After a slew of successful singles in the 1950s, Marvin Gaye started the next decade with a staggering work: What's Going On, a socially conscious album commenting on topics of the day. He continued his exploration of topics including sexuality and divorce in works such as Let's Get It On, I Want You, and Here My Dear. But in 1972 Gaye recorded the followup to Let's Get It On: You're the Man, an album that further examined political issues. However, when the lead single "You're the Man" failed to cross over to the pop charts, he decided to shelve the project. After 47 years, the album finally saw a posthumous release that coincided with what would have been Gaye's 80th birthday. The next few DeepSoul columns dive into this remarkable work, studying what this "lost" album reveals about his artistic development. The journey to You're the Man's welcome release is as interesting as the album itself.
According to David Ritz's definitive biography Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, Gaye initially felt confident that his politically charged single "You're the Man" would perform as well as the classic "What's Going On?" After all, he had successfully fought Motown head Berry Gordy to release his overtly topical album; up until that point, the label had studiously avoided such possible controversy. Therefore the album transformed into a personal triumph for the singer. "The biggest result of What's Going On . . . had to do with my own freedom," Gaye told Ritz. "I'd earned it, and no one could take it away from me. Now I could do whatever I wanted." For the album, he lined up top Motown songwriters such as Willie Hutch, Freddie Perren, Fonce Mizell, Hal Davis, Pam Sawyer, and Gloria Jones. Further asserting his creative freedom, Gaye produced the sessions himself.
Upon its 1972 release, while the single "You're the Man" did crack the R&B top ten, it never crossed over to the pop charts. The disappointing reception caused Gaye uneasiness, unsure of the direction of his career. At the same time, he received an offer to score the film Trouble Man; Gaye thus turned his attention to that project and abandoned You're the Man. Subsequent albums would veer away from politics and more toward the sensual and, in the case of Here My Dear, the painful disintegration of relationships.
In a recent interview with Rock Cellar magazine, Ritz maintains that Gaye must have believed the material simply did not measure up to his 1971 masterpiece. "In my view, it stalled because it didn't have the weight of a fully conceived album like What's Going On behind it," Ritz said. "It was a brilliant single, but isolated. In contrast, Trouble Man, Let's Get It On and I Want You were self-contained suites of songs."
Political disagreements with Gordy also led to the project's demise. The first single--the title track--addressed the upcoming presidential election between Richard Nixon and George McGovern. According to Consequence of Sound, Gordy disagreed with the opinions expressed in the song, deriding the track as "the worst piece of crap I ever heard" and canceling all promotion.
The 2019 edition of You're the Man does not quite live up to the title of "the lost album." The collection includes other songs he recorded during the same period as well as the extended version of "I Want to Come Home for Christmas." It also features songs remixed by producer Salaam Remi, such as the previously released "My Last Chance," "Symphony," and "I'd Give My Life for You." However, it offers a vision of what Gaye's What's Going On followup might have sounded like, and invites an analysis of his career crossroads. The next three columns will highlight selections from this fascinating album.