Like many jazz artists, soul singer Marvin Gaye built his post-1970 career on bucking the system. It's hard to believe now, but Motown initially resisted Gaye's What's Going On (1971). The album didn't fit the tried and true formula that drove the label's bottom line. But after the album's release and success—featuring Gaye's searing commentary on war, the environment, family unity and inner city disparity—Motown quickly renegotiated Gaye's contract, giving him full creative control of future albums. Next up for Gaye was the less interesting Trouble Man (1972) soundtrack and the sexually obvious Let's Get It On (1973). A three-year dry spell followed—until Motown owner Berry Gordy heard Leon Ware's I Want You demo for T-Boy Ross, the singer and Diana Ross' brother.
Struck by the demo's unusual music and groove, Gordy asked Leon if instead of producing the album for Ross, he would produce it for Gaye. Leon didn't have to be asked twice, and the result was a masterpiece. What makes I Want You significant are Leon's caressing melody lines and sensual lyrics. With one album, Gaye and Leon turned erotic soul ballads into mainstream music. While Barry White, Blue Magic and TSOP had already begun neatly merging soul and strings a few years earlier, Leon and Gaye stripped out the gimmicks and added a pulsating beat and vulnerable delivery. The "slow jam" genre they invented on that album remains dominant in soul music today.
In Part 2 of my two-part interview series with Leon, the singer-songwriter talks about the role jazz played in 1970s soul, working the music of Miles Davis and Ahmad Jamal into Marvin Gaye's I Want You, and how authorship of the song wound up being co-credited to the late T-Boy Ross:
JazzWax: So when you stopped singing jazz and began writing r&b and soul songs in the 1960s, which came first, the art or the money?
Leon Ware: Love came first and then the money. Look, r&b and soul weren’t a sell-out thing. To do them well, you had to love the music first. If you loved r&b and soul, and you were good at one or the other, the money came. It’s just that when the money came, it was there in a big way.
JW: And jazz wasn't happening financially?
LW: The fact is the era I came from, the late 1950s, you weren’t going to be famous or well-off as a jazz artist unless you were already established by then or you were a genius. Rock, soul, r&b all offered much more excitement and possibility.
JW: And opportunity?
LW: And opportunity. There was more opportunity in r&b and soul to take chances and try new things. And people who were listening to it were young and excited by it. Jazz at this point was pretty much set. People like me, Berry [Gordy, pictured], Lamont [Dozier]—we had the same love for r&b and soul that jazz artists had for jazz. We came up in an era when love for the art of music, whether that's r&b, soul, rock or jazz, came first. You didn’t go into any of these forms of music first for the money. If you did, you were finished pretty quick.
JW: In that regard, do you think you had much in common with jazz artists coming up?
LW: I think so. The artists and writers who were around in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s loved the art form before they made a dime. I think we lost that in the late 1970s and beyond. It’s not that I feel that the later generation was short of talent. It’s that their talent was not being challenged.
JW: What do you mean?
LW: Rap, r&b, rock and most forms of popular music today trivialize excellence and trivialize what art really is. From the late 1970s onward, money and glory and accolades became more important than the skills of being an artist. I may be a soul singer and composer, but I come from Gershwin, Basie, Ellington, Cole Porter—people who really composed music that not only inspired you but also motivated you.
JW: What were your earliest hits?
LW: My first Detroit hit was a song called Warning by Pat Lewis. Then came the Isley Brothers' Got to Have You Back and Michael Jackson's I Wanna Be Where You Are.
JW: What does it feel like to write a hit record?
LW: There's enormous joy that rushes through you knowing you have pleased listeners. There's also the pride you get from knowing that you actually created the song you're hearing everywhere. And then there's the reward of people expressing their appreciation.
JW: How did life for Leon Ware change with these hits? Did you ever buy that Cadillac you saw Lamont Dozier driving?
LW: [Laughs] I got more than the Cadillac. I actually got a Mercedes. But truthfully, my life only changed in that I started being called by producers and artists as opposed to doing the calling, and fortunately that has never stopped.
JW: You originally wrote I Want You for T-Boy Ross, Diana Ross’ brother. Was he upset when Berry Gordy heard the demo and decided Marvin should sing it?
LW: No, we were both excited that Marvin wanted to record it. When I played it for Berry, he wanted it for Marvin right away. Marvin hadn’t had a record for several years because Marvin wasn't doing any secular songs. But when he heard I Want You, he changed his mind.
JW: What did you think?
