Inside the Sexual Healing of Marvin Gaye’s I Want You
Marvin Gaye’s bedroom giant LP and Leon Ware’s musical innovation fully explored
When Let’s Get It On dropped in 1973, Marvin Gaye had successfully shifted his image away from the assembly line soul of Motown and the R&B that dominated the latter half of the Sixties with a prototype of sexual ambition that was hardly documented at Berry Gordy’s hit factory. Thanks to creative license, Gaye took it upon himself to rewrite his own bio and to turn himself into a ballsy, provocative crooner. Of course this creative control came about after breaking almost every rule at Motown with What’s Going On, a social-political magnum opus that blended the disdain of the Vietnam War, the call for equal rights and a punctual spirituality. Originally it was met with swift objection by Gordy and the judges’ panel of Quality Control, the Motown board that selects the singles. But with Gordy’s focus on Diana Ross’s solo career and new launch into motion pictures, What’s Goin’ On made it out of the gate and became the new album to surpass. Without trying to copy its success, Gaye followed it up with a sex shooter, Let’s Get It On, an album that energized Gaye as a bedroom crooner and one of the leading acts on Gordy’s powerful label. For his next act, Gaye wanted to go in a much different path. Like he did with What’s Going On? and Let’s Get It On, the crooner sought the musical expertise of outsiders to craft the vision for his next episode.
Leon Ware was going through similar changes too. The burgeoning Detroit-born songwriter responsible for Michael Jackson’s solo debut smash “I Wanna Be Where You Are” and for penning Donny Hathaway’s “I Know It’s You” for 1973’s Extensions of a Man was preparing to drop his second solo album of sultry, sexy soul, a collection of songs that Ware developed with Diana Ross’s brother Arthur “T-Boy” Ross. Ware’s resume already had Berry Gordy’s attention, thanks to learning of his involvement on Quincy Jones’s album Body Heat and constructing one of the album’s glowing highlights, “If I Ever Lose This Heaven.” But as a solo artist, Ware struggled. His debut LP, a self-titled effort on United Artists, was his first and last with the label. Still, he had a masterful pen, one that oozed ink of a musicality and lyricism that captured the essence of urban sensuality. Ware wanted a solo contract with Motown; Ross also wanted in as well. Gordy eventually got around to the demos and felt it would have been better suited for Gaye instead of serving as Ware’s first entry on Motown. Instead of simply forfeiting the material to Gaye and moving away from it all together, Gaye signed Ware and Ross on as album producers and ordered a full completion of it. Ross abruptly fell off from the project after disagreeing with the direction it was going, leaving Gaye and Ware to complete on their own.
The Calm Before the Quiet Storm
“I Want You” is pure sex. It moves like an Isaac Hayes arrangement strung together by an orchestral glow, disco-light rhythms and overlaying trance-like backing vocals by Gaye. In theory, “Let’s Get It On” was the come-hither to the boudoir and”I Want You” was the main event.
The demo of “I Want You” was really what piqued Berry Gordy’s imagination. He knew it would be the perfect vehicle for Gaye. And so it became the centerpiece for the album. Recut in Marvin’s Room, a recording studio fixed inside Gaye’s L.A. home, “I Want You” was done during one of the most precious and yet sensitive times in Gaye’s life. Coming off the high of What’s Going On?, Gaye originally wanted to do away with commercial music after having a spiritual awakening. Gordy would later woo him back to the studio. He was just moving onward after the death of Tammi Terrell and was falling in love with his second wife, Janis Hunter. And in an interview with Pitchfork, Ware revealed just how important this new cloud of inspiration meant for Gaye. “The time when we did I Want You had to be the most happy time in Marvin’s life, because he was freshly in love, and the album exhibits that atmosphere,” Ware said. “When I’m told by different people all over the world how many babies that album has made—the record stands so high in my life. I could not be a prouder man.”
Ware also gave full credit to Gaye for how he rendered his vocals. “He did them all himself. I would be singing something or he would sing something, and it would be like we were telepathically communicating—it was the most effortless collaboration I’ve ever had,” he said. Although Ware was totally responsible for most of the musical direction of the disc, Gaye directed himself. In the end, what you are left hearing is a project that flowed like the mighty St. Lawrence, with both gentlemen doing their own thing and shining bright at it.
