the world seems certain about is that Christianity is an anti-sex religion. Gaye’s father, a Pentecostal preacher, ran the household as though his word was the law and any sign of rebellion was put down with force. This perverted display of power molded his son into a notoriously shy individual, warping his views of intimacy and religion beyond repair.
By the spring of 1972, the 33-year-old performer felt the pressure of topping What’s Going On and Trouble Man nipping at his heels. With the creative climate at a standstill, Motown labelmate Ed Townsend invited some close friends to the studio—one of them being a 17-year-old Janis Hunter, reigniting the singer’s artistic flame. “She was the figure in my fantasy come to life,” Gaye said of the woman who’d become his second wife, upon speaking with David Ritz, author of the Gaye biography Divided Soul (1985). “I’d never encountered a more beautiful creature in my life. I had to have her.”
Given the circumstances of his childhood, it’s no surprise Gaye was a tortured spirit who followed his own compass; the surprise is that he turned his torture into music that could melt a Hershey’s Kiss faster than the sun if both were forced to compete.
The title track “Let’s Get It On” has become deeply ingrained in the fabric of pop culture that it’s easy to forget how sensual it is—especially when movies and TV ads misuse it for comedic effect. But that unforgettable wah-wah-wah guitar intro is musical shorthand for a mating call. “There’s nothing wrong with me loving you / Baby no, no,” Gaye insists, expressing his sexual longing and confronting the false teachings of his past in equal measure. “And giving yourself to me can never be wrong if the love is true.” Surprisingly, the song was initially about overcoming alcoholism until Hunter’s beauty took Gaye’s artistic energy in another direction. His instincts proved correct, as the now-quintessential Valentine’s anthem jolted to #1 on both the Pop and R&B singles charts.
He follows that up with “Please Stay (Once You Go Away),” a soulful yet vulnerable plea of a man who dreads his love interest will abandon him. “I’ll just lie tossin’ and turnin’ all night long / Scared that if I closed my eyes when I got ready to wake up, I might find you gone.” There’s no sign of infidelity or betrayal here, but that sense of paranoia comes from sleepless nights when you clutch your pillow like a long-lost friend.
“If I Should Die Tonight” makes me imagine Gaye performing in a swanky Detroit nightclub, wearing a three-piece tuxedo. Meanwhile, a dreamy-eyed Hunter watches on in her curvy black dress and lipstick red as wine, as the uncaring crowd drowns their worries in strong liquor. “If I should die tonight, oh baby, I just want you to keep this one thought in mind,” Gaye sings in a sky-high falsetto that drips like slow-poured honey. “That I will never die blue, ‘cause I’ve known you.” These lyrics may look ridiculous in print, but he squeezes passion from every line that there’s no doubt you believe him too.
Side One closes with “Keep Gettin’ It On,” pushing the between-the-sheets vibe of the title track into the filtered sunlight of the black church. “Oh, would you rather make love, children, as opposed to war like you know you should?” he asks, like an impassioned minister preaching to a small, sweat-soaked congregation. “Don’t you love to love somebody? Think about it people… makes you feel soooo good!” Even if you’re not a spiritual person, the least you can do is give the Prince of Soul props for turning a bedroom jam into a soul train to God’s Kingdom.
Like a sunrise breaking through dark skies, “Come Get to This” opens Side Two with the perfect ambiance of a summer cookout. What’s interesting is how the infectiously catchy melody sugarcoats its lustful wordplay (“Oh, I need your love, don’t make me wait, I can’t wait / Oh, I’m so impatient for your love / Come here, sweet sweet baby, get to this”) that it’s no wonder it charmed its way to #3 on Billboard’s Hot Soul chart.
“Distant Lover” finds our lovesick hero reminiscing over joyful summers and daily letters with his lady. However, the harsh reality is that a long-distance relationship leaves him no choice but to belt his frustration from every inch of his lungs. That mythical coyote howl near the 3:36 mark followed by the desperate cry of “Something I wanna say… When you left, you took all of me with you” is one of the most gut-wrenching moments in the singer’s entire catalog.
While the opening title track felt like a warm seductive breath on the listener’s neck, “You Sure Love to Ball” sounds like it was recorded in the very bedroom it’s taking place in. With Gaye’s smoky vocals gliding over jazzy saxophone riffs and steamy groans of passion, the song has the power to dim lights, ignite candles, and slip panties down to the ankles. It barely cracked Billboard’s Top 50, but one thing’s for sure: If Gaye received a royalty check for every baby conceived to this song, his estate might be the biggest in popular music.
The album wraps up in dramatic fashion with “Just to Keep You Satisfied,” a bittersweet reflection of a romance that’s gone cold. “Oh, I never loved nobody like I love you, baby,” Gaye roars around the 2:17 mark, sounding like he’s trapped in some damp underground cell, singing woeful blues to the cold cement walls around him. “Now it’s time to say farewell… Farewell, my darling.” Falling in love doesn’t always promise a fairytale ending, and such is the case with Gaye’s 12-year marriage with Anna Gordy, which concluded in 1975. “We hadn’t been a couple in years, and all we were doing was improving our methods of hurting each other,” he confessed to Ritz. “[My feelings for] Jan only made things worse.”
There have been artists who have ridden the coattails of others to success while a select few blaze a pathway so bright that everyone else follows suit. Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On was and still is that radiant light. His intoxicating voice elevated him to the same winner’s podium as Sam Cooke and Aretha Franklin while his multi-layered production techniques re-shaped the sound of modern R&B into his image. But, above all, his unapologetic desire to combine intimacy with religion lives on through many of our favorite records. We thank you, Marvin Gaye, for allowing us to feel your wounds and bask in your glory.