By Ben Edmonds
To Janet Jackson, Marvin Gaye was a brilliant rebel, soul music’s own John Lennon. To others he possessed the potential to become an all-round entertainer of unprecedented proportions, nothing less than a black Frank Sinatra. This is an assessment the singer himself enthusiastically endorsed. His first album for Motown (“The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye,” 1961) consisted primarily of standards like “Love For Sale” and “My Funny Valentine.” It flopped, but even when he began to have rock & soul hits like “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and “Hitch Hike,” his true artistic longing was to make his mark as a smooth crooner. Where many in the Motown stable had to be coached through their all-purpose shows at the Copacabana and other supper clubs — the label’s way of claiming mainstream legitimacy — Marvin legitimately yearned for this level of artistry and acceptance.
Forty-five years ago Marvin released “A Tribute To the Great Nat King Cole.” The 1965 album, prompted by Cole’s death earlier that year, was the last released in Gaye’s lifetime that showcased this side of the singer’s ambitions. Nat Cole held a place of honor in Marvin’s personal pantheon. As the leader of the King Cole Trio, the jazz pianist became an admired and influential purveyor of small band swing (and his 1943 hit “Straighten Up and Fly Right” is often identified as one of the precursors of rock & roll). Cole’s sophisticated pop balladry crowded out the jazz as it became more orchestrated, giving him an entree to mid-America previously unthinkable for black entertainers. His 1956 show on NBC-TV was the first hosted by an African-American, though the concept scared enough advertisers to effectively kill the program the following year.
Nat Cole possessed enviable jazz cred and massive mainstream success, but it was as a vocal stylist that he most inspired Marvin Gaye. Sinatra may have had cool, but Cole had ease, a palpable comfort with himself, his command of the material and his relationship with his audiences. It allowed him to melt effortlessly into the mood of his songs, whether burnished jazz, breezy pop, heavy balladry or outright novelty. To a basically awkward performer like Marvin, this was a quality worth emulating. Gaye’s tribute highlighted Cole’s smooth versatility and, the younger man hoped, his own. Combining tracks cut by Hal Davis and Marc Gordon with Los Angeles session musicians and by Harvey Fuqua in Detroit with the Funk Brothers, it covered Cole touchstones “Mona Lisa,” “Sweet Lorraine,” “Unforgettable” and “Ramblin’ Rose.” Marvin’s readings were earnest and affectionate, and the versions of “Nature Boy” and “Calypso Blues” that book-ended the collection were first-rate, yet it suffered the same ignominious fate as his previous albums of standards. Marvin occasionally claimed that these aspirations were thwarted by Motown, but a fresh listen says otherwise. If the Cole album and the others have a shortcoming, it is the singer himself. For all his affection and ambition, in 1965 Marvin Gaye simply had neither the physical command of his instrument nor the emotional maturity necessary to pull this music off. Not yet.
Two years later Gaye privately commissioned arrangements of a set of standards from the composer Bobby Scott. When he listened back to the results, Marvin realized that his own performances were not up to Short’s arrangements, and he shelved the project for more that a decade. During that time “I Heard It Through The Grapevine” made him Motown’s premier male artist, a position he used to foment revolutions both socio-political (*What’s Going On*) and sexual (*Let’s Get It On*). When he returned to the Short sessions in the late 70s, it was with an expanded creative consciousness, but also with a personal life in tatters. “I had to suffer,” Marvin admitted to biographer David Ritz, and the combination of accomplishment and pain produced some of his greatest vocal performances. (This material was finally released in 1997 under the title *Vulnerable*.) Having demonstrated that he was finally the singer his early albums of standards demanded, and with “Sexual Healing” (1982) returning him to his rightful place of prominence, there is every reason to think that Marvin Gaye might have settled into his own version of the ease he so admired in Nat King Cole. Who knows what wonders might have unfolded in Marvin’s sunset? All the tantalizing possibilities were snuffed out when Marvin Gay Sr. shot his eldest son to death in a domestic dispute on April 1, 1984.
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