When Marvin Gaye first arrived in Detroit, he was a man still finding his footing in music. Having feigned mental issues to get discharged from the Army and having left his home of Washington, D.C. for Chicago, Gaye entered the halls of Motown Records with the intention of becoming a jazz singer. Label head Berry Gordy allowed Gaye to follow his initial path, but when his traditional pop debut failed to make a commercial impact, Gaye was put in the artistic doghouse.
As a result of his initial failure to kickstart a singing career, Gaye had to adapt in order to stay within the Motown system. Although his primary instrument in later years would be the piano, Motown’s house band The Funk Brothers already had a number of talented pianists who were more advanced on the instrument than Gaye was. What Motown really needed was a drummer, and sensing a way to get back in Gordy’s good graces, Gaye picked up the sticks despite having had little prior experience with the drums.
With his natural sense of rhythm, Gaye was quickly able to pick up the basics of the drums and even began to incorporate more advanced skills like drum roll and rudiments. He showed off these skills with his busy fills and atypical beats that gave songs a unique edge. Gaye knew how to hold back in order to stay in line with Gordy’s assembly line attitude, but he also was able to throw in interesting hits that gave each of his performances on the drums a different character and sound.
Gaye wouldn’t be stuck behind the kit for long. 1961 was his most prolific year on the drums, but the following year saw him be promoted to songwriting duties within the Motown system. That same year, his moratorium on releasing solo singles was lifted, followed swiftly by a cover of the pop standard ‘Mr. Sandman’ and the doo-wop track ‘Soldier’s Plea’. But it was his third single of 1962, ‘Stubborn Kind of Fool’, that gave Gaye enough success to allow him to focus on singing full time. Soon, Gaye would find his niche singing duets with the likes of Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and Tammi Terrell.
Although Motown’s records on which Funk Brothers played which songs were notoriously haphazard, there are a few verifiable cases of Gaye playing the drums. Some of those songs were hidden gems, and some of them were major hits for Motown. We’re picking out five of Gaye’s most memorable drum performances during his time in the Funk Brothers to highlight how Marvin Gaye was much more than just a revolutionary singer.
Here are some of Gaye’s most memorable drum performances…
Five Motown songs featuring Marvin Gaye on drums:
The Marvelettes – ‘Please Mr. Postman’
If you want the clearest distillation of Gaye’s remarkable skills on the drums, just listen to The Marvelettes’ all-time classic Motown hit ‘Please Mr. Postman’. Despite being relatively new to the instrument, Gaye unleashes a flurry of fills that were some of the busiest and most inventive drum patterns ever laid down on a Motown record.
Featuring snare rolls, tom-tom fills, and propulsive rhythms, ‘Please Mr. Postman’ would become such an iconic addition to the Motown collection that cover versions from the likes of The Beatles and the Carpenters followed. It was also Gaye’s first number one song, setting a precedent for Gaye’s future pop chart success.
Stevie Wonder – ‘Fingertips’
Another number one hit for Gaye pre-fame, ‘Fingertips’ represents a rare post-1961 outing for Gaye behind the drum kit. It was to help shepherd a brand new up-and-coming talent in the Motown system, a blind 12-year-old by the name of ‘Little’ Stevie Wonder.
Gaye played on both the studio version and the live version of the track that eventually topped the charts in the US. Wonder recorded the live version as part of Motown’s travelling package tour, on which Gaye was a lowly supporting act who still had to play in the band in order to justify being included in the revue.
The Marvelettes – ‘Beechwood 4-5789’
Gaye’s connection with The Marvelettes extended beyond his initial drumming duties. Having impressed Gordy with his musicianship, Gaye was soon promoted to songwriting duties within the Motown machine. Gaye was also let out of the doghouse in 1962, recording the first songs under his own name in over a year.
One of Gaye’s first compositions was ‘Beechwood 4-5789’, a modest hit for The Marvelettes that he also took arranging duties on. In order to direct the band, Gaye stepped back behind the drum kit to lead the recording session, building up his confidence as a leader in the studio.
Martha and the Vandellas – ‘Dancing in the Street’
Representing one of Motown’s most iconic compositions, Gaye co-wrote ‘Dancing in the Street’ with two of Motown’s other in-house songwriters, William ‘Mickey’ Stevenson and Ivy Jo Hunter. Eventually landing in the hands of receptionist Martha Reeves, the song helped popularise Motown in the mainstream.
Despite having recorded his own hit singles by this point, Gaye once again took on a leadership role in the studio during the recording, to the increasing consternation of Gordy. Stepping back behind the kit for the first time in nearly two years, Gaye is one of two drummers who bring the song’s infectious rhythms to life, with the other being percussionist Jack Ashford.
The Originals – ‘Baby, I’m For Real’
By 1969, Gaye had landed his first solo number one hit with ‘I Heard It Thorugh the Grapevine’. Now fully resigned from his prior duties as a studio musician, Gaye had enough pull to begin asserting his independence from Gordy, looking to make his music more political and personal.
Gaye used his former backing singer The Originals as a bargaining chip, asserting that he could write hits for them that would allow him to control his own output. Gaye fulfilled his promise with ‘Baby, I’m For Real’, which represented the final time that Gaye stepped behind the drum kit on another artist’s music.