A Production Case Study of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing.”


Mike Alleyne


Mid Tennessee state University

After a decade as a carefully molded Motown soul/pop star product, Marvin Gaye’s self-production begins in 1971 with the largely self-composed social commentary epic, What’s Going On. The sharp contrast between that album cover and the 1961 release The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye visually signifies his deeper, deconstructed image and a more progressive and complex artistic vision. A further decade later, November 1982 witnessed the emergence of his last album of original material - Midnight Love - featuring the “Sexual Healing” single.

    This paper examines the production process and instrumental content of this song and the relevant circumstances surrounding it, with some reference to the evolution of his production style between 1971 and 1982. It is also a re-emphasis of the importance of hiring the right musicians for specific projects, and the extent to which their contributions have transformative effects. The Midnight Love re-release liner notes describe the song’s guitarist Gordon Banks as “the fabric that gives the record its cohesion” (Ritz) and without his crucial assistance after previously published data failed to yield sufficient information, this paper could not have been completed. Banks plays on the entire Midnight Love album and, apart from a basic keyboard contribution by Odell Brown, he is the only other instrumental performer on “Sexual Healing” besides Marvin Gaye himself. He was also directly involved in the mixing process.

    Although it is somewhat relevant to the texture of his production style and the content of his music, there’s no time (or need in this particular context) to fully examine the complexities of Marvin Gaye’s psyche or the full impact of his various chemical and carnal obsessions. Instead, we have to analyze the audio end-product, primarily focusing on the very end of his product as a recording artist.

    As biographer David Ritz recalls, “What’s Going On was…the thrilling technical moment when all of Marvin’s voices were released at once…by overdubbing….” (Ritz 21). This description speaks simultaneously to the explosion of his creativity, and the inner conflicts which ironically gave rise to his artistic independence. Aspects of this ego multiplicity are apparent on Gaye’s later Seventies releases including the 1978 album, I Want You. The What’s Going On session recording engineer Ken Sands recalls that his playback mistake, running two separate lead vocal takes simultaneously, was a fortuitous catalyst for the singer’s adoption of that strategy as a new career trademark (Edmonds 121-122). In a 1972 interview following the album’s puzzling exclusion from the Grammy Awards, Gaye asserted that “What’s Going On was my first production ever. I conceived every bit of the music…but I had no musical knowledge. I can’t write music, can’t read music….” (Fong Torres 33). Although this declaration of creative self-sufficiency is undermined by the crucial participation of arranger David Van De Pitte (Edmonds 169-171), Gaye’s lack of formal training became an intuitive experimental asset, facilitating his shift away from the commercial conventions of Motown. These scenarios also inform the later recording of “Sexual Healing” which gives Marvin Gaye his first Grammy.

    Cited as one of the first Motown albums to credit its session musicians - 39 in this case (Aletti 43), What’s Going On demonstrates a creative strategy typifying what one critic describes as “textured production…an intensified stream of consciousness….” (Holden 60). In his own words, Gaye suggests that “Like an artist paints a picture, he starts slowly, he has to paint each thing at a time” (Fong-Torres 36). The reluctance of Motown to release the completed album is already well documented, but the actual character of the production has rarely been described in those accounts. One notable exception is a 1974 analysis:

“There were strange, innovative production techniques. Gaye ran brass and strings on a single take causing a sound leakage that gave the record an infinite sense of     space. The illusion was compounded by the rhythm which floated about in the distance…. There was something in the trance-like production, the fusion of styles….” (Cahill 42).

Ironically, Gaye’s crowning creative achievement also suffocated him and “stifled his regular creativity,” at least according to former CBS Records executive Larkin Arnold who is credited as the executive producer of the Midnight Love album which yielded “Sexual Healing” (Turner 185).

Sexual Healing

    Gaye’s protracted connection with CBS Records by way of a complicated, extended European stay, mainly in England and Belgium, led to the completion of Midnight Love which, as a collection, is most remembered for its lead single. It’s highly unlikely that this album will ever receive the critical reverence given to What’s Going On, but the “Sexual Healing” single nonetheless becomes an artistic landmark in Gaye’s production catalogue and in contemporary popular music production.