“I Want You,” a leader in the still-developing Quiet Storm subgenre, had no problem storming to the top of the pop and R&B charts. It blazed to number 15 pop and number 1 R&B. And thanks to his clever proto-disco beat, many clubs and discotheques had it on rotation. Thanks to the power of the single, the album would sell over a million copies and earned a Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Performance, losing to labelmate Stevie Wonder for “I Wish.”
But “I Want You” was no isolated incident. It later became a stretched-out affair, leaking further and deeper into the album’s content. “Come Live With Me Angel” is a spaced-out jazz event storing much of the same sexual energy Gaye dropped on the album’s title track. “After the Dance,” now a revered Quiet Storm staple, continues “I Want You” sexual aggression in its slinky structure and matter-of-fact lyricism: “I want you and you want me/so why can’t we get together after the dance.” The song and its musical innards was so good that Gaye decided to drop an instrumental track, one with a psychedelic-leaning synth solo powered by Gaye himself, on the first half to serve as a precursor to the vocal version which closes out the entire set. Blending dreamy jazz and an exotic basement soul, the album filled out with songs like “All the Way Around” and “Since I Had You” (the latter punctuated with Donna Summer-esque sexual moans done by Gwenda Hambrick).
Adding in all the various interludes of “I Want You” and even the closing seconds of the first side, a one-minute sample chorus of “I Wanna Be Where You Are,” Gaye does his finest to create a benchmark for concept albums in the Quiet Storm genre. And today it stands out as a classic. It has served as a timeless piece in the Gaye catalog and a powerful representation of sultry R&B. a meaningful influence on much of the content that pours into the stream of urban contemporary R&B.
History has been quite kind to its posterity. Originally rock critics panned the disc or simply didn’t get it. “After a landmark album like [What’s Going On], one expects something with a little more substance and spirit. But there’s no fire here, only a well-concealed pilot light,” wrote Vince Aletti for Rolling Stone. But on the album’s 40th anniversary in 2016, Pitchfork‘s Jason King recently elevated its status from simply being a classic album to reigning as a treasured innovator. “The album is, for my money, the sexiest rhythm and blues record ever made,” he wrote. “Sure, pheromone-inducing records like Sade’s Diamond Life, Maxwell’s Embrya, and D’Angelo’s Voodoo are worthy contenders to that throne—but all those albums were directly influenced by I Want You’s languid flow.” Most people can also recall its now-iconic album cover being a regular fixture on the Norman Lear hit TV sitcom Good Times, in both the opening theme song sequence and as a living room portrait inside the Evans’ home.
Ware’s legacy extends beyond I Want You. Mainstream media and music critics fails to cover it, but the remaining body of work is still lasting. There’s Musical Massage, his first disc for Motown, which paints itself as a ripe companion piece to Gaye’s 1976 sexual odyssey. No, it didn’t sell well — much of the burden being on Motown’s neglectful marketing, but it holds up as an inspiring piece in the world of sexy soul. He continued to write music for artists like Teena Marie, Jeffrey Osborne, James Ingram, Melissa Manchester, Loose Ends and Bobby Womack. He did work with Lulu on the UK hit “Independence.” And in his latter career, Ware teamed up with Maxwell to construct his debut album Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite, a disc so highly influenced by I Want You. And like that golden album, Maxwell became a savior of the Quiet Storm style and reinvigorating mainstream appeal towards neo-soul. Younger generations, especially in hip-hop, sampled a good deal of his work, empowering Ware to stay active in the field of music.In 2012, Soultracks.com honored Ware with a Lifetime Achievement Awards, just a few years shy from the 40th anniversary of I Want You, the album that really started it all.
Ware battled with prostate cancer in his latter years. And at the age of 77, it would take his life. “He was a soul music Renaissance Man,” wrote an obit on Soultracks.com hours after his passing. “A singer, songwriter, and producer who was revered by his contemporaries and who quietly created some of the greatest soul music of all time for countless artists from Marvin Gaye to Maxwell.”