Chart Week: March 30, 1985
Songs: “Missing You” – Diana Ross, “Nightshift” – The Commodores
Chart Positions: #15, 18th week on the chart. Peaked at #10 for two weeks in April. #10, 10th week on the chart. Peaked at #3 the week of April 20.
Music fans know where I’m going with this entry. These two songs were both tributes to one of the greatest singers in American history.
Marvin Gaye was murdered by his father on April 1, 1984 following an argument between the two men. They had a long, troubled history together. Marvin Gay Sr. (note the difference in spelling of their last names) brutally beat his son often during his childhood. Their final altercation came when Marvin Jr. intervened in a fight between his parents. Marvin Sr. grabbed a gun and shot his son to death at the age of 44.
Marvin Gaye had one of the most amazing careers in American music. He broke out as an early star of Motown, both writing for other label acts and as a singer. He began with classic, wholesome songs like “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” and “Can I Get a Witness.” He had a long series of hits partnering with Mary Wells, Diana Ross, and most notably Tammi Terrell.
Seriously, if all he had ever released were his songs with Terrell, he still might be the greatest Motown act this side of Stevie Wonder.
“Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “If This World Were Mine,” “If I Could Build My World Around You,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “You’re All I Need To Get By.” As I often say in these pieces, many artists would kill to have one of those songs. Marvin had all those…and many more.
In the 1970s his music become both more introspective and worldly, embracing political causes and addressing social ills. What’s Going On was his magnum opus, and of the greatest albums of its, or any, time. “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Trouble Man,” and the album’s title track changed the arc of Black music, opening doors for performers to do more than sing love songs or dance tracks. Thanks to the album’s success, both critically and commercially, Motown relaxed the control it forced upon many of its artists, notably Stevie Wonder, who was about to go on one of the greatest runs of music ever seen. Well, heard.
Marvin struggled in the late 1970s, between addiction, marital woes, tax issues, and so on. But he returned in late 1982 with the triumphant “Sexual Healing,” and seemed poised for a glorious third act to his career before his death.
A little over a year after his passing, two artists hit the top ten with songs that were tributes to him.
Diana Ross’ “Missing You” was based on conversations she had about her former collaborator with Lionel Richie, who produced the track. It’s a little over-the-top, but Diana was always a little over-the-top so it fits. It still felt honest and moving.
The Commodores’ track, which was split between honoring Gaye and Jackie Wilson, who had also died in 1984, is my favorite of the two tracks. I’ve always loved its warmth, its soul, and how it felt more open than Ross’ highly personal track. Ironically, “Nightshift” was the only Top 40 single the Commodores had after Richie’s departure. Vocals were split between Walter Orange, who handles lead vocals on “Brick House,” and Richie’s replacement, J.D. Nichols. I found it interesting that the band did not want to release the song as a single but were forced to by their record label. It only went to #3 and earned them a Grammy a year later. Sometimes the label is right.
Marvin Gaye was a musical giant. He created dozens of timeless tracks, he helped many other acts find success, and he changed the musical world for all that followed him. These two tracks were fitting tributes.
- Smokey Robinson, The Supremes, and the Jackson 5 would all like to have a word with me. ↩