Hello there! This week we will discuss the song How Sweet It Is, a wonderful Motown soul song written by Holland-Dozier-Holland and originally performed by Marvin Gaye.
We will then review covers of this song by Jr Walker & the All-Stars and by James Taylor.
Marvin Gaye and How Sweet It Is:
Marvin Gaye is one of the greatest rock musicians of all time, and we have featured him in several earlier blog posts. We discussed his version of Heard It Through the Grapevine. We also discussed his performance of our national anthem at the 1983 NBA All-Star Game. We reviewed What’s Going On, and we discussed his sexy soul tune Let’s Get It On.
So here we will briefly review Marvin Gaye’s life and career.
Marvin Gaye was born Marvin Gay, Jr. in 1939; he added an “e” to his name in the same way that Sam Cooke did. His early experience at Motown was as a session drummer, and his initial vocal singles bombed. However, he soon found commercial success and eventually became a real Motown powerhouse.
Marvin Gaye was fantastically talented. In addition to a three-octave vocal range, he also displayed amazing versatility. He could switch from baritone to tenor, adopt a raspy “tough man voice,” and even produce a lovely falsetto.
The photo below shows Marvin Gaye recording at Golden West studios in L.A. in 1973.Embed from Getty Images
What a great, great artist! From the mid to late 60s, Marvin collaborated in best-selling duets with several of the women at Motown. In particular, he had hits with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Tammi Terrell and even a couple with Diana Ross.
His duets with Tammi Terrell were particularly successful, until Tammi collapsed into Marvin’s arms during a concert in 1967. Terrell was then diagnosed with a brain tumor, and died 30 months later at the age of 24.
The song How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You) was written by the great Motown songwriting and producing trio of Lamont Dozier and the Holland brothers, Eddie and Brian. In the 60s they took Motown Records artists to unparalleled success, particularly with groups such as The Four Tops and The Supremes, for whom they were the primary songwriters.
Below is a photo of Holland-Dozier-Holland, from L: Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland and Eddie Holland.Embed from Getty Images
Eddie Holland had begun working with Berry Gordy even before the founding of Motown, and began his career as a solo artist. His brother Brian was the co-composer of the big girl-group hit Please Mr. Postman for The Marvelettes. And Lamont Dozier started out as a solo artist with the Anna label that was owned by Berry Gordy’s sister Anna Berry.
However, Eddie Holland suffered from severe stage fright that eventually caused him to retire from solo performances. And Holland-Dozier-Holland realized they had much more success when they wrote and produced tunes for other Motown artists.
At Motown, Holland-Dozier-Holland were responsible for an amazing 25 #1 hits. H-D-H wrote a number of songs for Marvin Gaye, including Can I Get A Witness in 1963 and Baby, Don’t You Do It and You’re A Wonderful One in 1964.
In the song How Sweet It Is, a man tries to express his gratitude to his lover for all of the things that she does for him and means to him.
Ooh, baby, I needed the shelter of someone’s arms
And there you were
I needed someone to understand my ups and downs
And there you were
With sweet love and devotion
Deeply touching my emotion
I want to stop (stop) and thank you, baby
I just want to stop and thank you, baby, hey now
How sweet it is to be loved by you, oh, baby
How sweet it is to be loved by you, yes it is.
So here is Marvin Gaye in what I believe is a live performance of How Sweet It Is, in 1965.
It is possible that Marvin is simply lip-synching from the record here; although it certainly sounds live. However it really doesn’t matter, since there is no doubt that he could produce a perfect live version of this tune. Marvin Gaye was quite simply a stunning performer.
At that point in time, How Sweet It Is was Marvin’s most successful single. It reached #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #3 on Billboard’s R&B Singles charts. Marvin is assisted by backup singers The Andantes, and by the terrific Motown house band The Funk Brothers.
