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On what should have been Marvin Gaye’s 76th birthday, we ask how his best song is obscure enough to be called “Trunkworthy”

 

The fact that Marvin Gaye’s best song is obscure enough to be called “Trunkworthy” is totally ridiculous, and the reasoning behind this travesty can only be attributed to Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown Records.

Berry Gordy approached the seven-inch single the way Henry Ford approached the Model T: Berry wanted every release on his label to be made to a specific musical standard, and he wanted them produced fast. It is amazing how this approach to music provided the soundtrack to the 1960s. Most soul artists that people know—the Diana Rosses and Stevie Wonders of the world, for example — recorded at Motown, often with musical accompaniment provided by the same group of backing musicians. Berry made a lot of money, the stars made quite a bit, and the musicians behind all of the hits made virtually nothing. C’est la vie.

This brings us back to Marvin. “This Love Starved Heart of Mine,” by Gaye, might just be the best song ever recorded at Motown, but it wasn’t released until almost 30 years after it was recorded, in 1994. This was just one of those songs that inexplicably fell off of the conveyor belt in Motown’s soul-industrial-complex.

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“This Love Starved Heart of Mine” starts like many other Motown standards — with a polished drum line and a bass playing a simple 4/4 beat — but this only lasts for the first three seconds. When Marvin comes in, he changes everything. He unleashes a high-pitched wail, energetic, mournful, and full of promise. Quickly he is joined by a guitar laying down a steady barrage of chords, and this swell grows with the horns and strings. By the time the first chorus comes around, the track has transformed into a runaway train. Gaye, the song’s mad conductor, urges the band on with the sort of screams and yelps that you almost never hear in his early work. But then, after three exhausting verses and choruses, it just stops. There is a shimmering crash in the drums, and it seems like the band has finally run out of steam. But then Marvin gives the song its sexiest yelp, and with a Latin-influenced horn and string run, the band picks right up to speed. “This Love Starved Heart of Mine” is big, brassy, brash, and totally fantastic.

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In a slightly overwrought post-mortem, Pitchfork Media said that Outkast’s “B.O.B.” managed to prophesize every major trend in popular music in the last decade. In a similarly overblown fashion, I would say that in this three-minute rollercoaster, Marvin Gaye managed to encapsulate everything that makes pop music great. It has the driving 4/4 rhythms that White Stripes used to rock our shit in every one of their songs that is worth listening to. Gaye gives this performance the sort of raw charisma that every contestant on “The Voice” wishes he had. The bass has a relentless energy drawn from its simplicity; every bottom-heavy sort of music, from punk to hip-hop, does precisely the same thing. I could go on and on.

Take that, Outkast.

 

A version of this piece was originally published in The Harvard Crimson and has been reprinted with permission.

If you only know Marvin’s greatest hits, you’re missing out on many of his greatest records. We put together 10 of his songs from the ’60s that remain inexplicably obscure (don’t even get us started on his overlooked songs from the ’70s & ’80s):

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