Music

Marvin Gaye’s Lost Album Finds Him at the Peak of His Creativity

You’re the Man would have come out between What’s Going on and Let’s Get It On. 47 years later, Motown has finally released it.

Marvin Gaye relaxes in the studio on Aug. 28, 1973.
Marvin Gaye relaxes in the studio on Aug. 28, 1973.
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The notion of a “lost” Marvin Gaye album from 1972 evokes feelings roughly akin to learning that Billy Wilder wrote and shot a whole movie in between Some Like It Hot and The Apartment only to scrap it during the editing process, or that during his 1993–94 “retirement” season, Michael Jordan was actually secretly playing extremely intense pickup games and also filming them. In reality, the material on You’re the Man, the famously aborted Marvin Gaye LP that would have fallen directly between the twin masterpieces of What’s Going On (1971) and Let’s Get It On (1973), isn’t really all that lost—many of the tracks have been floating around in various contexts for years. But the album, released by Motown this week 47 years after its notoriously fickle creator pulled the plug, is a welcome addition to the official Gaye discography, as well as a vital document of the creative pinnacle of one of American music’s most exquisite talents.

You’re the Man’s title track, a scathing denunciation of Richard Nixon that may be the most explicitly political composition of Gaye’s career, is probably the album’s best-known song and was intended as its lead single. Released as a double-sided 45 in the Watergate break-in summer of 1972, its nearly six-minute running time was split into two parts (combined on the new album and elsewhere into “You’re the Man (Parts 1 & 2).” Gaye was no stranger to crossover success: His 1968 rendition of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” spent seven weeks atop the Hot 100, and more recently What’s Going On—an album that he had to fight Motown to get released—had placed three singles in the Top 10. But “You’re the Man” stalled out at No. 50, a showing that reputedly stung Gaye so much he decided to scrap plans for the record, according to liner notes provided by Gaye biographer and music scribe extraordinaire David Ritz. Instead he turned his attentions to his score for the blaxploitation flick Trouble Man (the film flopped, but Gaye’s soundtrack is magnificent) along with the material that would become Let’s Get It On, the highest-selling album of his career.

It’s hard to really know why “You’re the Man” failed to cross over. (It did hit No. 7 on Billboard’s Soul chart.) It’s possible that Motown, leery of Gaye’s growing power and political outspokenness, didn’t push the single as aggressively as it might have. It’s also possible that the American public was simply numb to anti-Nixon screeds by this point, if not burnt out on politics more broadly, a theory that the 1972 election results would seem to support. (Stevie Wonder later took a Nixon slam all the way to No. 1, but not till 1974, after Tricky Dick’s resignation.) In any event, it’s hard to blame Marvin Gaye for his frustration. “You’re the Man” is one of the best singles of his career, a track that found him working in a drastically different mode than the meditative elegies of What’s Going On. It’s all angles and sharp edges, funky and snarling, its heavy use of studio compression bearing the clear influence of Sly Stone’s landmark There’s a Riot Goin’ On, released the previous year. The vocal is a masterpiece of righteously paranoid fury: “We don’t want to hear no more lies/ about how you planned a compromise,” sings Gaye, an apparent reference to Nixon’s “secret plan” to end the Vietnam War. “Don’t give us no peace sign/ turn around and rob the people blind,” he hisses, and later: “Can you take the guns from our sons?/ Right all the wrongs this administration’s done?”

“You’re the Man (Parts 1 & 2)” opens the belated album that bears its name, but what’s most striking is how diffuse the material around it is, and how keenly in conversation it is with the music of the day. What’s Going On is often celebrated for its politics, but it was also a dramatic departure from the sounds of other pop and R&B of the period. It’s drenched in jazz influences, and its arrangements and performances pay tribute to Gaye’s idols like Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra while still sounding utterly cutting-edge, a quality due in no small part to the formidable work of Motown session musicians like Joe Messina, Wild Bill Moore, and the incomparable James Jamerson.

You’re the Man, conversely, feels completely situated within a larger musical dialogue, while still never feeling derivative. The Sly Stone influence is evident, but you also hear clear traces of Curtis Mayfield on “I’m Gonna Give You Respect,” and “Try It, You’ll Like It” would have made for a killer Eddie Kendricks–fronted Temptations single. There’s also a tremendous amount of musical cooperation happening here, a crucial aspect of Gaye’s whole career that’s often obscured by his reputation as a brooding, secluded genius. There are four collaborations with the great Willie Hutch and two more with the Mizell Brothers, who’d go on to work extensively with fusion artists like Donald Byrd and Bobbi Humphrey. The influence of Gaye’s brother, Frankie, whose experiences in Vietnam had inspired much of What’s Going On, is still present as well: “I Want to Come Home for Christmas” opens like a standard holiday-homesickness ballad, before revealing that the song’s narrator is in fact a prisoner of war.

As noted above, if you’re a Marvin Gaye completist, there won’t be all that much here that’s new to you—many of the tracks collected, like “The World Is Rated X,” “I’m Going Home (Move),” and “We Can Make It Baby,” have been previously released on boxed sets like 1995’s The Master: 1961-1984 or as bonus tracks on various deluxe reissues. Salaam Remi contributes a handful of new mixes to tracks like “Symphony” and “I’d Give My Life For You,” with some vague gestures towards modernization that are mostly unnecessary. Things sound louder without really sounding fuller, anachronistic touches abound, and the stereo mixing is a bit too busy and impressed with itself. There are points where one imagines the notoriously exacting Gaye hollering from the great beyond, “This stuff sounded pretty great in the first place!” But it’s still cool to have them available in this format, and the lovely two-LP package is well worth any redundancy. (The album is also available on digital platforms, and a CD version will be released next month.)

And if you’re not a Gaye completist, well, I highly recommend becoming one, and in the meantime go listen to this album! You’re the Man’s title track has long been the album’s best-known song, but the recording here most overdue for the spotlight is “Piece of Clay,” a song written and produced by Gloria Jones and Pamela Sawyer that was first released in 1995. “Piece of Clay” is one of the greatest vocal performances in Gaye’s catalog, and decades after the singer’s death at the hands of Marvin Gay Sr., the song’s opening line—“Father, stop/ criticizing your son”—can’t help but send chills. (Following another of his heroes, the former Sam Cook, Marvin Jr. added an “e” to the end of his last name for show business.) Its lyrics are a ragged cry for empathy and human connection while the chords and arrangement are pure gospel, its naked understatement setting it apart from much of the singer’s 1970s music, which could occasionally tend toward the ornate. The recording features multiple vocal tracks from Gaye, sometimes harmonizing, sometimes singing in unison, and frequently engaging in call-and-response with himself, a fitting arrangement for an artist who contained multitudes.

It’s the sound of a true virtuoso and a towering figure in American art, and it’s awfully hard to hear it with dry eyes. This April 2 would have been Gaye’s 80th birthday. Instead, April 1 is the 35th anniversary of the singer’s murder, truly one of music’s most senseless tragedies (no small superlative, that). Gaye’s 1980s career is one of music’s great what-ifs. After finally leaving Motown in 1982, he enjoyed his biggest hit in years with “Sexual Healing,” which returned him to the top tier of pop stardom. In 1983 he performed the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game—you know, that one. The life that was violently cut short that baffling April day was a troubled and immensely complicated one, but You’re the Man is a powerful reminder that the world Marvin Gaye left behind is immeasurably more beautiful for the gifts he bestowed upon it.

Album cover: Marvin Gaye stares directly into the camera with a pensive look on his face while framing his chin with his thumb and index finger.
Motown