LW: I couldn’t have been happier. I was overjoyed. You have to understand, all of my music was written and orchestrated by the time Marvin had heard it. I had all the songs, lyrics, horns, strings—everything was in place.
JW: The song credit is shared with T-Boy Ross.
LW: All of the music was written completely by me. T-Boy Ross’ name was placed on I Want You, I Want to Be Where You Are, All the Way Around and others as we were demo-ing the song for Ross. That's because Ross was with a different music publisher, and he needed the credit in order to demo the songs. On other songs he penned, his name appears with Marvin's. That’s how the music business worked back then. But it didn’t matter to me. I knew my material was going to be huge in Marvin’s hands. I knew it was going to be a classic, timeless piece of work.
JW: There’s a lot of Miles Davis in there—the awareness of space, the burning intensity.
LW: [Laughs] There’s a lot of everything in there. My musical core is 50% jazz and 50% r&b. Even before I began writing songs professionally, my influence was jazz What you hear on I Want You are jazz chords against r&b flavors. That’s because of the environment in which I grew up. But the environment doesn’t make you. You take from the environment. I am a romantic, just like Nat King Cole, Yusef Lateef and Erroll Garner. But in I Want You, I also took from Miles’ Sketches of Spain, Ahmad Jamal’s Poinciana and other beautiful jazz instrumentals.
JW: So a jazz listener will hear things in I Want You that others might not?
LW: I think so. What you hear is a similarity in flavor and attitude. There’s a rhythm and atmosphere that’s related to those jazz classics. When you compose and write lyrics, music creeps into your artistic sensibility. All music is connected, from r&b songs to jazz to classical pieces. I think all music influences all music.
JW: What is it that most people aren’t of aware about you?
LW: That I’m a very religious person. You wouldn’t think so from my lyrics. But I am. Religion binds humanity. The same is true of love and, yes, sex and sensuality. When I write songs, I’m exercising a double entendre.
JW: How so?
LW: I believe that love and sensuality should have been the first religion of mankind. As a species, we haven’t learned the importance of each other because we’re insecure about each other. Until we reach a point where we look in mirror in the morning and say, “How am I?” rather than “How do I look?,” we’ll never be fully formed as people. I am one of millions of men who truly see that beauty in humanity.
JW: What's interesting about I Want You compared to the music of today is that it had enormous respect for women.
LW: That’s true. What Marvin brought to the table was his voice, and we both loved staying sensual. He was as much of a romantic as I was. What the world hears is music from me, a man who’s truly religious. Now I can justify the sexual innuendo part because my spirit has been in pursuit of why we’re here: to make love. But it’s deeper than that.
JW: How so?
LW: What I embody in my music are hearts and spirit, which is the basis of humanity. Music is the element that has kept humanity from being totally chaotic. Without song, melody and lyrics, the hearts of men would become primitive and savage very quickly.
JW: Your music with Gaye’s delivery clearly worships women and feminine beauty.
LW: That’s right. The music has enormous respect for women. Whenever young rappers approach me to sample my songs for their records. I always say to them, “Please remember the respect that the songwriter had for women.” Whether that sinks in is another matter [laughs].
JW: Gaye clearly understood that.
LW: Back in the early 1970s we were in love with saying sensual things. Both Marvin and I have sisters. We remember what you want your sister to hear and what is unacceptable. We were both enormously courteous. We were taught to be cherishing and adoring of women. It’s a whole submission thing, to love someone to a point where you put them up on a pedestal. This existed in music from the late 1950s straight through to the 1970s. Then things got fresh.
JW: But your music is pretty fresh.
LW: My music sounds pornographic, but where I’m coming from is a totally different place. That’s because I’m using the body to cherish the body. There’s no exploitation. None whatsoever. When I write certain lyrics, it can be performed and taken different ways. But the meaning is pure, honest and from the heart.
JW: What do you think of I Want You’s success?
LW: I love that this piece of work lives in so many people’s households. So many people tell me they play it once a day. That’s a great feeling. To have created a timeless record.
JazzWax tracks: Marvin Gaye's I Want You is available as a download, but if you adore this album, I recommend buying the two-CD Deluxe Remastered Edition. The first CD is the original album plus single mixes. The second CD is loaded with alternate mixes and singles, and outtakes. The liner notes by Richard Torres detailing the album's genesis and Harry Weinger's sidebars are fabulous.
JazzWax clips: Videographer Bret Primack recently spent time with Leon at his home. Here's a clip of Leon playing the piano and talking about his music...
And here's Marvin Gaye singing (or lip-synching) Leon's song, After the Dance, from the album I Want You...