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To Be Truly Righteous: Commemorating the Prince of Soul

To Be Truly Righteous: Commemorating the Prince of Soul

Marvin Gaye, the "truest artist," divided soul, Motown legend and tormented "seeker who sought salvation through music" is back among us, both ethereal and palpable. This week marks what would have been his 80th birthday, the 35th anniversary of his murder by his own father, the dedication of a Commemorative Forever Stamp in his image, and the release of his long-lost, posthumous album to remind us of what we lost. The bittersweet title says it all: "You're the Man."

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This remains one of my favorite Albums of all time.

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Oh Marvin, how we need you now!

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Marvin Gaye had a small role in a 1969 TV movie called The Ballad of Andy Crocker that stars Lee Majors in the title role as an Army veteran just returned from Vietnam. It was one of the first, if not the first, movies to address the war with a theme to be repeated in part several years later in Coming Home, starring Jane Fonda and Jon Voight.

However, apart from a brief set-to with some anti-war hippies early in the film, Crocker’s woes are largely generic and apolitical, unfolding like a country song: He butts heads with his parents (who include fine character actor Pat Hingle), finds out that his business partner has run their motorcycle shop into the ground, and discovers why his girlfriend (Joey Heatherton) hadn’t been writing him lately–she’s married another man and is expecting their child. Even a brief visit with his old Army buddy, played by Gaye, offers no solace, so Crocker [SPOILER] winds up re-enlisting [\SPOILER].

Again, it’s noteworthy for using the war in its premise, but it makes no statement about the war one way or the other beyond Crocker’s domestic disruption, which stems from his having left for whatever reason. Only a brief scene with Crocker visiting his girlfriend’s mother, played by the terrific Agnes Moorehead, imparts any kind of social comment. (By contrast, “The Enemy,” a 1967 episode of the sci-fi TV series The Invaders, of all things, features a nurse (Barbara Barrie) just returned from Vietnam and some equivocal yet cogent comments about the war.)

I have to wonder if Gaye’s involvement, however minor, in Andy Crocker helped to push him into the trenchant social commentary voiced on What’s Going On, a landmark pop album that impacted black music in general and Motown in particular–Stevie Wonder certainly picked up cues from Gaye on his own series of brilliant 1970s albums. Gaye’s running together of songs into extended suites proved influential on disco and hip-hop in upcoming years while the title track, “Flying High (In the Friendly Skies),” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Wholly Holy” (soon to be covered by Aretha Franklin), and the sublime “Inner City Blues” still sound shockingly contemporary. Unfortunately so, as the issues Gaye sung about are still with us, if not worse than previously.

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