Marvin Gaye sang the way Fred Astaire danced — with a grace that appeared effortless. Never was this more obvious than at an impeccable concert he gave in Belgium in July of 1981.
His singing throughout is clean and sweet, agile and fleet. But listen to the words he sings in the opening number, “Got to Give It Up,” and you’ll hear something more complex. The lyrics capture a man so mired in the troubles of his mind that he becomes disassociated from his own body. He’s unable to connect either to himself or to anyone he could love. Yet, through the power of the music, something miraculous happens. After the beat takes hold and the melody of the song seizes him, he not only finds his confidence, he achieves a sense of transcendence expressed in his heavenly falsetto.
For Gaye, this wasn’t just a pantomime of transformation. It mirrored a profound change that had taken place in his own life at the time. Gaye came to Belgium five months before this show in a desperate state. Plagued by his escalating use of alcohol and drugs, as well as the pressure of a multi-million-dollar tax bill from the IRS, he sought the advice of his confidant Freddie Cousaert, who owned a hotel in the sea-side town of Ostend, Belgium. Cousaert convinced Gaye to spend an extended time at his place to dry out and, ideally, recover his muse. The move worked. Not only did the cleaned-up Gaye launch a successful comeback tour of Europe which included the Belgian date, he entered a period of writing fertile enough to spawn one of his biggest and most enduring hits, “Sexual Healing.”
At the time of the tour that rapturous piece wasn’t ready to be performed. So, Gaye anchored his repertoire on a selection of his best-known ‘70s hits, while reserving a section in the middle for a medley of some beloved ‘60s gems. The difference between the material in those eras demonstrated both the range of Gaye’s talent and the steep arc of his creative growth. The ‘60s songs, like “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” and “If This World Were Mine,” were tightly arranged and cleanly focused on formal melodies. To emphasize the beauty of their construction, Gaye delivers them here in more considered and intimate versions, progressing through them slowly while savoring every note.
Through Gaye’s emotive cries, their eroticism is elevated to the point of rapture, with a sensuality that touches the soul.
By contrast, his takes on his ‘70s songs highlight their expansiveness and ambition, qualities that helped the entire Motown sound expand into the new decade. In that spirit, Gaye lets his band elaborate the groove while, vocally, he vamps with the punchy horn section and riffs with the backup singers. The songs, some of which segue into each other, feel open and free. The messages they contain, and the way Gaye delivers them, seem just as liberating. Classics he performs, like “Let’s Get It On,” “After the Dance” and “Come Get to This,” aren’t just songs of raw sensuality. They’re anthems of connection and statements of faith. Through Gaye’s emotive cries, their eroticism is elevated to the point of rapture, with a sensuality that touches the soul.
They also engage the mind. In the show, Gaye makes sure to feature a roiling version of one of his most political songs, “Inner City Blues,” taken from his masterpiece of social observation, “What’s Going On.” Though written 50 years ago, the song couldn’t be more relevant to the age of Black Lives Matter. It’s a passionate, and at times angry, piece, yet Gaye delivers it with a cool that defines this entire show. Even under the hot lights, you see barely a bead of sweat on his brow. Given the depth of confidence he displays at the concert, no one who wasn’t aware of his backstory could have guessed the troubles Gaye battled before the tour. And, of course, not even those closest to him could have foreseen the unspeakable tragedy to come.
Eighteen months after Gaye left Belgium and returned to his life in California, he was shot to death by his father, a Pentecostal preacher with whom he had serious issues since childhood. His death came just one day before his 45th birthday. At the time, Gaye’s career was soaring. The “Midnight Love” album, which contains “Sexual Healing,” sold more than three million copies, buoyed by the single, which broke the Top Five and sold more than one million copies on its own.
That interplay, between triumph and tragedy, was far from new in Gaye’s life. They had long coexisted, with his difficult personal relationships and substance abuse on the one hand, and his artistic brilliance and commercial acclaim on the other. Much like the character in “Got to Give It Up,” Gaye faced inner demons that found their purest relief in the glory of music. How lucky that we have that glory preserved so gracefully in this show.