Mercy Mercy Me

"Mercy Mercy Me"

[Song written by Marvin Gaye]

There can be few soul performers that have hit the smooth soul spot as frequently and sincerely as the artist responsible for this latest Smooth Soul Survivor.  The artist is Marvin Gaye and the track is ‘Mercy Mercy Me'.

Marvin Gaye is remembered for the nature of his death as much as for the musical triumphs of his life yet his influence in the smoother side of soul reaches far and wide.  His discography is breathtaking. It spans the twenty-six years between 1958 and 1984 and it is ironic that someone with a sound so sweet could have lived such a troubled life.

Marvin Pentz Gay was born 2 April 1939 in Washington DC and in his adult years he added the ‘e' to his surname in the style of his musical hero Sam Cooke.  His father, Marvin Sr. was an ordained minister in the House of God, a conservative Christian sect which imposes strict codes of conduct and observes no holidays.  His escape from the disciplines and austerity of home life was music.  He took up the piano and drums and began singing in local groups in his hometown of DC.  Participation in one such group, the local top attraction the Rainbows, brought him to the attention of Harvey Fuqua who recruited the Rainbows into his own backing ensemble the Moonglows.  A performance by the Moonglows in Detroit that was witnessed by Berry Gordy Jr. led to Gaye being signed to Motown in 1961.

He made a slow start in the motor city with a spell working as a session drummer on early hits by Smoky Robinson and the Miracles.  However, by 1962 Gaye's solo career was off and running.  The hits started and just kept coming.  As well as his many solo credits he also became famous for his duets with Motown stars Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell.

In 1971 the self produced ‘What's Going On' was released.  It was an album that is widely regarded as being pivotal in changing the face of black music forever.  Incorporating as it did both jazz and classical elements the album signalled a dramatic shift in both content and style forging a sound that was sophisticated, fluid and soulful.  Remarkably, Motown in general and Berry Gordy in particular, failed to comprehend the political and spiritual messages that underpinned ‘What's Going On' and initially refused to release it.  However Marvin Gaye was vindicated as, when Gordy relented, the title track rocketed to #2 in the pop chart of 1971.  Both follow ups, ‘Mercy Mercy Me' and ‘Inner City Blues' also made the top ten.

As a Smooth Soul Survivor ‘Mercy Mercy Me' has massive credentials.  The Marvin Gaye rendition has appeared on many compilations and the track was first covered in the year that the original was released.  This was on the Blue Note recording, ‘Set Us Free', by funky soul and jazz man Rueben Wilson and in 1981 the great Grover Washington Jr. included it on the LP ‘Baddest'.  In 1984 it was given the reggae treatment by Aswad on their recording ‘Rebel Souls' while Miliri featured it on their 1989 self titled album.  Seven years later this version appeared on the compilation ‘Funkology Volume 3'.

The nineties really found the track coming to prominence.  In 1994 Special EFX included it on their release ‘Catwalk' and this same version can also be found on the excellent ‘JazzFusions 3' on Beechwood.  In 1997 Everette Harp made it part of his ‘Whats Going On' album and a take on it by the Apostles showed up on three compilations, ‘Mellow Acid Vibes' (1998), ‘Acid Jazz Collection Volume 1' (1999) and ‘Smooth Jazz Grooves' (2000).

In 1999 ‘Mercy Mercy Me' was performed by Jon B on the tribute album ‘Marvin Is 60' and has been honoured by a variety of other artists from the worlds of pop, rock, jazz and reggae.  The tune can even be found on the soundtrack of the TV series ‘Murphy Brown'.

As for the man himself, Gaye's glowing career was dogged by a painful private life.  In 1984, after two failed marriages and a growing reliance on drugs he chose to move back into the home of his parents.  It proved not to be the answer he was looking for and on April 1 1984, one day before his 45th birthday, his father shot him dead in the aftermath of a heated argument.  His memorial is his music and from that ‘Mercy Mercy Me' is a true smooth soul survivor.

 Denis Poole.  January 2006

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