Music: Motown Beatitudes

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Motown Beatitudes After listening to the Motown album What's Going On, the Rev. Jesse Jackson informed its creator, Soul Crooner Marvin Gaye, that he was as much a minister as any man in any pulpit. Gaye does not see himself in quite that way, though he does admit to a certain "in" with the Almighty. "God and I travel together with righteousness and goodness. If people want to tag along, they can." While such words would sound intolerably conceited from any other pop star, they come inoffensively from Gaye. Part mystic, part pentecostal fundamentalist, part socially aware ghetto graduate, this particular Motown superstar simply happens to believe that he speaks to God and vice versa. <

The most prominent musical result these days is black beatitudes of sorts called What's Going On. The LP laments war, pollution, heroin and the miseries of ghetto life. It also praises God and Jesus, blesses peace, love, children and the poor. Musically it is a far cry from the gospel or blues styles a black singer-composer might normally apply to such subjects. Instead Gaye weaves a vast, melodically deft symphonic pop suite in which Latin beats, soft soul and white pop, and occasionally scat and Hollywood schmalz, yield effortlessly to each other. The overall style of the album is so lush and becalming that the words—which in themselves are often merely simplistic—come at the listener like dots from a Seurat landscape. They are innocent individually, but meaningful en masse. Heard over a genial rock beat, the song God Is Love scores through understatement:

God is my friend, Jesus is my friend, He made this world for us to live in, and gave us everything. And all he asks of us is we give each other love. Oh, yeah.

As the stuff of hit songs and albums, brotherly love has been growing more fashionable for months. But it is decidedly something new for Motown. It was romantic love that turned the Detroit-based soul factory into a multimillion-dollar corporation, and made many of its stars rich. Gaye, for example, started out in 1961 as a Johnny Mathis-type balladeer with a silvery tenor voice and by 1967 had become Motown's No. 1 purveyor of black soul. Neither that success nor his kinship with God has given Gaye a notably pious manner. A gangly, soft-spoken man of 32 with neatly trimmed beard and mustache, he has the easy, confident manner of a big-name athlete —which perhaps explains why he was able to spend a week last summer scrimmaging with Eastern Michigan University as a running back. If Gaye has to squeeze in his sports when and if he can these days, he should be used to it. As children, Marvin, his two brothers and two sisters had to spend most of their free time at a pentecostal church in Washington, D.C., listening to their father preach. After the sermon, Marvin would take his guitar and entertain the three dozen or so faithful with His Eye Is on the Sparrow.

Gold Records. The religion stuck, and so did the singing. In 1961 Berry Gordy, the mogul behind Motown, spotted Gaye in a black club in Detroit. Within a year Gaye had the first of twelve gold records, Stubborn Kind of Fellow, and soon was married to Gordy's sister Anna, living in Gordy's former house in integrated but still fashionable North Detroit.

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