    At the height of his disillusionment with Motown, Marvin Gaye examined his motivation for moving on from the label, stating that “I feel that if I can find another record company that’s more interested in me as a complete entity – producer, artist, arranger, musician…then that is the company I’ll sign for” (Turner 173). In his own mind, the production component was part of the same holistic creative continuum, but clearly Motown failed to meaningfully acknowledge the scope of his multiple capabilities. In a real sense, the label could not identify with his many voices or the concept of the all-encompassing artist/producer persona despite Gaye’s own success in this role as well as the enormous impact of Stevie Wonder. Ironically, Gordon Banks notes that

Marvin never signed with CBS. The night Larkin Arnold came over to bring the contracts, we heard a big splash outside. Larkin fell in a pool outside the studio. All the papers were wet. You see so many labels putting out Marvin's music. That's why (Banks).

    As Midnight Love’s executive producer, Larkin Arnold witnessed the extent to which the album represented an artistic axis at which different and newer influences intersected as catalysts for the stylistic evolution:

Marvin had been living in Europe and he was influenced by both reggae and the synthesizer work of groups like Kraftwerk. He took the rhythm of reggae, the new technology and American soul and came up with something fresh and unique (No     Author 96; also see George 104).

The original bass line and synth pad - without a melody - came from keyboardist Odell Brown who “left for the States long before the track was finished” (Banks). While critical analyses of “Sexual Healing” usually treat it as another contemporary R&B song, a closer examination suggests that the song transcends the category, as suggested by Arnold’s observations on Gaye’s eclectic influences at the time. From a production perspective, “Sexual Healing” arrives at the dawn of the digital music technology explosion, though still before the emergence of the MIDI standard and the democratization of associated sequencers. The artist was also consciously aware that he was developing a new sound, working in tight collaboration with Banks whose background vocals can also be heard on the song with Harvey Fuqua and Gaye himself. Interestingly, Banks recalls that “After he taught me to produce his vocals, I sang on a whole lot of missing lines on albums released after his death” (Banks).

    Apparently though, Gaye’s use of the newer technologies was also initially guided by sheer necessity as well as innovative instinct. Reflecting on the song’s production, he recalls that “I was also under a lot of emotional and economic pressures. So I abandoned the idea of doing it with musicians and started in with the synthesizers” (White & Bronson 309; Davis 113). Ultimately though, the song derives its dynamic syncopation from an organic blend of man and machine featuring the vital multilayered guitar overdubs of Gordon Banks described by one writer as “slick, sophisticated, yet funky as a Georgia barnyard” (Ritz 303). Gaye’s use of synthesizers on his albums can be traced back to 1972’s highly underrated Trouble Man soundtrack, but the sonic qualities of the synth performance and drum programming easily distinguish “Sexual Healing” from the rest of his recorded catalogue. Although Gaye cites use of a Moog synthesizer on the Midnight Love album in a 1983 interview (George 101), Banks says that “CBS gave him a (Roland) Jupiter 8 and a Roland TR-808. That’s all we used. No Moog. Marvin was not hip to the tech stuff. I was” (Banks; also see Turner 185). The pre-MIDI tools at the artist’s disposal signal a confluence of analogue and digital tonalities and textures with which the single is so richly infused.  

    Examining the song’s demo in which Gaye executes very rough overdubs using cassette machines, the instrumental framework is already set as he refines the vocal and lyrical placement. As noted by biographer Steve Turner, he would use a skeletal framework of drum machine and synthesizer since “He liked to compose by recording himself singing along to cassettes of rhythm track” (Turner 186).

