'You Gave Me a Monster'
ED TOWNSEND’S WORK KEEPS GETTIN’ IT ON
“Aside from his impressive talent,” declared the late Ed Townsend, once upon a time, “the most co-operative, humble, punctual, professional and loving artist I’ve ever recorded was Marvin Gaye, contrary to popular belief!”
Townsend could make the claim with truth. He had worked with scores of performers in his long, distinguished career as a singer, songwriter, record producer – and he was the man who helped to create the milestone in Marvin’s life that was Let’s Get It On.
Ten years apart in age, but both born under Aries, these two spent time in each other’s company, “sometimes late at night, sitting alone in the studio, riding in a car, or walking in the wide open deserts of Arizona, where he and I ventured on a couple of occasions.”
Townsend painted this picture in liner notes for A Musical Testament 1964-1984, a compilation album which included two songs he co-wrote with Gaye, and the first official release of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Marvin’s tour de force from the NBA All-Star Game in 1983, long before that became a must-see on YouTube.
And now “Let’s Get It On,” the song, is back in the news, the result of yet another copyright infringement lawsuit against Ed Sheeran. The specifics of that you can find elsewhere; this is about the making of the music and those who were involved, particularly Townsend. He died intestate in August 2003, when royalty rights to his work – which earned hundreds of thousands of dollars annually – passed to members of his family. In 2004, one of his sons, Michael, sold and assigned his interest in the estate to Structured Asset Sales, the litigator in this latest action.
When vinyl ruled the music business, it was the entire first side of Let’s Get It On, the album, which showcased Townsend’s collaboration with Gaye. There were four songs written and produced by the pair, and arranged by René Hall: “Let’s Get It On,” “Please Stay (Once You Go Away),” “If I Should Die Tonight,” and “Keep Gettin’ It On.” They were recorded at Motown’s Los Angeles studios between March and July of 1973; the album was released in August.
LOVE, FOOLISH AND OTHERWISE
The two had not previously collaborated. “I had known Marvin for a long time,” Townsend told me in 1991, “and I came out here [to Los Angeles] for another project, and someone had told me that he had asked about me.” The Tennessean had more than enough credits to merit the enquiry. His first hit as a singer, 1958’s self-penned “For Your Love,” was later cut by the Righteous Brothers and Peaches & Herb, among others. For Theola Kilgore, he authored “The Love Of My Man,” a sacred piece of soul music. At Scepter Records, he A&R’ed the Shirelles, Maxine Brown, Tommy Hunt and Chuck Jackson (more about this can be located in Steve Guarnori’s commendable Scepter Wand Forever! book). At Mercury Records, Townsend wrote and produced Dee Dee Warwick’s “Foolish Fool,” capable on its own of felling trees and toppling towers.
Invited to Gaye’s Los Angeles apartment in late 1972 or early ’73, Townsend sat at a piano and played material which, once completed, became side one of the Motown star’s second most-celebrated album. “I wrote ‘Let’s Get It On’ at an alcoholic rehabilitation centre in upstate New York,” he recalled. “I had worked to build one, up near Monticello, and while doing that project, I wrote the tune about the business of life. You know, ‘Life is life, and let’s get on with it.’”
But first, the deal. “Marvin said to me, ‘I will record [the songs] if you produce them.’ I said, ‘I’ll produce them, provided you get up now and call Berry, and tell him that you want me to.’” Contract talks began. “We had a few problems getting what I wanted,” said Townsend, “because I wanted to own part of the publishing. It took me a while to negotiate that.” Eventually, he gained 50% of the rights for his own Cherritown Music. “That was very unusual for Jobete to do that, for Berry to do that, especially with a major artist.”
Townsend’s choice for arranger, René Hall, was a man with his own medals, most notably for recordings made with Sam Cooke, including “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Hall and Townsend had known each other “for about seventeen years,” said the producer. “I would put the arrangements down on tape, and [René] would put them on paper. He was the technician in the group.”
Theirs was the choice of musicians for the Gaye sessions, too. “That was always between [René] and I.” The players included the best in the west: Joe Sample, Wilton Felder, Ernie Watts, Bobbye Hall Porter, Art Wright, Don Peake, Louie Shelton, David T. Walker, Paul Humphrey and more, with Gaye himself on piano. On background vocals? “Marvin, myself, some overdubbing, and a couple of other people who might have been in the studio at the time. We just called them over and did it,” said Townsend. “That was just sort of extemporaneous.
“I had a wonderful time working with Marvin. He was prompt, on time, never interfered, did exactly what I asked him to do, and at the end of the session, he said to me, ‘I bet I’m the most co-operative artist you ever had.’ He certainly was. And as a result of that, I gave him part of the tunes.”
As noted in The Billboard Book Of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits, Gaye layered his lead and background vocals, even though Townsend made fun of the singer’s fondness for studio tricks. “I came along during that era when you didn’t have a lot of overdubbing. You started with two tracks, then four tracks, and when you went in, you had to cut the mustard."
CUTTING THE MUSTARD, SHIRTLESS
“I stopped him one day, stopped the session, and said, ‘Marvin, I understand why you don’t go on tour, because you can’t take this studio with you and stop and overdub at Madison Square Garden. You have to start at the beginning and go to the end.’
“That pissed him off really bad, you know, and he took off his shirt, went and got on the microphone and sang ‘Let’s Get It On’ for ten minutes. When he was finished, he put his shirt back on and said, ‘Now what do you think?’ And it came out wonderful.”
Townsend knew record buyers would agree. “I had no doubt about it. I took it to [Ewart] Abner, who was president of Motown Records at that time, gave him the tapes and went to the airport, told him to call me when it was Number One. And two weeks later, it was selling so fast that Marvin called me and said, ‘Jesus Christ, you gave me a monster.’ It was selling 260,000 a day. And that’s the story.”
Sure, the story also included Gaye’s introduction, at one of the 1973 recording dates, to the young woman who would become his second wife, Jan Hunter, as well as controversy over the lyrics of “Let’s Get It On.” About the latter, Townsend was unconcerned. “Most English has a double meaning,” he said during our conversation. “Marvin could sing the national anthem, and it would turn out sexy.” The nine million people (and then some) who have since watched him electrify “The Star-Spangled Banner” on YouTube would surely agree.
Music notes: the deluxe edition of Let’s Get It On is available for streaming and downloading, with demos from the Townsend sessions and more. Among these is Marvin’s remarkable, pre-Hunter take of the album’s title track. (When this edition was first issued on compact disc in 2001, it was accompanied by detailed, insightful liner notes by the late Ben Edmonds, an authority on Gaye.) You can also find other ET masterpieces on digital outlets, including “The Love Of My Man” and – complete with the tempestuous drumming of Bernard Purdie – “Foolish Fool.” Townsend’s legacy is preserved, and still earning.