Especially listen for the great “walking bass” lines from the incomparable James Jamerson. Jamerson, the Funk Brothers bassist, was a marvelous and creative bass player. His trademark bass lines form the backbone for many Motown hits.
After Tammi Terrell’s untimely death in 1970, Marvin was bereft. He took some time off in an attempt to get his bearings. This was a difficult period for Marvin. His marriage to Anna Gordy, Berry Gordy’s sister, collapsed, leading to an extremely messy divorce.
Gaye then experienced dire tax problems with the IRS. These were sufficiently severe that Marvin did not return to the U.S. following a European tour in 1980. In addition to his tax difficulties, he had repeating bouts of depression.
The depression may have been related to his serious cocaine addiction. Eventually, Marvin moved to Ostend, Belgium, where he finally sobered up. He then signed a new deal with Columbia Records before returning to the States.
In 1983 Marvin Gaye took part in the concert Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever. This was a made-for-TV special taped in March, 1983 at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium.
An extraordinary roster of Motown musicians was assembled for this event. However, it was not clear until the last minute whether Marvin Gaye would appear. But Marvin did show up, and gave an unforgettable performance of What’s Going On.
Following the Motown 25 show, Marvin embarked on an American tour; unfortunately, he became ill during the tour and suffered from paranoia that was triggered by cocaine. After the tour he moved to his parents’ house in L.A. to recuperate.
But on April 1, 1984, Marvin got into an argument with his father. His father grabbed a gun and shot him in the heart, and Marvin died one day before his 45th birthday.
What a tragic end to a brilliant career. Marvin Gaye was a tremendously versatile and creative singer, and left behind a stunning catalogue of work.
Jr Walker & the All-Stars and How Sweet It Is:
Autry DeWalt Mixon, Jr was born in 1931 in Arkansas, although he grew up in South Bend, Indiana. He formed a band in South Bend in the 50s, while drummer Billy Nicks formed a competing band.
The two friends would sit in on each other’s gigs, and eventually they got together in an ensemble. They were inspired by early rockers such as Louis Jordan.
When Billy Nicks was drafted into the US Army, Mixon moved the group to Battle Creek, Michigan to continue with their band. In 1961, the band was signed to a contract by producer Harvey Fuqua. Fuqua recorded them on his Harvey label, and the group changed its name to the Jr Walker All Stars.
In 1964, Berry Gordy’s Motown Records took over Fuqua’s enterprise. Gordy re-named the group Jr Walker & the All Stars and signed them to his Soul Records label. Below is a photo of the band from 1965. From L: Victor Thomas, keyboards; Junior Walker, saxophone and vocals; Willie Woods, guitar; James Graves, drums.Embed from Getty Images
Junior Walker and the All-Stars had their first and biggest Motown hit in 1965 with Shotgun. That song reached #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the R&B charts. The tune was written by Junior Walker and produced by Berry Gordy.
Walker followed this up with other hits such as (I’m A) Road Runner. At this point he became one of the premier Motown groups. His unique high-voltage sax solos were instantly recognizable.
Here is Jr Walker and the All-Stars performing How Sweet It Is at London’s Ram Jam Club.
I have two comments regarding the taping of this performance. First, we are grateful to French TV for appreciating the significance of groups like Junior Walker, and for taping his show for posterity.
Second, to the French DJ who insists on talking over Jr Walker’s performance – please, shut the f*** up!! It is unbelievably irritating to hear a DJ ruin a rock ‘n roll performance, assuming that his own inane comments are more interesting than the music.
Anyway, it is great to see Jr Walker’s performance of How Sweet It Is. First off, Walker is as rough as Marvin Gaye was smooth. The gap-toothed Walker, who strongly resembles former NFL player and TV host Michael Strahan, provides his gritty vocals and gives the song an entirely different feel from the Marvin Gaye original. However, the tune is still highly enjoyable.
The other feature is Junior Walker’s terrific saxophone work. Walker invariably gave power-packed performances with a highly competent rock band. I especially appreciate the drummer, who keeps the song humming along. This live footage has great historic interest.
