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

Guitarist and producer Gordon Banks talks about recording Midnight Love.

Singer Marvin Gaye performs on opening night at Radio City Music Hall, May 17, 1983, New York. (Nancy Kaye / AP)

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.

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.

Marvin is one of the few geniuses we've had in the past 50 years of music. What was the experience like working with him so closely?

It was total trust. I had been with him for a while. My philosophy was to listen to him so much when we did tracks inside and outside of the studio. It takes a musician to know a musician. You can go to a club and hear one guy that doesn't fit in the band. And you wonder why they keep him up there. The reason why they keep him up there is because it's his thing. The total opposite happened with Marvin and I. I really fit with Marvin. I'm a humble person so I'm not trying to come from an egotistical point of view, but from What's Going On to I Want You it was a more soulful thing. I grew up on Jimi Hendrix, Grand Funk Railroad and that type of stuff. I played funk music. The times I was with him his music was progressing. It was changing and it had to change because he didn't want any more ties to Motown. He had to step out on something else. We had a lot of musicians on tour, including Odell Brown. Odell stayed for one song on the album, but we did the other seven basically alone with the help of Harvey Fuqua who puts horns on it.

The man was a genius. I've seen him listen to a song once or twice and sing an introduction verse, hook, a turn around, another verse and a bridge section. In order to hang with a genius, you had to listen to him. It's funny, growing up I didn't even listen to the cat, but I ended up working for him.

Can you delve into the process of making some of the songs from the album?

On "Midnight Lady," it was almost like a throwaway type of song. We would like to have fun in the studio. We recorded songs like "Savage in the Sack" and some other songs. He had a lot of different titles to the song during the process of making it. He used to sing lyrics all of the time and he came up with what it ended up being. It was just a fun little pattern thing.

Songs like "'Til Tomorrow" he always knew where he wanted to go with the sounds. He wanted to get a feel for that. It just grew from him playing the Jupiter 8 on some stuff. It developed into a song from there.

The last song on the album, which is the song I wrote, "My Love is Waiting," I was amazed at it. The demo was like 93 percent to 94 percent done when I came to the studio with it. I wrote the song and Marvin sung it the same way it sounded on the demo. To this day, I still can't believe it. It was like he could take a song and do whatever he wanted to it.

Some people say that "Joy" wasn't about his dad, but I believe that it was. He came from this Pentecostal church upbringing and it came out on this particular song. He would always try to fit a church sound in his songs going back to "What's Going On."

"Rockin After Midnight" was ... just a real funk groove. Marvin recorded something else in the same key, but the tuning of the Jupiter 8 got changed a bit. This is when Marvin told the engineer that he wanted to put the two songs together. The guy couldn't do it. He wouldn't because he was afraid to do it. If you really listen to the hook and the verse tightly, you can hear a slight change in the tonality. He just knew what he wanted. He would put one half together with the other half and made a song out of it. There is just so much amazing stuff like that.

On "Sexual Healing," I don't know where [co-writer] David Ritz got that whole idea from. David came around one day and he said he was into the sexual thing in the Red Light District in Amsterdam. David said to Marvin during a conversation, "It sounds like you need some sexual healing." And that was it. David didn't have anything to do with that, but anyway Marvin ended up doing "Sexual Healing" with Odell [Brown]. Then Odell left and he only did the chords. Marvin put all of the other stuff into the song. He put guitar track after guitar track and the song developed into "Sexual Healing."

How do you feel about the impact that this album made on popular culture, given that it was his last studio album?

The Isley Brothers came out with their Between the Sheets album after Midnight Love came out. It was basically the same instrumentation. The album influenced a lot of people doing a mellow thing with a funk vibe in it. Ernie Isley is a heck of a guitar player, and that sound fit them like a glove. Marvin changed music in a lot of different ways, but this Midnight Love sound was totally new. He had never used a drum machine before. From my experience and what I heard, he liked the have a lot of musicians around him. His bands were big. [But] when I got there, his band started dropping off. Something just happened between him and I. It was like magic. It really was. His love for God and the way we talked all of the time something just really clicked between us. To this day, you have a lot of people trying to capitalize on his music. And out of respect for him I've really done nothing. I have a few tracks of things that people have never heard that we worked on. I haven't released them because I have total respect for the guy.