by Jeff Fiedler
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
Take Two (1966, Tamla)
Gaye’s second duets album, this time teaming him up with Kim Weston, is both much more contemporary-R&B-oriented (though they do still sneak some standards in – in this case, “’Til There Was You” and “Secret Love”) and stronger overall than the Mary Wells duets disc Together is, and Weston turns out to be a more fitting duets partner for Marvin. There aren’t many recognizable songs here, but the songs – mostly penned by Motown in-house writers, “I Want You ‘Round” even co-written by the great Smokey Robinson – aren’t bad at all, and the disc does contain one enduring Motown classic in the duet “It Takes Two,” which climbed all the way to #14.
United (1967, Tamla)
Gaye’s third duets disc finds him paired for the first time with both his best and longest-lasting duets partner, Tammi Terrell, and hearing the two harmonize together is an absolute joy. The closest thing to a standard here is Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s “Somethin’ Stupid,” which was actually quite contemporary at the time, so the album coheres a bit better than either of his previous duets albums. The whole disc is appealing, but there are four particular standouts, Gaye’s self-penned “If This World Were Mine” and, even better, three Twenty hits: the now-iconic sunny pop of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” the shuffling Top Ten hit “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” and, best of all, the Top Five smash “Your Precious Love,” which is still arguably the prettiest duet in the entire Motown catalog. This isn’t just his best duets disc with Terrell – this is his best duets album, period.
In the Groove (1968, Tamla; reissued by Tamla in 1969 with new artwork as I Heard It Through the Grapevine)
This album boasts Gaye’s biggest hit of all, the bona fide Motown classic “I Heard It through the Grapevine,” which sat at the top of the charts for seven weeks, and for good reason: it’s one of the most hypnotic productions to come out of Motown during the ‘60s, its ominous intro setting the mood right from the get-go and adding layer by layer until Marvin finally enters the mix. It’s radically different from Gladys Knight & the Pips’ feisty and significantly faster interpretation, but while this haunting take on the song might not seem nearly as obvious a dance-floor filler as Gladys’ original, the arrangement here actually fits the lyric of the song better, and it’s little wonder that Gaye’s rendition stands as the definitive version of the tune. Unfortunately, the song’s parent album isn’t nearly as strong or as cohesive as you might hope, and though are some other noteworthy tunes here, namely the minor Top 40 hits “You” and “Chained,” there’s also just a tad too much filler and there are two tracks in particular – “There Goes My Baby” and “Some Kind of Wonderful,” both Drifters covers (interestingly, both cuts also feature Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent, both later to become two-thirds of Tony Orlando & Dawn, on backing vocals) – that don’t really fit in here at all.
You’re All I Need (1968, Tamla)
Only ever so slightly inferior to United, this is another rock-solid duets disc from Gaye and Terrell. The up-and-coming songwriting team of Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson (who had been responsible for penning “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Your Precious Love” and who would go on to become one of the hottest R&B duos of the ‘70s and ‘80s, scoring a massive crossover hit in 1985 with “Solid”) pen four of the cuts here, while Johnny Bristol (who had co-written “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You” and would briefly become a solo star himself in the early ‘70s with “Hang on in There Baby”) also returns to co-write seven tunes, one of which (“When Love Comes Knocking at Your Heart”) is also co-penned by Motown star Gladys Knight. There are no notably weak moments, and the disc packs a fantastic opening one-two-three punch with the Top Ten hit “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” (which boasts some of the pair’s prettiest harmony work), the #24-peaking “Keep on Lovin’ Me Honey,” and the Top Ten ballad “You’re All I Need to Get By,” all three penned by Ashford & Simpson.
M.P.G. (1969, Tamla)
Ever-so-slightly better than In the Groove, this may not boast any single quite as massive as “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” but the album overall is a bit more cohesive, and it’s not exactly lacking in hits, either – there are three Top 40 hits here, including “The End of Our Road,” the deeply soulful Top Five classic “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” (like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” co-penned by the great Temptations songwriter/producer Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong of “Money (That’s What I Want)” fame), and a second Whitfield/Strong-penned Top Ten smash, “That’s the Way Love Is,” which was previously done by the Isley Brothers and is reinvented here as a slowed down, slightly-ominous soul number a la “Grapevine.” The surrounding album cuts are arguably better than those on In the Groove and include tracks penned by Smokey Robinson (“It’s a Bitter Pill to Swallow”) and Stevie Wonder (“Try My True Love.”) The album’s biggest flaw is simply that, like In the Groove, it inexplicably includes yet another Drifters original (in this case, “This Magic Moment”) that just doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the album, which otherwise steers clear of covers from outside the Motown family.
Easy (1969, Tamla)
Gaye’s third and final duets album with Terrell is easily the least appealing and even a bit controversial, owing to the fact that it’s long-been alleged – not in the least since Gaye made the same claim himself – that Valerie Simpson, not Terrell (who, by this point, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor and was consequently frequently out of commission), is the one actually singing the female leads. Simpson has only gone so far as to admit she was the one singing in the studio with Gaye when he recorded his own vocals but insists that Terrell was eventually brought in to replace the parts Simpson had put down. Regardless of the truth, all parties agree that Gaye and Terrell were never in the studio together during the making of this album, which definitely partly explains why this album isn’t nearly as magical as the first two. But the material isn’t as strong, either, and that’s the bigger problem. “What You Gave Me” and the minor Top 40 hit “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy to Come By” are both memorable, but few other songs here click, and “The Onion Song” is one of Ashford & Simpson’s more dubious compositions and is arguably the nadir of the music Gaye and Terrell made together.
That’s the Way Love Is (1970, Tamla)
Not a terrible album, just a very, very unnecessary one, That’s the Way Love Is takes a fabulous song – the title cut – which had already appeared on M.P.G. and, in an attempt by Motown to capitalize on the Top Ten success of the song, uses it as the centerpiece of an entirely new album that is otherwise comprised almost exclusively of covers of past ‘60s hits like the Beatles’ “Yesterday,” the Young Rascals’ “Groovin’,” the Temptations’ “I Wish It Would Rain,” and Dion’s “Abraham, Martin, and John.” An almost embarrassingly obvious cash grab on the part of Motown, Gaye’s performances are perfectly fine, but there was no reason for anything here but the title cut to have been recorded at all except to serve as filler around a hit single that many people may not have realized they already owned. With crass product like this still being issued by Motown even as the Seventies dawned, is it any wonder that artists like Gaye and Stevie Wonder fought so hard to get creative control over their own product going forward?