Discog Fever - Rating and Reviewing Every Marvin Gaye Album (Part 1)

by Jeff Fiedler

Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.

The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye (1961, Tamla)

C

The late great Marvin Gaye’s full-length debut doesn’t really even begin to hint at his talents, but the same can be said for the debut albums for just about any of Motown’s biggest stars during the ‘60s, and it took a long time for Motown to really discover the art of the album, most of their album releases during the early and middle part of the decade alternating between pop releases with one or two singles and a whole lot of obvious filler and concept discs, usually centered around show tunes or covers by one particular act, that seemed more like novelty product than artistic statements. This record is no different, largely – though not entirely – being comprised of standards like Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale,” Irving Berlin’s “Always,” and Rodgers and Hart’s “My Funny Valentine.” It’s obvious from listening to these recordings that this is a vocalist with some serious potential, but he wouldn’t have gone on to be a legend if he had kept to this path on later records, and though he turns in a solid performance, the album lacks the grit and the personality of the soul sides that would soon make him a superstar. 

That Stubborn Kind of Fella (1963, Tamla)

A –

It’s a bit of a shame that The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye even exists, because not only is it completely atypical of nearly all his later work, but if this had been Gaye’s actual first album, That Stubborn Kind of Fella could have been conceivably been looked upon by critics today as being one of the strongest debut albums of the early ‘60s. One of the best full-lengths that the Motown factory released during the pre-British-Invasion era, this disc boasts many a Gaye classic, including the muscular beats of “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” the dancefloor favorite “Hitch Hike” (his very first Top 40 hit), the gospel-tinged “Pride and Joy” (Gaye’s first Top Ten), and the soulful “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home),” which would later become a massive U.K. hit for Paul Young in the ‘80s. Gaye’s also backed by a great supporting cast that not only includes the legendary Funk Brothers rhythm section but one of Motown’s greatest girl groups, Martha and the Vandellas, on backing vocals. 

When I’m Alone I Cry (1964, Tamla)

C

Sadly reverting to the largely standards-oriented format of his debut disc, Gaye is once again trying his hand at being more of a jazz vocalist or nightclub singer than the gifted contemporary soul crooner he revealed himself to be on his sophomore outing. It’s moderately appealing when the tempos pick up and Gaye gets to swing a little, but even those cuts pale wildly next to standouts from the previous disc like “Hitch Hike” and “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.”

Hello, Broadway (1964)

D    

An even worse idea than the jazz standards-oriented format of The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye and When I’m Alone I Cry, which at least were moderately appealing, even if they didn’t exactly play to Gaye’s strengths, either, Hello, Broadway! actually goes an even more uncommercial route and finds Gaye doing a whole disc of show tunes – not just any show tunes, but overly ubiquitous show tunes, at that, such as “Hello, Dolly!,” Funny Girl’s “People” (yes, the same song that became Barbra Streisand’s signature tune), “On the Street Where You Live,” and “The Days of Wine and Roses.” Gaye does the best job he can, but the concept is just so bad that it’s hard not to cringe as you’re listening to the disc.

Together (1964, Motown)

C

A disc that should be much better than it actually is, this album finds Motown teaming Gaye up with another of its biggest stars, Mary Wells (“My Guy,” “Two Lovers,” “You Beat Me to the Punch”) for a full-length duets affair. The problem is that the disc largely sticks to the standards-and-show-tunes-heavy format of most of Gaye’s early albums, including songs like “(I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons,” and the album consequently isn’t nearly as soulful as you would hope it to be, and Mary Wells doesn’t sound nearly as excited about this material as Gaye does. The best moments are those that stick closer to the pair’s strengths, like “Once Upon a Time” and “What’s the Matter with You Baby,” both minor Top 40 hits co-penned by Motown in-house writers Mickey Stevenson and Clarence Paul.

How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You (1965, Tamla)

A –

Easily Gaye’s finest album since That Stubborn Kind of Fella, Gaye’s back in contemporary-R&B mode here, thankfully, and the disc gets off to a breathtakingly fantastic start with four hits in a row: the relentless stomp of “You’re a Wonderful One”; the breezy soul of the Top Ten smash and timeless Motown classic “How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved by You)” (which James Taylor would also score a Top Ten hit with ten years later); the bluesy ballad “Try It Baby”; and the criminally underrated “Baby Don’t You Do It” (which The Band would revive in the early ‘70s as “Don’t Do It” and have a rare Top 40 hit of their own with.) Naturally, those first four songs are such standouts that the remainder of the album can’t help but seem a bit anticlimactic, but nothing here is bad, either, and an all-star crop of some of Motown’s biggest groups – including The Supremes, The Miracles, The Temptations, Martha and the Vandellas, and The Spinners – all take turns serving as Gaye’s backing vocalists, which makes this one very fun disc indeed.

A Tribute to the Great Nat “King” Cole (1965, Tamla)

B –

Gaye delves once more back into the standards well, but this time with a greater focus, paying homage to one of his biggest heroes. It’s still not nearly as good as his contemporary R&B fare, but it’s still light years better than Hello, Broadway!, and Gaye seems so invested in the material that you can’t help but be charmed by the effort, and this ends up being the most enjoyable of his many early standards-styled outings. It’s inessential, but it’s more appealing than you would think.

Moods of Marvin Gaye (1966, Tamla)

A

Arguably Gaye’s best full-length yet, this studio outing also boasts the most hits of any Gaye album released up to this point. The Top Ten hits “I’ll Be Doggone” (featuring The Miracles on backing vocals) and, even better, the finger-snapping enduring dancefloor classic “Ain’t That Peciliar,” are both here, as are the Top 40 hits “Your Unchanging Love” and “One More Heartache” and two additional singles that just barely missed the Top 40, “Take This Heart of Mine” and “Little Darling (I Need You),” the latter of which stopped just outside the Top 40 a second time after the Doobie Brothers covered it in 1977 for their album Livin’ on the Fault Line.  The disc also sports a song co-written by Stevie Wonder and a surprisingly good cover of Willie Nelson’s “Night Life.” Gaye does delve back into the standards well at the very end of the disc for two numbers, but they blend in a bit better than you might think, and “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road)” is actually a fitting way to end the disc, even if it’s not exactly contemporary R&B.