Janis Gaye speaks out about his voice, his advice for singer-songwriters and his lasting musical influence.
Janis Gaye first heard Marvin Gaye’s voice when she was 7 years old – little knowing that she would become his life partner.
Now, 30 years after his death, she reflects on his unique and powerful vocal connection – and points to some contemporary artists who are also making a soulful impact.
Did you know Marvin Gaye as a singer before you knew him as a friend and life partner?
I did. I first heard him sing when I was 7 or 8 – he was on the Ed Sullivan Show, Hullabaloo and American bandstand. My friend Desi and I were determined to watch anytime we knew he was going to be on.
Is it possible to describe your connection with Marvin’s voice?
I think if Marvin were here – he would simply say, “I sing about life.” The realness and authenticity and originality of his music comes through that statement. He sang about life for the 44 years he was here – a short time. Yet, he leaves us with genius that we’re still listening to now.
I sing about life.
What do you think Marvin would say today to young singer-songwriters?
He was always having young guys run up to him with a mix tape. On the spot he would give this advice: “if it is not honest and true, it is going to come off that way”.
Did he warm up his voice regularly?
The kids and I laugh about how he would warm up – sometimes he would walk around like Pavarotti just to make the kids laugh. But, yes, he would also run through scales, drink tea with honey and lemon and little concoctions of cayenne pepper with vinegar and things like that. But he didn’t warm up before every performance.
Was vocal health on his radar?
I didn’t like the fact that he was a cigarette smoker – he smoked unfiltered Camels. I would ask him, “How do you sing and smoke those things?” He’d just say, “Don’t worry about that dear, leave me alone.”
Sometimes he would go on these health regimes – vocal – emotional and spiritual health – he would fast and exercise and take great care of himself and drop 10-15 pounds when he was doing this – jogging, boxing basketball. But he was also a human and would say, “Today I am going to eat a cheese burger and do nothing else!”
Did he have any vocal training?
He studied with a couple of vocal coaches briefly- with the best. But, overall, no – he was his own teacher and he was self-inspired. Marvin was the epitome of a natural talent – he didn’t need to study much. It “was what it was” and what it was – was great.
Would he have said he had musical influences?
Trouble Man stands alone because he wrote the entire album by himself with no outside writers and a lot of instrumentals – it gave you that jazzy kind of feeling. But of course he was affected by the music of others. His favorite artists include Gerry Mulligan, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker – he liked the true jazz artists. Without copying them, he created these two great albums.
Knowing Marvin’s influence, do you have any advice to give to young artists on creating a soulful relationship with their music and their audiences?
There’s no formula to do that – it has to come from your soul – there are a lot of people creating music that are not truly soulful. When you can feel the music – then you know it is really great. Feeling music is what it is all about.
Was there anything about the process of his songwriting that can be passed onto today’s songwriters?
He just lived his music – of the 11 years that we were together we were either living in a studio or on the way to a studio. He had a pen and pad in his hand and was constantly writing down lyrics or notes. Any producer, writer or artist can learn from that if they are honest with themselves.
Where do you find soulful music today in your own listening?
I look to the older artists from my childhood to find this quality. Also, I’m a fan of hip-hop. I also look to younger artists – Maxwell, D’Angelo, Jill Scott and other talented artists.
Can you give me a specific example?
I came across this singer in the UK, Paul Stuart Davies. He was doing a cover of Let’s Get It On. He wasn’t copying Marvin – but interpreting him. He seems to be an “old soul”.
Do you have a favorite remix of Marvin’s songs?
I like it when I see that others are celebrating his music and coming up with a new and soulful way to express it -like Amerigo Gazaway’s mashup of Yasiin Bey’s (Mos Def) Travellin’ man with Marvin’s 1971 Inner City Blues. I love what he did.
Did you have a favorite Album?
I was about 15 when Trouble Man came out – the album cover folded out and there was Marvin wearing a suit, looking impossibly cool – Desi and I had this incredible crush on this man we know that we would never meet (!).
What was it about the music that reached you?
This album was so far away from what he did before– it was jazzy and mature. Not everyone got it when it came out – but they get it now.
Of course “What’s going On” came out at about the same time.
I was dating a young man and he told me, “You have to listen to this album”. I asked why? He said, “Because it is Marvin Gaye and it’s the best music you will ever hear.” Of course, he was right. It affected both of us. We played it over and over until the vinyl was worn down to nothing and we had to buy another copy.
What do you feel is the lasting impact of Marvin’s unique voice?
Well, the great Senegalese singer Y’oussou N’dour said three little words in a performance that I always think about: “Music is Power.” That’s true. Music can do so many things – when you have that organic vibe, that organic feeling, that organic creativity – when it isn’t muddled or insincere. Marvin’s work embodies those three words.
Janis Gaye was brought to our attention through her praise of Paul Stuart Davies, a part of our VoiceCouncil Community:
Paul Stuart Davies is a British soul singer and vocal coach. He co-runs Lancashire’s Elite School of Music (www.eliteschoolofmusic.co.uk) and had a #1 hit on the iTunes Rock singles chart in 2012 with his song “Mighty by Nature”.