Distant Lover: Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On at 50

Honoring a master class in sensuality

Promo poster for the “Let’s Get It On” single (Image: eBay)

What do you do when you’ve released the most acclaimed album of your career, bucking the owner of your label to look at issues affecting society and the world?

Well, for Marvin Gaye, the decision eventually, was to retreat from the world at large to the bedroom.

Let’s Get It On, released 50 years ago today, marked Gaye’s plunge into an interest in all things sensual.

Technically, it wasn’t the follow-up to 1971’s What’s Going On. But the 1972 soundtrack to Trouble Man only contained one song with full vocals (“Trouble Man” itself). It was, in spirit, a companion piece of sorts to What’s Going On, put together with more care than blaxploitation films would later be given.

But the next proper Marvin Gaye studio release would be a different matter altogether.

Gaye’s father, Marvin Sr., had grown up in an abusive household and was unable to break the cycle when he became a father. A Pentecostal minister with warped views on sex and parental love (giving beatings for wrong answers on Bible questions, for one), he was not the best role model, to put it lightly.

His first marriage, to Anna Gordy, was dysfunctional, to put it mildly. By the early ’70s, that relationship was on rocky ground. Gaye was 17 years younger than his wife, but he would reverse roles in his next relationship, the one that certainly informed where he’d go on Let’s Get It On.

Producer Ed Townsend brought backing singer Janis Hunter by the studio during sessions for the album. Gaye was 16 years older than her, but they hit it off immediately.

The two began an affair that would eventually lead to marriage and two children. But eventually Gaye showed more fidelity to cocaine than Jan, which led to paranoia (and she wasn’t avoiding the powder, either). Neither were faithful to each other.

But that was in the future. Gaye was already on his way to an album concerned with the heart and the erogenous zones located below. Lust was already in the air.

This was the period when Al Green was on a roll with his Memphis Soul, precisely played and teeming with sensuality. It was the year when Barry White would bring in the strings, soundtracking many a passionate night in front of the (real or metaphorical) fire. Al Wilson’s Show and Tell, whose romantic title track is one of the unsung one-hit wonders, was also released that month.

Marvin Gaye Let’s Get It On, Tamla/Motown 1973

A look at the singles charts the week “Let’s Get It On” hit the Billboard Hot 100 as the advance single shows Bloodstone feeling a natural high, Diana Ross asking to be touched in the morning, Green saying he was here to be taken, White assuring that he was going to love you just a little bit more and Johnnie Taylor making devotion sexy in “I Believe In You (You Believe in Me).”

Hell, even Charlie Rich, when he was singing about what goes on “Behind Closed Doors” was not referring to how he got his hair to look like that.

And what a calling card that opening single was. Originally intended by co-writer Ed Townsend, who’d come out of rehab for alcoholism, to be about getting free of substances, infused with spirituality. 

But somewhere along the line, Gaye and Townsend rewrote the lyrics, turning it into an unabashed paean to loving sex or sexual love.

There’s the languidly funky guitar, all the way through it, anchoring the backing that straddles the line between nightclub soul and backroom groove. Gaye’s voice overflowed with passion, arguably his best vocal take to that point. He improvised on the choruses, at Townsend’s suggestion, giving it an even looser, real feel.

It became Motown’s biggest selling single ever at the time, topping the soul charts for two months. It would have been the No. 1 single of the year, if not for the presence of the painfully chaste “Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree” By Tony Orlando & Dawn.

Its sensual power remains utterly undimmed.

It was also so good that Gaye went ahead and reprised it before the first album side was done as “Keep Gettin’ It On,” swapping out the wah wah guitar for saxophone and tasteful additional percussion and adding some of What’s Going On’s sociopolitical concerns to the lyrics.


VIDEO: Marvin Gaye performs “Let’s Get It On” on Soul Train

For all the commercial glory, Gaye could well have been substantially richer if he’d received royalties for children conceived while albums like Let’s Get It On were playing.

Case in point, “You Sure Love to Ball,” which could have been a deserved hit, but stalled at number 50 on the pop charts thanks to radio programmers squirming at its unashamed sexual content. Artists like Prince (in his pre-proselytizing days), D’Angelo and countless others were clearly taking notes, as well as less skittish programmers of the future.

If the title track was for living room foreplay, “You Sure Love to Ball” took it to the luxuriously appointed bedroom, sounding as if it could have been recorded in one (and not just those moans). It’s utterly lush, prime quality slow jam material.

It also showed how the album, for all its preoccupations with sex, isn’t about surface level horniness. The song itself is about being in a relationship where the desire is all-consuming.

There’s a certain irony in the juxtaposition of how smooth the finished album is with the circumstances of its creation. The songs for it dated back to 1970, with other sessions taking place here and there until April, 1972. They resumed after a nearly nine-month break in January, 1973.

Gaye had writer’s block for part of that time. Motown head Berry Gordy had doubts about Gaye’s socially conscious direction on What’s Going On, as he had with Norman Whitfield’s darker, socially aware work with the Temptations. Both takes would have success.

In Gaye’s case, the sales and acclaim netted him a deal with more money and greater creative control. It was a case of getting what you wish for and not knowing what to do with it at first. Toss in the turmoil in his marriage to Anna falling apart, the distraction of the Trouble Man work, the challenging sessions for the duet album with Diana Ross (October 1973’s Diana & Marvin), the drama around Motown’s ditching of Detroit for Los Angeles and whatever else was going on in Gaye’s head, things weren’t always conducive to creativity.

