Marvin Gaye carried a heavy burden in late 1981.
A rough draft master tape of Gaye’s 16th studio album, In our lives?, was stolen by his bassist Frank Blair the previous fall and taken to Motown Records, with whom Gaye was signed. The label edited, mixed and released the album on Jan. 15, 1981, reportedly without Gaye’s consent or input.
The incident upset Gaye and broke his trust in the company. “Can you imagine saying to an artist, say Picasso, ‘OK, Pablo, you’ve been fooling around with this picture long enough. We’re going to take this unfinished canvas and add a leg here, an arm there’?” Gaye would later regret it Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. “‘You may be the artist, but you’re late, so we’ll finish this painting for you. If you don’t like the results, Pablo, honey, it’s hard!’
“I was devastated. I was deeply hurt,” Gaye added. “Motown went behind my back. It’s something I’ll never forgive or forget.” He promised to no longer record for Motown.
On top of that, Gaye dealt with IRS complications, the end of his second marriage and his struggles with substance abuse. Gaye moved to Ostend, Belgium after a European tour in the winter of 1981 on the advice of a Belgian DJ friend named Freddy Cousaert.
Things slowly started to look up. Gaye signed a new deal with CBS, which offered to help him out of his debt problems, plus a three-album contract, and he embarked on a highly successful tour of England in June 1981. Returning to Ostend in July, Gaye felt significantly more confident.
Two musicians from Gaye’s touring band, Gordon Banks and Odell Brown, stayed with Gaye in Ostend, where they began working on new music. The trio quickly developed a reggae-style instrumental track using the recently launched Roland TR-808 drum machine – a tool that greatly appealed to Gaye as it meant he didn’t have to rely so much on outside musicians.
A strict rule had been put in place during this period: no music writers or press of any kind allowed: this was Gaye’s time to gather his thoughts, personally and professionally. in some way Rolling stonesDavid Ritz arrived anyway to talk to Gaye about a double biography focusing on Gaye and Diana Ross.
Cousaert reportedly tries to dissuade Ritz, to no avail. According to Gaye’s brother Frankie, it had been relatively easy to find Gaye’s apartment, which was present when the Ritz showed up. “If Marvin wasn’t the only black person in Ostend, he was certainly one of the very few,” Frankie wrote in Marvin Gaye, my brother“and word had come that the American singer Marvin Gaye lived there.”
There are different accounts of what happened next.
Watch Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ Video
According to Ritz, Gaye specifically asked him to write lyrics for the instrumental number. “On [Gaye’s] coffee table was an avant-garde, French sadomasochist book, full of cartoons of women being sexually brutalized,” Ritz later recounted. Songwriting universe. “I told Marvin, ‘This is sick. What you need is sexual healing, to be in love with a woman where sex and love unite instead of sexual perversion.’ Marvin liked the concept of sexual healing, so he asked me to write lyrics for this concept.
“When I wrote the lyrics, I tried to capture Marvin’s voice and style as a singer. He said, ‘That lyric sounds like me,'” added Ritz. “The lyrics seemed to fit his philosophical musings and his personal, emotional needs, so he could sing about them with complete honesty.”
Ritz claimed that he wrote most of the verses and choruses, while Gaye wrote the melody and bridge lyrics, all of which took about half an hour. However, Frankie later claimed that Ritz had not contributed to the lyric writing.
“Marvin played the tape over and over and said ‘I pray to God it’s a hit’ more than once,” Frankie wrote. “He still hadn’t written any words to put to it. They just wouldn’t come to him, he said. At the time, Ritz commented, “You’re not only sexy, your music is healing.” It was. Ritz’s few words were spoken casually and in passing, but they stayed in Marvin’s head.”
Gordon Banks also remembered that day a little differently and recounted Atlantic Ocean in 2012 that Ritz was solely responsible for what would become the song’s title, “Sexual Healing.” Ritz and Gaye had discussed the latter’s interest in Amsterdam’s Red Light District.
“David said to Marvin during a conversation, ‘It sounds like you need some sexual healing,'” Banks recalled. “And that was it. David had nothing to do with it, yet Marvin ended up doing ‘Sexual Healing’ with [jazz musician] Odell [Brown]. Then Odell went and he just did the chords. Marvin put all the other stuff into the song. He added guitar track after guitar track and the song evolved into ‘Sexual Healing’.”
The results appeared on Midnight love with Gaye and Brown as credited songwriters. Ritz was not credited as a composer, but only thanked in the album’s liner notes: “Thanks to David Ritz, whose brilliant literary mind created the title ‘Sexual Healing’.” Ritz approached Gaye, who reportedly told him that Ritz could not be credited due to contractual obligations with CBS. Gaye assured him that he would eventually be financially compensated for his contribution. Published in the fall of 1982, Midnight love was a colossal comeback for Gaye, hitting the top of the charts around the world and earning him widespread critical acclaim plus a pair of Grammy nominations.
“Sexual Healing” itself was equally successful: when the single peaked at No. 3 on the Hot 100, it made Gaye only the second artist in Billboard history of having a song peak at every spot from No. 1 to 10 on the chart. (Aretha Franklin was the first.)
Watch Marvin Gaye Perform ‘Sexual Healing’ at the Grammys
“Sexual Healing” won both awards at the 1983 Grammys, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Instrumental Performance, the only two Grammys Gaye would win during his lifetime. He moved back to the US and launched what would be his final concert tour in April 1983.
Gaye’s impressive commercial success contrasted with his still rocky personal life as he continued to struggle with substance abuse. He became increasingly paranoid and according to a 1985 edition of the Ebony that chronicled the last few years of Gaye’s life, hired a large security guard for his tour and wore a bulletproof vest.
“At this point,” Gaye’s sister Zeola later told me Washington Post“the addiction had taken a toll.”
Ritz later admitted he was torn. He didn’t want to disturb Gaye further, but also wanted to see that he was going to “Sexual Healing”. Ritz claimed that he saw Gaye around this time at a hospital where the Gaye family had gathered to celebrate the birth of Frankie Gaye’s child. Ritz described Gaye as being “curt and dismissive” of him.
“That’s when I knew he wasn’t going to credit me for the song,” said Ritz, who decided to file a $15 million lawsuit for partial credit for the song. “He was served the suit before one of his concerts.”
As Frankie Gaye recalled, the trial caused his brother “great distress.” Not long after, everything would come to a tragic head: Gaye intervened in a fight between his parents on April 1, 1984, a day before his 45th birthday, and was shot and killed by his father.
“The irony of it all was that Marvin never got the ‘healing’ he sang about in the song,” Ritz later said. The lawsuit was dropped after Gaye’s death, but Ritz was awarded partial songwriting credit. Ritz’s book, no longer a dual biography, was instead revamped Shared Souland published in 1985. “He sang it beautifully, but he couldn’t quite live it up [to] the message of the text.” The point of “Sexual Healing” may not have been Gaye’s recovery.
“I don’t make records for fun,” Gaye told me NME in 1982. “I did when I was a younger artist, but I don’t today. I record so I can feed people what they need, what they feel. Hopefully I record so I can help someone to overcome a bad time.”
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