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Six definitive songs: The ultimate beginner's guide to Marvin Gaye

If you spend the majority of your musical minutes languishing in the soaring joy of pop music that dominated the sixties and seventies, then chances are the name of Marvin Gaye is one that glistens more brightly than any other. If, however, you need an introduction to the smooth and soulful tones of Gaye, one of the greatest voices of all time, we have that covered.

While the golden age of pop music, when the genre was held with the same regard as operatic epics, is long since gone, there’s no reason we can’t all live vicariously through the memories. We are doing our bit to help educate our readers on some of the genre’s greatest ever artists and, perhaps most importantly, their foundational moments in the world of music. While some of these acts are rightly known as icons, we’re a little concerned that they will remain just that—icons. For us, the real pleasure of such stars is the art they created, so we are handing out a crash course in some of music’s finest, this time we’re bringing you the six definitive songs of Marvin Gaye.

To try and reduce the wondrous talent of an icon like Marvin Gaye to just six songs is a near-impossible task. Marvin Gaye was, ultimately, the voice of a generation. Like Bob Dylan before him, Gaye had managed to cultivate a series of authentic releases that positioned him as a booming vocal presence of the streets. Gaye helped create Motown in the sixties and became an icon for his unique voice and unwavering eye.

A singer, songwriter and famed producer, Gaye’s hits include the landmark singles ‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)’ and the classic ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, but that is just scratching the surface. Arguably the man behind the greatest album of all time in What’s Going On, Gaye’s potential was only beginning to realise itself before he was tragically gunned down by his own father.

While the story of his death has found its place within storybooks, the real history of Gaye can be found in his music. Below, we’re bringing you the abridged version of events as we share six songs that define the iconic Marvin Gaye.

Six definitive songs of Marvin Gaye:

‘Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide’ (1961)

A debut single is always something to be proud of, and with ‘Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide’, it was plain to see how Marvin Gaye was set to be marketed — he was a soul boy soon to be a gospel man. The song appeared on The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye but failed to gather much interest.

In fact, both releases failed to make any real headway for the singer. Instead, he made his cash by performing as a session drummer for artists such as The Marvelettes and The Miracles. However, if you listen closely, the markings of who and what Marvin Gaye would become are there for all to hear.

‘How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)’ (1964)

For the 25-year-old Marvin Gaye, this 1964 track proved to be one of his greatest releases and a song that later went on to be covered by an incredible array of artists including, quite unexpectedly, The Grateful Dead.

It was the toast of the Motown scene and became a long-standing pinnacle of the genre and beyond. Gaye playfully toys with the song’s sensibilities, both charming and smooth; it typified Gaye’s appeal as the sweet boy who could show you a night to remember.

It would be a style he would soon outgrow, adopting a more righteous and worthy standpoint. But, for now, the musings of a sweet young man, were just the ticket to get his career moving in the right direction.

‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ (1967)

There’s no doubt that Gaye would become an icon of music in his own right. However, there is equally no doubt that he would never have achieved such a feat if it wasn’t for some sparkling duets. Firstly with the stellar talents of Mary Wells and Kim Weston but perhaps most notably with Tammi Terrell and their version of ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’.

Gaye and Terrell shared an incredibly prosperous period with one another. Between 1967 and 1969 the duo released three different albums and a whole host of successful singles. But this one will be remembered forever.

Terrell sadly passed away from a brain tumour shortly before her 25th birthday in 1970, ending their relationship. Prior to that, the platonic duo were inseparable and balanced their differing styles to a tee. On this landmark single, Terrell and Gaye playfully flirt and romance one another through song, never allowing the passion or fun of the piece be forgotten.

‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ (1968)

A classic Motown number, the song went on to become the label’s biggest hit when sung by Gladys Knight and the Pips. But when Gaye’s rendition of the song was heard and the pure bombastic beauty of his vocal allowed to flourish, it was clear the track needed to be released once more under Gaye’s guidance.

It became the singer’s first US number one and marked hum out as a star of the future. Gaye’s vision of the classic song is poignant and powerful. His version of the song is far darker, far more paranoid and relies on the duality of Gaye’s character to sell it.

Audiences across the country connected with Gaye’s version of the song. Despite being initially rejected by Gordy as a Motown single, the song soon surpassed Knight’s release and became the label’s biggest seller. It was such a ginormous release that eventually, Gaye’s 1968 album In the Groove was reissued with the new title of I Heard it Through The Grapevine.

‘What’s Going On’ (1971)

The first album Marvin Gaye produced on his own would yield arguably one of the greatest records ever released. What’s Going On will forever go down as a golden ticket to some of the smoothest and most soulful jams around. As a defining moment on the album, the title track works as the perfect introduction to Gaye’s seminal LP.

While the song works perfectly as a distillation of its mother record, the real reason for its inclusion in our list is that it typifies Gaye’s spirit. The song was originally shunned by Motown boss Berry Gordy who labelled it the “worst song” he’d ever heard. Conceived by Al Cleveland, Gaye saw the potential in the track and adopted the initial concept. He manipulated the lyrics and melody, introducing his own experiences into the potent structure.

The concept of the entire album saw Gaye draw on the experiences his brother Frankie had suffered during the Vietnam war and on this song he lets that notion shine brightly. There are countless songs on the album that could have had a spot on our list, so we’ll just suggest you play the whole thing.

‘My Last Chance’ (1990)

Released some years after his death and nearly 20 years after the singer initially laid down the track, ‘My Last Chance’ was originally recorded for What’s Going On. It began life as a demo instrumental before Gaye added some vocals a few years later, with the track eventually appearing on the 1973 album by The Miracles, Renaissance.

The song would find new life in 1990 after it was released by the Motown label as a newly modernised R’n’B track. The newly mixed effort ended up gaining Gaye his first posthumous charting single in five years and confirmed that his unique vocal tone was as timeless and we had all suspected.