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The myths of Marvin Gaye and Motown

Amanda Parris

This week on Marvin's Room we explore three myths of Marvin Gaye and Motown Records.

Listen to Marvin's Room, August 11th 2017

Marvin's Room with Amanda Parris on CBC Radio


For decades, Gaye was the Prince of Motown, and Motown Records was a hit factory unrivalled by any other. The stories behind Gaye and Motown are legendary and numerous. From the lore of the label’s hit-making formula to the infamous tales of personal squabbles and deep betrayals, Marvin Gaye and Motown have more than a few skeletons in their closets.

This week we’re exploring three stories that have grown into myths, all inspired by Marvin and Motown.

1. The ghost of Tammi Terrell

Motown is a legendary label with a lot of stories behind it, but few skeletons loom larger than the ghost of Tammi Terrell. A talented vocalist, she was singing back-up and studying medicine before being discovered and signed by Motown. Terrell was quickly paired with Gaye, which sparked one of the most celebrated musical collaborations in the history of R&B.

Gaye named Terrell his perfect musical partner, and their creative chemistry was palpable. But when she was at her height, tragedy struck. Terrell and Gaye were performing onstage when she suddenly collapsed into his arms. She was later diagnosed with a brain tumour and, after numerous surgeries, Terrell died at the age of 24.

At her funeral, it’s rumoured that Terrell’s mother banned anyone at Motown from attending. She apparently criticized the label for not helping Terrell through her illness and claimed that they tried to cover up her daughter's condition while releasing albums without Terrell’s approval.

The only exception to the Motown ban was a devastated Gaye, who delivered the eulogy. Some believe he never recovered from Terrell’s death and that it instigated his steady descent into depression.

2. Defying Mr. Gordy: the story behind ‘I Want You’

The original writer of the song “I Want You" was singer-songwriter and composer Leon Ware. He created the song for his second album, but when Ware played “I Want You” for the boss of Motown, Berry Gordy, the head honcho had other ideas. Gordy knew he was listening to a hit and he wanted his star to deliver it. So Gordy took the song from Ware and offered it to Gaye.

Gaye was inspired. He loved the song and immediately wanted to meet the writer behind it: Gaye wanted Ware to write and produce his next album. The problem was that Motown rarely allowed a single producer to have that much power, and Gordy was completely against the idea. Gaye and Ware went ahead anyway.

Recorded in the Marvin's Room studios, the collaboration was magic. The album I Want You sold more than a million copies. But even those numbers couldn’t stop Gordy from nursing a deep resentment that his word had been defied. Rather than channel his rage toward the Prince of Motown, many believe that Gordy instead focused his crosshairs on Ware. Gordy decided to rush-release Ware’s solo album, putting it in direct competition with Gaye’s album, and they were both featuring many of the same songs. Ware didn’t stand a chance.

In the years following, Ware worked with numerous other artists including Minnie Riperton, Quincy Jones and Maxwell. But despite the fallout that came with the gamble, Ware considered his collaboration with Gaye "the most enjoyable, important and enduring experience" of his life.

3. Who actually wrote 'Sexual Healing'?

They say there are two sides to every story. That is definitely the case with the one behind who wrote Marvin Gaye's hit song “Sexual Healing."

This first version is the one that’s most often told: Gaye left Motown Records and moved to Belgium. David Ritz was his biographer, and Ritz arrived in Belgium for an interview but quickly realized that Gaye was an emotional mess. Gaye had gone through two marriages, depression and a cocaine addiction. On top of that, he had a worldwide fanbase that had bought into the idea of Gaye as the ultimate lover and ladies man; Gaye was being crushed under the pressure. While trying to lift his spirits, Ritz jokingly told Gaye that what he needed was some sexual healing. Gaye was inspired and he went straight to the studio.

That’s version one. Version two of the story has Ritz writing all of the lyrics and then receiving zero credit for his work. Since the two versions of the story are quite different, this all wound up in court in a case that wasn't settled until after Gaye's death.

Although the details are still hazy, one fact remains undisputed: "Sexual Healing" is still one of the greatest songs of all time.

The Marvin's Room playlist for Aug. 11, 2017

  1. Musiq Soulchild, "Just Friends"
  2. Drake feat. Rihanna, "Too Good"
  3. Melanie Fiona, "Wrong Side of a Love Song"
  4. Anderson.Paak, "The Bird"
  5. Jahkoy, "Still in Love"
  6. Smokey Robinson, "Cruisin’"
  7. Jazmine Sullivan, "Let It Burn"
  8. River Tiber, "Let You Go"
  9. J-Soul, "Toronto Plaza Hotel"
  10. Janelle Monae feat. Miguel, "Primetime"
  11. Marvin Gaye, "Sexual Healing"