Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Marvin Gaye - "Trouble Man" (1972)

I was driving home tonight from the train station listening to XM Radio's RealJazz station, when they played a slow swinging version of Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" sung by Cassandre McKinley. A tough song to do, but it was a sign to devote a post to this unique Gaye classic.

We all know all the many hits -- "Your Precious Love," "Mercy Mercy Me," "Inner City Blues," "Sexual Healing," and of course, "What's Going On," which I never tire of.

As Gaye moved out on his own, the jazz influences became more and more pronounced, from the loosening drums to the chords and their changes. Between the "What's Going On" album in 1971 and "I Want You" in 1976, Gaye was asked to score a "blaxploitation" film called Trouble Man. It seems a lot of popular black artists of the day did one of these, including Isaac Hayes, James Brown, and perhaps the most famous one of them all, Isaac Hayes' classic score for Shaft (with Curtis Mayfield's Superfly a close second).

Like a number of these films that were churned out, Trouble Man came and went very quickly, a hard-nosed detective played by Robert Hooks stumbling into a floating dice game and masked robbers and who ripped off who. The 60-second TV trailer is below and it truly has to be seen ("You jive him, he'll wash you away!").

The title song was truly an individual statement by Gaye. You can call it his version of the detective theme song, badass but dark and complex. It was a swinging set of Gaye on drums, a dizzying vibraphone motif, and a lowdown minor-key blues groove made for finger snapping like "West Side Story." With a saxophone wailing and strings building and subsiding, Gaye's falsetto exudes ice cold coolness:

I come up hard, baby
But now I'm cool
I didn't make it, sugar
Playin' by the rules

I come up hard, baby
But now I'm fine
I'm checkin' trouble, sugar
Movin' down the line

The whole Trouble Man soundtrack is a must-buy, simply to hear Gaye's jazz/blues score, which features a number of wordless falsetto vocals over the simmering grooves. One of the instrumentals, "Don't Mess With Mr. T," was later covered by jazz saxophonist Stanley Turrentine.

Below are some true video highlights surrounding this song: the original hilarious 60-second trailer of the 1972 movie, a nicely done homemade video of the title song, a smokin' jazzy live cover by Joni Mitchell featuring trumpeter Mark Isham, and finally a sexy funky hip-hop version by Neneh Cherry in the UK.

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