Inside Marvin Gaye's never-released 1972 album You're the Man
Marvin Gaye’s career had so many phases, attracted so much attention, and experienced so much critical analysis that it’s hard to believe there’s anything left in his expansive catalog to be explored. But back in 1972, while testing the boundaries of a $1 million contract signed in the wake of his sociopolitical breakthrough What’s Going On, Marvin recorded a sensitive, socially conscious, and flat-out groovy collection of songs that today feels like a Rosetta Stone for the impulsive, restless experimentation that led to later classics like the Trouble Man soundtrack, Let’s Get It On, and I Want You.
You’re the Man, due out March 29 (three days prior to what would have been Gaye’s 80th birthday), collects 17 songs from these sessions for the very first time, featuring classic writing and production work from the likes of Motown luminaries Fonce Mizell and Gloria Jones, three remixes from hip-hop and R&B producer Salaam Remi, and new liner notes by Gaye’s biographer David Ritz, who contextualizes the album’s creation as a period of deep personal conflict and intense and fruitful creativity.
Jan Gaye, Marvin’s ex-wife, says she was thrilled to hear that the album was finally being prepared for release after being shelved some 47 years ago, especially after falling in love with the one track, “You’re The Man,” that was actually issued back then as a single. “I always focus on ‘You’re the Man,’ because when I was much, much younger, it was one of my favorite songs,” Gaye tells Entertainment Weekly. “I was disappointed at the time — I remember thinking, ‘Why is this just a single? Where’s the rest?’ And so I was really excited that there’s a re-release, that it’s kind of updated, and that a younger crowd can familiarize themselves with it.” Though “You’re the Man” peaked at No. 7 on the Hot Soul Singles chart, it stalled at No. 50 on the pop charts without promotion from Berry Gordy, who feared its political lyrics might spark a backlash from Motown’s conservative fan base. Gaye’s clashes with Gordy, combined with that tepid response to the single, prompted the singer to shelve the rest of the material recorded for the album.
While Jan and Marvin weren’t together during the recording sessions for You’re the Man, their relationship remains intimately connected to his ‘70s output (their tumultuous love affair inspired much of Let’s Get It On and I Want You). She was thrilled to be able to experience with fresh ears even the tracks she’d previously heard thanks to new mixes updating them for modern audiences. “I kind of view everything as an individual release and have different memories associated with everything that he did, which is nice for me,” she says. “I can look back over my life with him and my life since he has passed on, and still have great memories, some bittersweet, some just sweet.”
“But I love a really good remix of something that makes [it] sound a little more current,” she continues. “Not that the original is outdated, but younger ears or newer ears or different ears are going to put their own spin on it — literally.”
A veteran producer for the Fugees, Nas, and Amy Winehouse, Salaam Remi first collaborated with Motown on a remix of “Falling in Love” for the 2007 rerelease of Gaye’s Here, My Dear. For You’re the Man, he was given three tracks to rework, a challenge that he says he approached more intuitively than technically. “When I listen to Marvin, I feel like he has an intimate connection with the music, and that’s actually what transmits to other people,” Remi says. “So I just tried to make sure that you felt that intimate moment — it’s just beautiful.
“I just want to sit in front of the speakers and close my eyes and feel the spirit of the person speaking to me,” adds Remi. “Because that’s ultimately going to live longer than the person.”
Remi says his goal was to find a way to respect the musical climate in which the songs were first recorded while also highlighting the elements that make Gaye’s body of work so timeless. “Marvin is my favorite overall artist and I listen to his music all the time, so I was able to kind of turn up the things that I understood as signature Marvin and then turn back things that might’ve just been hot at that time,” he explains. “The way I became a producer was by emulating people I have loved musically. I had an idea of how these records are put together, so I’m able to kind of listen to it and know this is how it would have sounded at Motown.”
Other than a handful of songs that she keeps for herself, Jan says she’s unsure after the release of You’re ghe Man how much of Gaye’s music is left to be discovered. “I happen to have a couple of tracks that no one’s ever heard that he didn’t quite finish, but they’re beautiful,” she confesses. “But [Motown A&R man] Harry Weinger is probably one of the best Marvin detectives in the world, because he can pull things out of places that you never knew, and seems to be able to put Marvin’s music in the right hands to be remixed and reinterpreted.”
Jan credits Marvin’s versatility, and his fearlessness, for the vitality of the songs on You’re the Man, which bounce between swinging doo-wop numbers, James Brown-style funk workouts, and searing romantic confessionals that dovetail into spiritual epiphanies. “He could do anything,” she says. “He could croon, he could get down and funky, he could take you wherever you needed to go. He’s just one of those master composers, artists, that just knew how to do it all. He was allowed to do what he wanted to do, and when he wasn’t allowed to do it, he did it anyway — and it was all good. And that’s timeless.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated the release date for You’re the Man. It has since been updated.