Friday, February 09, 2007

"What Good Am I Without You" / Marvin Gaye & Kim Weston


In April 1984, when I heard Marvin Gaye had been shot by his father in the heat of an argument, I bet I hadn't thought about him for seven or eight years. But as soon as I began to, I realized I had to mourn at least three different Marvin Gayes. "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" is in some ways THE classic Motown track; his jazz-drenched 1970 hits "What's Going On" and "Mercy Mercy Me" shattered the Motown mold by actually being -- gasp! -- about something besides romantic love; then he practically invented the heavy-breathing song with "Let's Get It On" and "Sexual Healing," blatantly sexual tracks that mortified the teenage me when they first came out. (And now, of course, I love them...)

But the thing about Marvin Gaye I never focused on until recently was that so many of his hits were duets. Gaye was Berry Gordy's brother-in-law (talk about convenient), and I'm guessing that when his first few solo singles failed to chart, Berry looked for a way to hoist brother-in-law Marvin to bigger success. The solution? An album of duets with Motown's reigning girl star Mary Wells. Gaye's silky voice blended incredibly well with female vocals, and considering that he had come up through doo-wop, harmonizing was no doubt second nature to him.

Eventually he'd pair up, to enormous success, with Tammi Terrell and even cut a few tracks with Diana Ross, when she was the queen of Motown. (It's nice to be the girlfriend of the king.) In the mid-60s, though, Marvin Gaye's partner was Kim Weston, a Motown regular who never really got the success she deserved. Even stacked up against chart-topping Marvin&Tammi duets like "Precious Love" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," I'd have to say my favorite Marvin Gaye duet is this laid-back syncopated number with Kim.

The honky-tonk piano plinking away behind the vocals gives it a touch of roadhouse sloppiness that draws me in right away; I can almost picture a tiny bare stage with two singers leaning into the same microphone stand to blend their voices on those jazzy wo-oh-ohs. The horn section, the back-up ooohs, the drumming, are all kept back in the mix so you can focus on the voices, both Weston and Gaye playing with notes and rhythm as if they are actually live singers and not studio-polished automatons.

Duets only work when the two singers are in the same groove, and I really feel like Kim and Marvin are both having exactly the same amount of fun here, getting a kick out of each other's stylizings. Like many Motown lyrics, this one picks a single concept and runs it through several variations -- in this case objects that need something else to complete them (sounds like a category from The $25,000 Pyramid, doesn't it?). "What good is a telephone if there's no one to call?" "What good is a wedding if no one says 'I do?'" "What good is a doctor if he can't cure the pain?" "What good is the heavens without the stars above?" et cetera et cetera.

Kim takes the first verse, Marvin takes the second, and they do a call-and-answer on the third verse, but at the end of every verse, on the line "What good am I baby, without you" they get to improvise for a measure or two, and man, what they do with it makes this song sizzle -- Marvin pulls a gritty edge into his voice, and Kim drops down a chromatic scale that's so languid and elegant, it's like she's channeling Ella Fitzgerald.
This is one of those songs where finger-snapping is more or less compulsory (Marvin Gaye was also a drummer, after all).

I loved Marvin Gaye the social activist and Marvin Gaye the heavy-breather, but this other Marvin, the swinging jazz singer, may be my favorite Marvin of all. And now I'm curious to dig up some more Kim Weston numbers, too. Marvin I always knew about...but Kim...

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