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40 Years Ago: Marvin Gaye’s Triumphant Return to the Stage

Marvin Gaye Live
Tamla Records

Forty years ago this month, Marvin Gaye celebrated the end of a long, self-imposed absence from the stage with the chart-topping album ‘Marvin Gaye Live!’ But getting there was quite a rough road.

Seven years earlier, the legendary Motown soul singer suffered a long-term bout of stage fright after Tammi Terrell, his beloved duet partner, collapsed onstage, falling into Gaye’s arms during a show in Virginia. She was soon diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor that would ultimately claim her life in March 1970.

In the interim, although he essentially had turned his back on live performing, Gaye’s studio output was growing ever more accomplished, profound and provocative. The critically acclaimed, genre-redefining albums ‘What’s Going On,’ ‘Trouble Man’ and ‘Let’s Get It On’ all featured intense, introspective meditations on everything from love to war to the environment.

Finally, in January 1974, Gaye decided it was time to take the stage again. It was a reluctant choice; the singer was still tortured by what had happened back in 1967. But given the success of his recent albums, there was a huge demand on him to return from both the fans and his record label.

Marvin Gaye Live!

A show recorded on Jan. 4, 1974, at the Oakland Coliseum would be released as ‘Marvin Gaye Live!’ five months later. It was an almost immediate smash, thus validating the fact that the audience was hungry for Gaye’s return to the stage. In August, the album reached No. 1 on the R&B album chart and sat there for several weeks. It reached No. 8 on the pop album chart, eventually selling over 1 million copies.

The album featured many of the more popular songs from his then recent solo albums — including ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),’ ‘Distant Lover’ and ‘What’s Going On?’ Gaye also incorporated what he called “The Fossil Medley,’ which strung together many of his ’60s hits including ‘Stubborn Kind of Fellow’ and ‘Can I Get a Witness.’

Despite the commercial success, well-known critic Robert Chritgau was unimpressed, giving the album a C+ on his grade scale rating. “There’s inspired singing here, but even on the stupendous version of “Trouble Man” Gene Page’s orchestra intrudes — Gaye hasn’t managed to mix the instruments into the unified background presence of his recent studio albums,” said Christgau.

Before his untimely death in 1984, Gaye (who was shot dead by his father) would release four more studio albums along with a pair of live albums. But it was ‘Marvin Gaye Live’ that reestablished the seductive singer as a live force to be reckoned with, as evidenced by the rush of screams and impassioned fan responses heard throughout the album. Gaye’s mere presence onstage had the ability to send them into an outright frenzy. It was a monumental decision for him to return to performing, and the fact that it was captured so forcefully on record makes this one of the more historic live sonic documents of the ’70s.

Watch Marvin Gaye Perform ‘Inner City Blues’

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