Junior Walker continued to have Motown hits for several years. In 1969, he had a top-5 hit with What Does It Take (To Win Your Love)? This was somewhat of a surprise as it featured Walker’s singing more than his sax playing. Walker continued with a number of songs that landed in the R&B Top Ten, but did not have the same success on the pop charts.
In 1979, Junior Walker disbanded his All Stars and went solo. He then signed with the Whitfield Records label (named for president Norman Whitfield, who for many years was one of Motown’s top producers).
In 1995, Junior Walker was inducted into the Rhythm and Blues Foundation. Later that year, Walker died of cancer. In 2002, Junior Walker’s song Shotgun was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
And now please allow me to rant for a few moments. In the previous section I mentioned the 1983 gala Motown 25: Yesterday; Today; Forever. Produced by Suzanne de Passe, it was a star-studded celebration of the great music produced by Motown Records.
Motown 25 assembled some dynamite groups: a long-awaited reunion of Smokey Robinson and The Miracles; a “battle of the bands” between the Temptations and Four Tops; some great songs by Stevie Wonder; a triumphant performance from Marvin Gaye.
Diana Ross re-united with Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong of The Supremes (although this did not go smoothly). And Michael Jackson not only re-united with his Jackson 5 brothers, but during his performance of Billie Jean, he introduced his signature “moonwalk.”
However, there were also some jarring omissions and tone-deaf moments. First, it was disgraceful that the concert took place in Pasadena instead of Detroit (why didn’t Motown Records have the decency to change their name when they abandoned the Motor City??).
Berry Gordy treated the fabulous house band The Funk Brothers shabbily, leaving them behind without a word when he decamped for LA. Apparently the great Funk Brothers bassist James Jamerson had to purchase his own ticket to Motown 25 (from a scalper, where he sat at the back of the auditorium, un-credited!). Then when a panel (including Gordy) discussed the “Motown Sound,” they managed to avoid ever mentioning the Funk Brothers!
Finally (and back to Junior Walker – there was a point to this rant), there were egregious omissions and snubs. Some of Motown’s most notable artists, including Mary Wells, Martha Reeves and Junior Walker, were allotted 30-second spots on the show (!) On the other hand, 3rd-rate current Motown acts such as Debarge and High Inergy were spotlighted. And no-talent hacks like Adam Ant (who didn’t even record for Motown!) were featured.
How sad that Junior Walker did not get the recognition he so richly deserved at Motown 25. However, Walker did better than the following artists, who were never even mentioned on this show: The Marvelettes; The Contours; Kim Weston; Jimmy Ruffin; Edwin Starr; Gladys Knight and the Pips; and the Isley Brothers!
Oh well, Junior Walker was a terrific talent. His band invariably brought high energy and a raw excitement to his Motown Records releases.
James Taylor and How Sweet It Is:
James Taylor was born in 1948. He was the second of five children to Isaac Taylor, a physician who became the dean of the medical school at the University of North Carolina, and Gertrude Woodard Taylor, an aspiring opera singer before she married and settled down with Isaac.
The family moved to Chapel Hill, NC when James was three. Taylor has fond memories of his family’s home in the country outside Chapel Hill. In addition, the family spent summers on Martha’s Vineyard.
On Martha’s Vineyard, Taylor met a young musician named Danny Kortchmar, and the two compared guitar styles. When James was 15, he and Danny were playing folk and blues in the summer at MV coffee houses.
In his senior year of high school, James became seriously depressed. He committed himself to a hospital where he received round-the-clock medical care and was treated with Thorazine.
In 1966, Taylor and Kortchmar recruited some of their friends to form a band called Flying Machine. They played coffee houses in Greenwich Village, and the group achieved some regional fame; unfortunately, James also developed a nasty heroin addiction. This was further complicated by James’ recurring psychological issues, and it would be decades before Taylor could kick his habit.