Let’s Get It On magazine ad (Image: eBay)

That combination of deep Christian indoctrination and abuse left Gaye with guilt and doubt that would dog him all his life. The doubt manifested in a reluctance to perform live at times. It also shows up lyrically on Let’s Get It On.

In “Please Stay (Once You Go Away),” he sings, “I’ll just lie tossin’ and turnin’ all night long / Scared that if I closed my eyes when I got ready to wake up, I might find you gone.” The doubts that would later curdle into abusive paranoia are directed inward, as Gaye is pleading for comfort rather than demanding control.

His multi-tracked vocals are both the harmonizing backing and the answering, in effect Gaye was his own Pips, making even the internal pain sound good.

His relationship with Jan most directly informed “If I Should Die Tonight,” written after their first date. It’s full of strings, woodwinds and night-time ambience, with Gaye pulling out a killer falsetto to sell it. Smokey Robinson would unwittingly name a musical subgenre the following year with “Quiet Storm,” but Gaye certainly helped lay the foundation for it here.

“Come Get To This” combines a swing that echoes his ’60s work with a jazzy feel imported from What’s Goin’ On (literally).

The song started in the sessions for that album, is carried by the the rhythm section and the juxtaposition of Gaye’s more staccato verses withhis own doo-wop harmonies.

As steeped as Let’s Get It On is in sex and sensuality, there’s also a sense of searching here. It’s not difficult to imagine a much more spiritual album with lyrical changes, not surprising given how the sacred and profane had been intermingled and twisted in Gaye throughout his love.

The late-night loneliness of “Distant Lover” reflects some of those aftereffects. Gaye imbued it with audible pain. When he sings, “Something I wanna say/When you left, you took all of me with you” and follows with cries of “Please, please” as the song fades, you absolutely feel every bit of it.

Whatever deeper connection Gaye yearned for, he wasn’t always capable of holding on to it once he found it. Whatever glow he and Jan felt for each other, the reality was that he and Anna were in the middle of falling apart.

That bittersweet reality arrives in the ending “Just to Keep You Satisfied”, the only song to feature backing vocals from someone other than Gaye, as The Originals were enlisted. It’s the vocals that take center stage, as the backing is more about setting the mood.

He knew he and Anna weren’t going to last, but knowing it’s over and facing the reality are two different things. Even if he seemed a little eager to put the blame on Anna early in the lyrics, his personal regret was palpable in his voice as the song went on (“Oh, we tried/God knows we tried/Now it’s too late/To live and learn”).

Even if he’d replaced racial strife and concerns about the environment for tales of love, lust and personal pain, Let’s Get It On showed Gaye’s artistic peak was still intact. His creativity, aided by his co-writers (including co-producer Townsend who wrote half of its songs) was evident in the album’s smooth flow. The backing musicians were strong. Starting with the Funk Brothers and going from there was a good move.

Gaye would pretty mix the sexual and personal over the rest of his career. 1976’s I Want You, poached with Gordy’s help from Leon Ware, imbued Ware’s carnal concoctions with Gaye’s feelings for Jan.

Ware, by the way, had to write a whole new album for himself, which became Musical Message, perhaps the most unjustly overlooked album Motown ever released.

Even though he’d been having an affair for years with Jan, his eventual divorce from Anna spilled over into the exposed raw nerves of 1978’s Here, My Dear. It was a breakup album in which Gaye left nothing on the table — part very solid work, part car accident on the freeway you feel bad for looking at.

Love Man, intended for a 1980 release, was shelved with Gaye struggling with financial problems on top of his addiction. Another version of the album was later attempted, but a member of Gaye’s band stole the master tapes and took them to Motown, which altered tracks, produced them and even changed the title and cover art without his consent or involvement. The result was 1981’s In Our Lifetime, an album which led a furious Gaye to refuse to ever record for Motown again.

Marvin Gaye and his pup in 1973 (Image: Facebook)

His last album (and first for Columbia), 1982’s Midnight Love, delivered one last great single, “Sexual Healing.” The promise of that album, the biggest seller of his career, was short-lived. Gaye became ever more paranoid and suicidal under the influence.

The two rarely got along. Marvin and Marvin Sr. rarely got along. His mother, Alberta, felt his father resented him. For someone who comported himself in ways Jesus never would have approved of, Marvin Sr. never approved of his son’s secular music career.

On April 1, 1984, Gaye stepped in when his father was being abusive to Alberta. He delivered a number of blows to him. Alberta broke them up and Gaye went to his room. Marvin Sr. retrieved a gun his son had purchased for him for protection the previous December. He stepped into his son’s room. Without saying a word, he fired two shots, killing him. The same father who’d laid the foundation for his son to enact his own version of his sins took him out of the world at only 39 years old.

The singer’s siblings felt it was suicide by parent, knowing how Sr. would react to being physically challenged. His sister Jeanne, in David Ritz’s 1985 biography Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, said his actions that day “accomplished three things. He put himself out of his misery. He brought relief to Mother by finally getting her husband out of her life. And he punished Father, by making certain that the rest of his life would be miserable… my brother knew just what he was doing.”

Let’s Get It On, all these years later, is a sexually charged album without a doubt. But it’s also imbued with undercurrents of darker, sadder emotions which would later consume him.

It remains one of Gaye’s true triumphs, one that is more bittersweet than intended, a portrait of a man in love, in lust and still searching for light, rather than darkness.


Kara Tucker

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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love—music. She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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