Guest post by Zac Seidler
Marvin Gaye is a lion of contemporary musical history, and was a posterboy for Motown Records in the 1970s and 80s. Motown Records may have been labelled by Black Enterprise as the top black-owned business in America by the early 1970s, but you’d be foolish to think that this success happened overnight. Rather, it was the accumulation and eventual solidifying of revolutionary music production ideals that came to typify the label and that assured entrepreneur Berry Gordy Jr.’s unique crossover market triumph, which was, in some weird way, a similar kind of triumph to that his nephews would have as LMFAO some fifty years later. Selective in his initial musical influences and inevitably strict in his production methods, Gordy, the Motown regulator, extracted what he deemed the essential characteristics of jazz, gospel, blues and pop from his roster, resulting in a distinctive ‘Motown sound,’ that had both groove and soul as well as a wholesome intimacy. Think of him as the Richard Russell of the paisley shirt era. But ‘Hitsville USA’. as it would later be called, did not derive its name from its director exclusively. Instead it was the artists, selectively picked and groomed for success that made this a burgeoning enterprise. Artists like Marvin Gaye, really.
Gaye’s ‘Can I Get A Witness’ is, at least structurally, a textbook example of the Motown pop formula shaped by the heavyweight writing and producing trio known as H-D-H (Holland-Dozier-Holland). In a time when blacks were being beaten on the streets of urban America, Motown stars were performing to the delight of white audiences, slowly chipping away at racist attitudes, and it was light-hearted hits like ‘Can I Get A Witness’, invariably linked with Black-church gospel tradition, that triggered this musical uprising. The song’s title itself heralds back to Gaye’s days of choirboy singing, a simple phrase picked up by the masterminds at H-D-H and molded into a hook that would later translate into a hit for The Rolling Stones. The lyrics’ effortless intertwining of the sacred and secular, a style Sam Cooke rode to stardom, was underpinned by a similarly unique rock ‘n roll/gospel instrumentation. The heavy snare drum backbeat snaps on beats 2 and 4 (that was eventually accompanied by that famous Motown tambourine) grew out of significant, but eclectic contextual cues. These include a holy clapping congregation driving the choir and paradoxically, the devil incarnate in Elvis Presley’s hips shaking back and forth. Regardless of its origins, the backbeat was key for the dancing teenagers Gaye was writing for, providing the progressive energy behind the song’s sparse and staccato lyrics.
Gaye’s own smooth vocal performance undermined the argument that black music was rough and dirty, and this was just Gordy Jr.’s aim, aware that he had to minimize the danger of black music with a sweetness of spirit and abundance of radio ready hooks. With a universal subject matter in the lyrics’ description of heartache, overrun by a contagious musical liveliness, this formula stole right past the built-in resistance of white radio and white-listeners. H-D-H’s unique writing style evidenced something of a Lennon-McCartney balance in terms of lightness and darkness; sweetness and bitterness, which made songs like this so enticing. Gaye exudes an innocent charm as he sings “I love too hard, my friends sometimes say,” followed by the rhetorical question “Is it right to be treated so bad, when you’ve given everything you had?” and Gordy Jr. knew that this crafted personality would not go unnoticed by a young white female audience.
In a later interview, the song’s writers acknowledge that “in the case of Marvin Gaye, we let him do what he felt…as formulas had to be flexible enough to accommodate the natural styles of different performers.”. ‘Can I Get A Witness,’ was a highly stylized performance, strict in its verse-chorus structure and conscious in its tonal and dynamic ascension as it reaches its climax. Nonetheless, the way that these songs were conceived and developed in the studio is what set them apart from other mainstream pop songs of the day. Every structural facet of this song is seemingly causal in its conception, as if it just rolled off the Ford production line with all the nuts and bolts tightened by Gordy Jr. himself. But it was Gaye, with his smooth, subversive sexuality, who put the gas in the tank.
Marvin Gaye – ‘Can I Get A Witness’