In the late 60s, I was a graduate student at Oxford University. Brian, one of my fellow grad students, had a friend whose father worked at Apple Records. Every now and then Brian would get copies of Apple Records albums before they were released. One of our guilty pleasures was listening to the records before the general public heard them.
In fall 1968, Brian brought over two albums. One was by Marianne Faithful, and was very disappointing. But the second was an album from an American artist we had never heard of. It seemed really promising, and we played it constantly.
As it happens, this was James Taylor’s debut album. Below is a photo of James Taylor in 1968; a cropped version was used as the cover photo for his first album.Embed from Getty Images
Taylor’s friend Danny Kortchmar had introduced James to Peter Asher, one half of the folk-pop duo Peter and Gordon. Asher had taken up producing and had been named head of A&R for Apple Records. So James Taylor became the first non-British act signed by Apple Records, and they released his debut album in Dec. 1968 in Britain and in early 1969 in the U.S.
One of Taylor’s really great songs on that album, Carolina On My Mind, reflected Taylor’s homesickness for his Chapel Hill hometown while he was living abroad in London. Taylor assembled an impressive backing band for his album – including Paul McCartney on bass and George Harrison on backing vocals!
Carolina On My Mind was released as a single. Strangely enough, for a song that has become an iconic favorite over the years, that song stalled out at #118 on the Billboard pop charts. Shortly after the album was released, James resumed his drug habit and was hospitalized once again. It is possible that his inability to go on tour during this period contributed to the poor performance of his first album.
However, in 1970 Taylor released his second album, Sweet Baby James, and this became a blockbuster. The title song and his confessional masterpiece Fire and Rain both became breakout hits. Sweet Baby James is currently listed as #103 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
So here is James Taylor in a live performance of How Sweet It Is. This cover of the Marvin Gaye tune was featured on Taylor’s 1975 hit album Gorilla.
Here James is backed by his long-time band, including Waddy Wachtel and Danny Kortchmar on guitar, Lee Sklar on bass, Russ Kunkel on drums, Dan Grolnick on keyboards and David Sanborn on sax.
I really like James Taylor’s cover of How Sweet It Is. It expresses the delight of the original and is a ‘feel-good’ song that is a highly popular staple at Taylor’s live concerts.
Of course, James Taylor is not Marvin Gaye and Taylor’s version is more ‘soft-rock’ than R&B, facts that offend some pop music critics. For example, Robert Christgau complained that Taylor’s cover constituted a “desecration of Marvin Gaye.”
Jeez, Robert, lighten up! This is an upbeat and bubbly expression of joyous love; it is believed Taylor intended it as a tribute to his then-wife Carly Simon. I personally enjoy both versions of How Sweet It Is, and I don’t feel that James Taylor’s version detracts from the Marvin Gaye original in any way.
Well, since he hit the big time James Taylor has become one of the most popular “soft-rock” singer-songwriters. His vocal work is very expressive, and (despite what Robert Christgau says) he gives impressive and creative renditions of both original songs and covers.
James Taylor is also a terrific guitarist. His acoustic guitar work is both technically proficient and sublime. JT’s 1976 Greatest Hits album has sold over 20 million copies, and overall Taylor has sold about 100 million records.
From 1973 to 1982, Taylor was married to fellow singer Carly Simon. The two frequently contributed to each other’s records. Since 2001, James has been married to Kim Smedvig, who was previously the director of marketing for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
We are happy to report that James Taylor successfully kicked his heroin addiction and now appears to be healthy again. JT has won a slew of Grammy Awards, was inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and received Kennedy Center Honors in 2016.
We wish JT all happiness and success, and we endorse the advice from one of his signature songs, “shower the people you love with love.”
Wikipedia, How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)
Wikipedia, Marvin Gaye
Wikipedia, Motown 25: Yesterday, Today, Forever
Wikipedia, Junior Walker
Wikipedia, James Taylor