    The syncopation of the drum programming clearly points to Gaye’s exposure to what one of his interviewer’s curiously described as “third world music” (George 104). The song has a different type of rhythmic tension, punctuation and accentuation than what would normally have been considered R&B up to that time, although following the single’s success, artists would almost exactly mimic the programming style on their own records. The drums in fact represent the song’s only programmed component since all other instruments were performed live-to-tape without any pre-MIDI sequencing system. Banks recalls that “Marvin played keyboards like a drummer. He stayed in the pocket. I think it was his first time playing with a drum machine. He aced it” (Banks).
    An examination of the single’s instrumental ‘B’-side allows for clearer identification of the specific elements resulting in Marvin Gaye’s second Grammy for Best Instrumental Performance (Ritz 314). The project was recorded in Ohaine, Belgium at a 48-track facility. Banks notes that around 12 separate guitar tracks were initially recorded over the basic track of drum machine, synth pad and bass. He further recalls that

Marvin somewhat took his vocal lines from the early guitar tracks that I played and once he laid some vocals, we erased some guitar tracks and did it over again until     we were done. We ended up with 7 guitar tracks and a Grammy. This was done in about 2 very long studio sessions and one long one at home (Banks).

The lyrical character of many of the guitar lines can clearly be heard along with the interlocking groove accents created by the multiple guitar overdubs.
    The song’s lead and background vocals are quite a revelation when heard isolated from the surrounding rhythm track. The idea of an ontological hall of mirrors reflecting dimensions of the singer’s soul, which first appeared on What’s Going On, resurfaces here in the overdubs. This is a poignant reminder of what good vocals sounded like before auto-tuning became a standard pop production tool. With close listening you can hear faint segments of the drum track, presumably leaking through the headphones, and you can also hear Marvin’s foot tapping on the studio floor.

The Influence

    The historical significance of the “Sexual Healing” production work lies not only in its role as a bridge between analogue and digital eras, but also in its measurable impact and influence on the sound of popular music as evidenced by recurring cover versions across genres. R&B drum programming styles were distinctly affected, and more percussive polyrhythm was introduced by a wide range of artists. Gordon Banks asserts that

Artists went crazy over the 808 and the Jupiter 8. The Isleys and others copied us and guitar players went mad. We were emulated. I was voted one of America's top 100 guitarists (Banks).

One of the songs that derived elements of both its instrumental and lyrical character from “Sexual Healing” is the 1983 gold hit single, “Juicy Fruit” by Mtume. There’s an evident stylistic similarity with the repeated programmed bars utilizing soft Roland-type snare and toms, emphatic claps, and sidestick accents, as well as a lush cushion of interjecting synth patches. Although there’s no synth bass, the rhythm guitar licks in the bridge are quite reminiscent of Banks’s accented performances on “Sexual Healing.” Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both “Juicy Fruit” and “Sexual Healing” share the same Executive Producer: Larkin Arnold.

    A decade later as James Mtume recalls the song’s 80s success, he suggests that “It was a much more creative time for sounds and experiments. I don’t know if a record like that would work now, because everything sounds so much the same” (White & Bronson 317). A rather more overt imitation of the drum-programmed rhythm appears on the title track of James Ingram’s 1983 album It’s Your Night produced by Quincy Jones, with the performance here by session drummer John Robinson.
    It’s also notable that in this instance a live drummer was able to accurately emulate programmed drums, echoing Marvin Gaye’s own background on the instrument as a session drummer. In contrast, most mainstream recorded digital percussion in the 21st century bears little or no relationship to the mechanics or dynamics of real-time performance, reflecting the logical result of gradually emergent digital homogenization in the wake of “Sexual Healing.”

    The psychology of self-production is an issue for another paper, but Marvin Gaye indicated some of the immediate benefits of shaping one’s own sound:
I like the way I can write and produce myself with all the music coming from me. It gives me a control and feeling of self-containment that I enjoy (George 101).

It’s quite rare to find records that extend the boundaries of a genre while utilizing some of its best elements and simultaneously integrating new technology in a style which influences other artists. In its production synthesis of organic performance with digitally programmed rhythm and an expansive mix providing adequate sonic space for each element, “Sexual Healing” is distinctly one of those records.


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