The way the story most often gets told, Marvin Gaye with What’s Going On (1971) liberated himself from Motown’s formulaic method of music-making and achieved total artistic independence, whereupon the music—if not, to be sure, the man himself—went on to live happily ever after. But the story gets told incompletely, because What’s Going On was only the start of it—it was how Gaye leveraged the potential for his independence, but it wasn’t how he ventured out and completely seized that independence. To tell that story, you have to tell about Trouble Man.
It’s a story that can now be told more elaborately, with a wonderful fortieth anniversary reissue of the original album, complete with some newly released material and a supplementary booklet. Trouble Man is absolutely sui generis within the Marvin Gaye canon for being not only a blaxploitation film soundtrack—the only film score he would ever do—but for being jazz-based and largely instrumental. The booklet does a commendable job articulating Trouble Man’s importance, while the artifact itself sings, as always, with perfect eloquence to the same thing. Except that now it sings even better.
The way it happened is that Gaye had relocated from Detroit to LA to put some finishing magic on What’s Going On, and, once that was completed, began making his next moves. He made them in several directions. Before getting down to work on Trouble Man, as Andrew Flory informs us in his excellent accompanying essay, Gaye recorded a whole handful of terrific songs that would eventually appear elsewhere: “You’re the Man,” “Going Home,” “Where Are We Going” [sic], “The World Is Rated X,” and a version of “Symphony” with some placeholder lyrics. One last thing he did before getting down to work on Trouble Man is an album of duets with Diana Ross.
Ross, as it happens, was herself in the midst of a musical film project, the Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues (1972), in which she played lead. Comparing her project with Gaye’s tells us everything we need to know about the difference in their respective sensibilities. Both movies paid tribute to jazz traditions of the recent past, but there is where the similarities squarely ended. Where Ross settled for merely exhuming jazz, Gaye took the altogether more difficult and dangerous leap of actually rejuvenating it, by proving that jazz’s arrangements could thrive within the context of funk’s emphatic rhythms and instrumentation.
Recently turned on to the Moog by Stevie Wonder, who actually gave him one as a gift, Gaye in Trouble Man used his new synthesizer with the avidity and adventure of a child who’s just discovered a new toy. “I consider Mr. Moog an absolute genius,” he told his biographer David Ritz, “and felt grateful to him all the while I was working [on Trouble Man].” Ritz would write that Gaye indeed considered the project “a large canvas on which he painted his newly discovered Moog figures,” and Flory in his essay gives the Moog plenty of space too. On this most instrumental of albums, Gaye played other instruments as well. A Motown session-drummer in his early days and a talented pianist, Gaye always did have a knack for percussion. Whenever, on this album, you hear foot stomps, finger snaps, hand claps, and tambourines, you can be fairly confident that you’re listening to Gaye himself.
Gaye worked with both rhythm sections and orchestras, depending on what type of song was needed, be it a funked out bluesy soul number or a cool-jazz/orchestral stretch of film score meant to accentuate onscreen action. He composed the whole thing himself, even if it meant, for the scored sections, humming and singing out pieces of music to be transcribed by others. The film band sessions, writes Flory,
were recorded in a large film studio using only a few microphones and full battery of traditional instruments. Most cues were cut in the first take, and there were no overdubs during these sessions. Nearly three hundred separate cues were recorded, ranging from ten-second interludes to passages of several minutes. In the tradition of the film industry, the material from these sessions was viewed as a set of building blocks for what would later become the soundtrack. The actual score was edited heavily in order to serve the dramatic needs of the film.
The great musical offering of this rerelease—which otherwise features mostly alternate takes that differ little from the takes that made the original LP—is to provide many of these interludes and passages for the first time to those who’ve never seen the movie. They have titles like “Stick Up,” “Pool Hall,” “Getting Pete,” “Police Break In,” and “Bowling Alley Parking Lot.” In their languid-but-urgent, hauntingly evocative cool-jazz trances, interspersed with chillingly dissonant brass interruptions, these found musical moments remind one of nothing so much as Bernard Herrmann’s great 1976 score for Taxi Driver (which may, come to think of it, have been influenced by Gaye’s score). They prove, too, just how much good music can accumulate and hide out in the crevices of a movie one had never seen.
