Marvin Gaye: Phenomenon
An autobiography in a single song
Some things in life just won’t be explained.
In Phenomenon, the John Travolta movie which uses that tagline, there’s a character – Nate Pop, played by Forest Whitaker – who is a major Motown fan. So how to signify that musically in the film? “We wanted to find something in that vein,” explained Robbie Robertson, the musician involved in creating the soundtrack, “which meant none of the obvious choices.”
None of the obvious choices turned out to be one of the most stunning performances ever recorded by Marvin Gaye: “Piece Of Clay.” After the mesmerizing, twisted, elongated guitar and organ intro, the first few words he sings will shock: “Father, stop/Criticizing your son.”
Everything we know about Marvin’s death at the hands of his father is there in that command, and in its exquisite, almost painful delivery. Just a few lines later comes everything we know about Marvin’s latterday feelings towards Motown and Berry Gordy: “Everybody wants somebody/To be their own piece of clay.”
If ever there was an autobiography in a single song, it is this.
Marvin cut “Piece Of Clay” on a summer Sunday in 1972, according to details contained in The Master: Marvin Gaye 1961-1984, the four-CD Motown anthology which brought the recording out of the vault in 1995. The Phenomenon soundtrack delivered it to a wider world the following year.
What’s also remarkable is that the song was written and produced not by Marvin, but by Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer. When recorded, it was more than a year after the release of What’s Going On, the album which redefined the star, his music and the relationship with his record company. Marvin now appeared to be in charge of his own creative destiny, marching to the rhythm of his own drum – not that of his father-in-law. Yet there he was, recording the work of others, and in the case of “Piece Of Clay,” as powerfully personal as anything he had written himself.
True, there was much change during the summer of ’72, far and near. It was a presidential election year, turbulent and polarising, and the Vietnam war still raged. For Marvin, his professional centre of gravity was shifting: Motown Records was officially leaving Detroit for Los Angeles. Moreover, its first hit-making group was at a crossroads. Smokey Robinson was quitting the Miracles, and criss-crossing the nation with them on a farewell tour. Stevie Wonder was also on the road, opening for the Rolling Stones. Who knew where that would take the 22-year-old’s career?
Marvin’s first significant interview since the success of What’s Going On had been published in Rolling Stone in April, but with few specifics about new music. “It would be nice if I could lead a million people out of despair,” he told Ben Fong-Torres, “and I may try. I am really quite an evasive fellow on the subject – at the moment, it’s tricky.” Asked about his next album, the singer claimed to have “done all the music so far.” He added, “You have to keep stepping up. I don’t like routine. I don’t think I even like order…I just feel that I have creativity to burn.”
On May 1, Marvin was honoured in his hometown, Washington, D.C., given the keys to the city, a motorcade and a V.I.P. reception, with his parents in attendance. His concert that night at the Kennedy Center (no less) showcased the entire What’s Going On album to dramatic effect. “At least on this one day, I felt like I made Father proud,” Marvin told his biographer, David Ritz. Brother Frankie Gaye wrote that it was the first time that their father had seen Marvin perform professionally.
Nonetheless, there were clouds in the sky. “You’re The Man,” Marvin’s first new – and highly political – single since the hits from What’s Going On, had not sold impressively on release in late April. Consequently, Berry Gordy is said to have summoned him to Los Angeles, while calling on Motown writers and producers for new material. “That Marvin would subject himself to such a process after having fought so hard to win his freedom from it,” wrote the late Ben Edmonds, “indicates how empty he was creatively at this moment.”
“Piece Of Clay” was one result. Gloria Jones and Pam Sawyer were part of a new, younger generation at Jobete Music, and had proved themselves the previous year with Gladys Knight & the Pips’ Top 10 smash, “If I Were Your Woman.” Jones had credentials as a recording artist (“Heartbeat,” “Tainted Love”) before Motown, and classical piano had figured in her musical education. Lyricist Sawyer was part of the team which wrote “Love Child” and “I’m Livin’ In Shame” for Diana Ross & the Supremes.
With Sawyer and Jones, Marvin appears to have shaped “Piece Of Clay” at the MoWest studio in Los Angeles on July 8, 1972. Its gospel overtones are impossible to ignore, although the lyric is hardly one you’d hear in church (Jones would know: her father was a minister). The contradiction ought to have appealed to Marvin, but perhaps the circumstances of its recording did not. Either way, he never seems to have mentioned the song to anyone. In liner notes for The Master, David Ritz merely describes it as “Marvin the rebel, Marvin the rugged individualist,” and moves on. No matter. “Piece Of Clay” is there to be judged on its own extraordinary merits, 45 years later.
Some things in life just won’t be explained.