Marvin Gaye would have been 75 years old on April 2. Meanwhile, there are surely untold thousands of people aged 40 and under who owe having any kind of birthday at all to "Let's Get It On" or "Sexual Healing."
Those two Gaye smashes might be competing against each other on a lot of music fans' rankings of Sexiest Song of All Time. Unlike other R&B lotharios like Barry White and Teddy Pendergrass, Gaye wasn't known initially or exclusively as a sexual smooth talker. His initial run of hits for Motown throughout the 1960s was appropriately innocent for that era of Top 40, and by the early '70s, he was better known for socially conscious concept albums like "What's Going On." But when the title track of the "Let's Get It On" album became ubiquitous in 1973, it forever shoved "protest singer" and "tuxedoed Tammi Terrell duet partner" off the top of the list of what Gate would be best remembered for.
Whatever was "going on," it was clear, was happening in the boudoir. Even now, more than four decades later, in movies and TV shows or in live performances, someone will put on or play the opening wah-wah guitar lick, and audiences instantly get that it's a kind of comic shorthand for eroticism about to ensue.
Weirdly enough, "Let's Get It On" was conceived by its original writer as another one of Gaye's social-commentary songs. But that was before his second-wife-to-be stopped by the studio as a guest of the songwriter. The singer was so taken by the sight of her that the song took off in a different direction than the one loftily first intended and became a single-entendre expression of desire and lust.
When a demo of "Let's Get It On" was recorded on March 13, 1973, it stuck to writer Ed Townsend's idea of "the business of getting on with life." "I know there should be peace and love, we all talking' about it, let's get it on," he sang then. "Understanding and brotherhood, everybody ought to try to do some good..."
But when they were back in the studio on March 22, Townsend brought by a friend named Barbara Hunter and her 16-year-old daughter, Janis. Gaye, who'd separated from his wife Anna the year before, was transfixed. "My heart was pounding at the sight of her," he was quoted as saying in a biography co-written by his brother, Freddie Gaye. "I had a song to cut, with her listening and looking at me. I don’t know how I controlled myself and got through it. I thought I might have to sit down during the recording session or embarrass myself.”
Gaye had a similar recollection for biographer David Ritz. "I saw her as more than a real girl. She suddenly appeared as a gift of God... She was the figure in my fantasy come to life... I'd never encountered a more beautiful creature in my life. I had to have her...Remember the old song, 'Have you ever seen a dream walking? That was Jan."
Never mind that he was 17 years her senior. Ritz referred to Janis, Gaye's in-studio muse for the landmark recording, as "the girl he would sing to and about for the rest of his days, the woman who would inspire, enrage, and preoccupy him in a manner bordering on madness."
The vocal for "Let's Get It On" captures literally the first moments of that obsession. If the song's lyrics hadn't already taken a turn toward the more sensual in the intervening days, the first sight of Janis cemented it.
Fascinatingly, you can still hear vestiges of the socially conscious, spiritual version first penned by Townsend in a couple of other recordings of the tune. The "Let's Get It On" album included a "tell the people" reprise, "Keep Getting It On," that called out the name of Jesus. And a deluxe edition of the album released well into the CD era finally brought the original chaste demo to light.
Not quite a decade later, Gaye hit big again with "Sexual Healing," which again found him overcoming the strict teachings of his Pentecostal-preacher father to embrace the sins — or was it sanctimony? — of the flesh.
Oddly enough, it was David Ritz, the writer of Gaye's best known biography, "Divided Soul," who prompted the title and seemingly some of the lyrics of "Sexual Healing." Ritz's contribution to the song has been the source of some dispute, in and out of court, and he eventually settled with the estate and won a posthumous co-writing credit.
One account was given by Marvin's brother, Frankie, who said he was in the room with Gaye and Ritz when the spark for the song came about. According to Frankie, Ritz said, "Not only are you sexy, your music is healing." "Marvin said to me days later, 'That's pretty nice. Sexual healing.'... On the [original release of the 1983] 'Midnight Love' album, David Ritz was acknowledged for the title, even though he hadn't put the two words together."
But in his biography of Gaye, Ritz claimed that he did put the two words together, and contributed to the lyrics as well, with a very different kind of exchange leading up to the tune. "The song was born out of our conversation concerning pornography," Ritz recalled. "Gaye's apartment was filled with sadomasochistic magazines," of which Ritz did not approve. "I suggested that Marvin needed sexual healing, a concept which broke his creative block." In other words, the writer was suggesting to Gaye that he needed to experience a lighter, brighter, and more spiritual vision of sexuality than the one in his fantasy life.
Whichever version you believe of how Ritz prompted the title, Gaye had a fit of genius and married it to what so far existed only as an instrumental track that his keyboard player, Odell Brown, had come up with. The song revitalized Gaye's wavering career, too. In early 1983, People gushed: "After five hitless years on the record business ropes, the long-reigning champion of soul has regained his form. Gaye's current single, 'Sexual Healing,' is America's hottest pop culture turn-on since Olivia Newton-John suggested she wanted to get 'Physical.'"
But the healing didn't extend from his career into his personal life. By then, he'd not only divorced and had a child custody battle with Janis, but filed for bankruptcy and had a "crazy" period of homelessness in Hawaii. Leaving Motown for CBS before the "Sexual Healing" album paid off monetarily, but Gaye remained subject to addictions and other demons. On April 1, 1984, still riding high on a celebrated comeback, he was shot to death by his ex-minister father during a family fight.
Fans and critics still theorize about Gaye's journey from religious kid to socially conscious soul man to prototype for soul music's R. Kelly brand of hypersexuality. Perhaps it was an inevitable journey to that kind of sexed-up material. As "Let's Get It On" writer Ed Townsend remarked, "He could sing 'The Lord's Prayer' and it would have sensual overtones."
Still holding firm to the family's faith, brother Frankie wrote, "That period was when he got away from his true calling as a songwriter with a social conscience, and an awareness of his spirituality, and he turned into a black sex god. It was always a struggle for Marvin between the truths of his upbringing and the world out there. In wanting to please the powers of the music industry... he felt he had no choice but to sing sexy songs."
But Gaye himself seemed to take great pride in his sexual liberation, and filled his liner notes with his theories on love, sexuality, morality, and religion. Adopting a more secular view that you can have it all, biographer Michael Eric Dyson wrote that in these songs, "Gaye invokes sanctification, not simply as a come-on, but as a means to suggest a transcendent purpose to romantic love."
One thing's for certain: If Gaye had gotten a royalty on every baby conceived to one of these two hits, his estate might be the biggest in popular music.