I’m far from alone in never having seen Trouble Man. When I recently and finally did sit down to the entire thing, I was not sorry for this neglect. It’s not much better or worse than most of the blaxploitation movies to come out of the era, but this should by no means be taken as endorsement. The great contribution of those films, though, was to offer, in their nihilistic social irresponsibility, a license to the musicians who scored them to be darker and more pessimistic than they could be in other contexts, and, in the doing, to engage a broader range of human experience. Curtis Mayfield; Isaac Hayes; James Brown; Bobby Womack; Sun Ra; Barry White; Earth, Wind & Fire; the Dells; Quincy Jones; Booker T. & the MGs; Willie Hutch; Aretha Franklin; Gladys Knight and the Pips—it seems every major soul musician from the era entered the blaxploitation sweepstakes at least once, and many of them more than once.
One big exception is Stevie Wonder, who, we’ll recall, had given Gaye the Moog that inspired so many of Trouble Man’s greatest moments. Wonder pedaled in a brand of social consciousness that was far too literal and sanctimonious to accommodate the message of these movies and their violence. It was an opportunity missed. All we have to do is look at what Gaye was able to do. With songs like “Main Theme from Trouble Man,” “Don’t Mess with Mr. T,” “Life Is a Gamble,” and “Poor Abbey Walsh,” Gaye was able to communicate something about street life far more powerful and horrible and, ultimately—because of the quality of its music—redemptive, than he’d done in songs like “Inner City Blues,” “The World Is Rated X,” and “Where Are We Going,” so bluntly literal in their agitprop.
Gaye never did do another film score, although he certainly wanted to, or said he did. But what he gave us is enough, as this repackaging both reminds and reinforces. In addition to Flory’s excellent flagship piece, there are mini-essays on the contributions of the arranger and the saxophonist (Dale Oehler and Trevor Lawrence), as well as testimony from Joni Mitchell, Christian McBride, and Lenny Kravitz. There is an essay by Cameron Crowe. There is great album art from inside the original release, and, in a nice touch, photographs of the labeled master tapes. It’s a smart package that will hopefully bring new attention to a bafflingly neglected masterpiece.
Following Trouble Man, Gaye immediately continued his artistic evolution, declining to tour and instead going back into the studio, to record Let’s Get It On (1973). That album would introduce a whole new caliber of raw sexuality to popular music. It was soon followed by I Want You (1976), a more subdued, subtle, and sophisticated, but ultimately more powerful, testimony to Gaye’s undying eroticism. I Want You has moments as haunting as the best of Trouble Man. Here, My Dear (1978) was a culmination of all the musical technique Gaye had demonstrated in the ‘70s: the multiple vocal-track recording, the funk instrumentation, the hauntingly poetic and personal lyrics—all of it done at double-album length in answer to a court-ordered demand for alimony on behalf of his first wife, Anna (and the sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy, who actually released the album). It was not the last great music Gaye would ever make, but it was the last time he would make an entire album’s worth of it.
But it doesn’t matter that he never did another soundtrack, because he did this one. Why he did it is a far more compelling question than why he never tried following it, or why nobody invited him to try. In his catalog, it sits squarely between What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, chronologically and symbolically, halfway between social consciousness and eroticism. It is both those things, without having to be, entirely, either of them. It occupies the subtle center between two extremes, cool enough to keep its own company as an unclassifiable miracle of melancholy mood-music.
And that’s not even the most impressive gamble Gaye made with Trouble Man. The most impressive gamble he made was in—at this precarious juncture when he was expected to adequately follow What’s Going On, already a classic—answering with the score for a film. And the score for a blaxploitation film, at that. And, what’s even more, a largely musical score for a blaxploitation film, thereby subordinating his greatest asset of all: his voice. It’s at once an act of great humility and of sheer arrogant defiance, as if he just knew his voice was so purely dynamic a means of musical expression that, merely by sublimating its energies and rechanneling them, it could transform into an entirely new mode of musical transcendence.
Lary Wallace is an eccentric at large and a feature writer for Prestige magazine. He last wrote for the Daily about the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok.