Skateboarding with Marvin
AN ASSIGNMENT FOR ‘THIS MYSTERIOUS THING’
It wasn’t the first Motown LP to sport a cover photo taken at somebody’s home. (That was 1963’s Christmas With The Miracles, with the group gathered around a fireplace in the house of company vice president Barney Ales.)
Nor was it Motown’s first LP in a gatefold sleeve. (That was The Great March to Freedom, featuring the oration of Rev. Martin Luther King, also from 1963.)
And it shared the distinction of being the first Motown album to reveal the names of all the musicians playing behind the singer. (The other? Valerie Simpson’s Exposed, released on the same date in 1971.)
Yet Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On occupies a unique place in Hitsville history, and in the annals of 20th century popular music. There’s no second-guessing that. And when the 48th anniversary of the album’s release falls due next Tuesday, May 21, it will probably generate even more love and attention.
For a change, though, let’s consider the imagery of Tamla 310, and the labours of at least three Motown footsoldiers who were involved with that: photographer Jim Hendin, art director Curtis McNair, and advertising director Tom Schlesinger.
Actually, Hendin’s iconic portrait of Gaye on the front cover of What’s Going On has been earning fresh attention since last December, when it was emblazoned onto hip clothing – and even a skateboard – by youth culture brand Supreme. Marvin would surely have thought it cool that youngsters today can wear a Tee (albeit one priced at $225) featuring his face, or zip around on a skate deck bearing the same image.
Jim Hendin began his commercial photography career in the early 1960s, and after opening his own studio in Detroit in ’67, he pitched for Motown’s business. The first assignment – he called it his “rite of passage” – appears to have been the shoot for Martha Reeves & the Vandellas’ Sugar n’ Spice album, released in September 1969. The cover credit: “Photography by Hendin.”
He was an independent contractor during his Motown years, capturing Stevie Wonder, Edwin Starr, Kiki Dee, Stoney & Meatloaf, Blinky, Rare Earth, the Originals, the Jackson 5 and others on film before What’s Going On. He and McNair were responsible for Wonder’s Signed Sealed & Delivered LP artwork, while Schlesinger and McNair were credited with creating the musician’s Where I’m Coming From package. The latter, released five weeks ahead of What’s Going On, featured a gatefold sleeve complete with “Wonder mobile,” whereby the letters of his surname could be pushed out of the cover and made into a hanging mobile.
“Get some string and ‘do your thing,’” the artwork advised, in contrast to the seriousness of some of the songs. Like Gaye, the 20-year-old Wonder was viewing the world with concern: “Isolated junk yard/Letting out the garbage/Eating through the core of life,” he sang on “Do Yourself A Favor.” On “I Wanna Talk To You,” he declared, “You can’t tell me nothin’ white man/Try to understand yourself.” The back cover of Where I’m Coming From offered the lyrics of all the songs, like What’s Going On, but no musicians were listed, only arrangers.
When Motown assigned Hendin to photograph Gaye for his new album – most likely in March of 1971, as the single, “What’s Going On,” was approaching the Billboard Top 10 – he went to the singer’s home on Outer Drive, Detroit. “He was on a strict timetable,” the photographer told the late Ben Edmonds for his fine book, What’s Going On. “It was just this mysterious thing he was working on. It took some coaxing to get him to even do a photo shoot.” Yet when Hendin arrived, Gaye “couldn’t have been more co-operative.
“The session took place over a couple of days. We shot inside the house with Marvin at his piano. Then I shot him outside playing basketball with his buddies, and jogging around the neighbourhood.” Hendin remembered the cover shots as the last ones taken. “Marvin went out into his backyard, and as I clicked away, it began to snow. The drizzle added everything to the shots. Luck, or something stronger, was with us that day.”
Gaye’s earnest facial expression and his rain-soaked trenchcoat (with collar upturned) lent gravitas to the album sleeve, while the rear-cover portrait placed him, frowning, in that backyard. That he was standing near children’s bicycles and a kiddie slide was unknown until a Hendin outtake surfaced later.
Inside the gatefold, below the album’s lyrics and alongside the roll-call of the Motown musicians, were credits for Hendin, McNair and Schlesinger, plus a montage of pictures from “The Gaye and Gordy Family Archives.”
For his part, McNair later claimed that the now-storied cover photograph almost didn’t make it. “I looked over the slides that came back from Jim Hendin’s photo session,” he told Edmonds, “and selected the one that I thought would make the best cover. But my supervisor Tom Schlesinger didn’t like it. Hendin had gone for a somewhat low-angle shot, and he thought it showed too much of Marvin’s nostrils or something ridiculous like that.” McNair’s next move, he said, was to point out that Gaye was in the Motown building – its downtown headquarters on Woodward Avenue – that very day, and could make the decision personally. He did, opting for the image that’s now forever part of What’s Going On folklore.
Schlesinger’s own recall of that situation remains unknown: he died in 1982 and, as far as I know, never challenged McNair in public. McNair gave other interviews a decade ago, when an exhibit of his oil paintings, commercial graphic art and album covers was staged in Wadesboro, North Carolina, near where he lived. On that occasion, the former Motown art director talked of taking pictures himself of Gaye recording What’s Going On.
“Marvin had half the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in the studio,” McNair told Mark Price of the Associated Press, “with all these jazz musicians, and he was directing them all, yet he could not read music.” At least one of those photographs has since surfaced, showing Gaye with the orchestra players – and it must have been cold, because everyone in shot appears to be wearing coats.
Both McNair and Hendin continued to work for Motown after What’s Going On, and the photographer fondly remembered his time with the firm in a blog post on his website, where pictures from those days are available as prints for sale. He also recalled various sessions in his own, small Detroit studio, including one involving the Supremes and the Four Tops, “complete with cowboy chaps, hats, holsters and saddles.”
Motown separated itself from many in Detroit by moving west in 1972; Hendin, McNair and Schlesinger were among them. Moreover, its biggest stars – Gaye, Wonder, Diana Ross, Smokey Robinson – increasingly called the shots for the visual imagery of their albums, and their careers. Still, it’s remarkable that photographs taken almost 50 years ago, during a sleet-driven day on Outer Drive, still have currency today, with the music.
“Are they still gettin’ down where we used to go and dance/Will our ball club win the pennant, do you think they have a chance?”
Photo notes: over the past quarter-century, the physical reissues of What’s Going On have provided another showcase for Jim Hendin’s evocative photos, including some not seen in 1971. That picture of Gaye next to children’s bikes, for example, appeared in colour with the luxurious vinyl edition in 2011. A shot of the singer running in the Michigan snow was in the booklet accompanying the 2001 CD reissue, while Curtis McNair’s photograph of coat-clad Detroit Symphony members with Gaye was included with the 1994 re-release on compact disc. Meanwhile, the newly-released “lost” Marvin album, You’re The Man, boasts a splendid cover shot of the singer taken by Hendin’s successor at Motown, Jim Britt.