'The Man Was a Genius': Tales From Making Marvin Gaye's Final Album

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Guitarist and producer Gordon Banks talks about recording Midnight Love, which turns 30 today.

GB_midnight love.jpg
Columbia; Wikimedia

By the end of the 1970s, Marvin Gaye had vaulted himself into the ranks of soul music's elite. During the decade, his catalog included the epic opus What's Going On (1971), as well as classics Let's Get It On (1973), I Want You (1976) and Here, My Dear (1978). But the success was taking its toll. As the 1980s began, Gaye, beset by drug and financial problems, left the United States for refuge in Belgium. There, he recorded what would be his last studio album (and first without Motown Records), Midnight Love.

The record turned out to be the biggest seller of Gaye's career, spawning the single "Sexual Healing" and receiving raves placing it on the same level as Gaye's other classics. During the recording process, guitarist and producer Gordon Banks was at Gaye's side. On the occasion of Midnight Love's 30th anniversary today, I spoke with Banks about what it was like to record an icon's final album.


How did you become involved with working for Marvin Gaye?

I lived a couple of blocks away from his drummer. When I met him, he showed me what he did and he took me to an audition. It just took off from there. This happened between 1977 and 1978. It was honestly a job to me. At first, I didn't really talk to Marvin that much because I was a newcomer. After getting to know him, he was pretty down to earth. It turned out to be a great job, and I enjoyed working with him.

What was your collective mindset during the making of the Midnight Love with him?

It was basically him and I in the studio. Columbia Records gave him some new toys to play with. They gave him two drum machines, a synthesizer called a Roland TR-808 and a Jupiter 8. Marvin didn't know too much about technology so it was my job to figure out how to get the stuff working. He kind of liked the sounds that came from it and he went from there. Marvin was a great pianist. After getting past the challenges with the Jupiter 8, it was like he had been playing it his whole life.

Can you talk about the creative relationship that you and Marvin had in the studio together?

It was a learning process for me, but I didn't have a lot of time to learn. When Marvin wanted something to be done, he wanted it to be done. It was only the two of us in the studio. When it came time to do some splicing of the tape, the engineer didn't want to do it because you didn't want to mess up a take of anything that came from Marvin. Marvin would create during the day time and at night, but we would write music at home and then go to the studio to write more music then go home.

The man was so creative. He would hear his patterns and before he finished hearing his patterns he would already have words to go with them. The toys we had to work with were amazing. To see this genius working on these new state-of-the-art instruments at that time was amazing. His ego wouldn't let him do anything wrong. He really knew what he was doing. I know that sounds kind of jumbled, but it's an experience I will never forget. He would play and play and sing and sing then all of sudden he would be doing vocals and he would ask me, "How does that sound?" I told him, "Marvin, you know how it sounds." He said, "Is it flat or sharp?" It hit me all of sudden that I'm telling this major superstar if I like his lines or not. To be trusted by him in this way, really threw me for a loop, honestly. He gave me a nickname during making this album. He would call me "Indicator." He taught me that the first or second thing you hear musically, you usually go with it.

He would ask me, "How does that sound?" I told him, "Marvin, you know how it sounds." It hit me all of sudden that I was telling this major superstar if I liked his lines or not.

The man was a genius. He would lie down on the couch in the studio and fall asleep while I was working on track after track. Then he would wake up and do a whole track like he wasn't even asleep. He would lay back down and wake up to do another track. It wasn't something he did for a living; it was truly a part of him. I was amazed, but I couldn't act like I was amazed. We didn't have a concept of time because we stayed in that studio all of the time.

When we were done recording at the studio in Ostend, Belgium, he said I want you to listen to every single track, and we had 48 tracks. He told me to take out every single pop, glitch and unwanted sound. I said to him, "Are you crazy? Do you know how long it is going to take to listen to 8 tracks for 48 tracks each?" He said, "No. You need to do this because you need to know what's on my tracks when it comes time to mix them." It was how people like him did their music. There was a certain way he clapped his hands to get the sound right in the room. He just knew a lot of different tricks. He was a true teacher. He taught me how to produce vocals and mixing. I didn't know how to do any of this stuff. The album turned out to be a classic because there was so much of him in it and so much of his influence in me.

In terms of coming up with the arrangements for the songs, was it all Marvin, or did you both handle those responsibilities?

There were side men doing sessions with us all of the time. No individual from Michael Jackson all the way down can tell a musician what to play note for note. So when musicians are warming up and playing on the tracks, the artist gets ideas from the musicians. This is why many artists hire the best musicians. In some cases, if you really listen to Michael or Marvin, you could hear them singing riffs from the musicians. Take a guitar line here and take a guitar line there or a keyboard line. They feed off of the musicians just like the musicians feed off of them. On "Sexual Healing," I did 17 tracks, and from a lot of those tracks Marvin took some lines for songs and from his lines I created music as well. It was like, "This guy totally trusts me." It was really deep, man. The following album we were doing, CBS Records hired Barry White to produce it. Marvin told the record company no. The morning that he died, I was finishing up music for that CD. Musicians take from each other and the sounds grow from there. I'm very blessed to have been trusted by Marvin in that way.

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Chris Williams has written for EBONY, PopMatters, and The Huffington Post.

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