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Marvin Gaye Bio: 'Mercy, Mercy Me'

Rarely has a musician had as great an impact on American culture as music legend Marvin Gaye.

Social critic and author Michael Eric Dyson's new book, "Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves and Demons of Marvin Gaye," tells the story of the 1970s musical artist who helped define the music of Motown.

Dyson, who is also a professor of African American Strudies at the University of Pennsylvania, stopped by The Saturday Early Show to discuss the complex life of Gaye. He explained why the singer is still so influential, 20 years after he was fatally shot by his own father.

The author interviewed those close to Gaye to draw a portrait of the artist and the tensions that shaped contemporary urban America: economic adversity, the drug industry, racism and the long legacy of hardship.

Read an excerpt from "Mercy, Mercy Me":

Chapter Two

"If This World
Were Mine"

The Politics of Soul Music

As a new decade dawned in Detroit-Motown's birthplace and the home of its most glorious creations before relocating its offices to Los Angeles in 1972 -- blacks emerged from the city's shadow of a bloody 1967 riot with the hope of finally achieving true equality.

Motown inspired African Americans to believe that hard work and true talent can be rewarded. Because it gave voice to black genius, Motown couldn't avoid being seen in racial terms. Berry Gordy was an icon of black entrepreneurial power, especially since "[n]o one could have predicted that an unskilled car-factory worker one generation removed from the cotton fields would be one of the most successful black businessmen in American history."

Motown was an extraordinarily successful black business that harvested the gifts of black artists denied opportunity in the white world.

The black freedom struggle in the sixties greatly accelerated the national embrace of Motown. As critic Suzanne Smith noted, "the civil rights movement created the environment in which broader cultural integration-as typified by Motown's wide appeal-could occur."

Still, Motown was cautious about identifying too strongly with the black revolution. Although it readily depended on its black base for support, Motown eagerly desired to produce a sound that could cross over to white audiences. The styles, themes, sounds, and behavior of its artists were carefully tailored to project an unthreatening image of black identity.

The gulf between whites and blacks was effortlessly bridged by the rhythms pouring from Hitsville, creating a treasured sanctuary in the geography of racial harmony at 2648 West Grand Boulevard.
That didn't mean that Motown ignored the rising tide of black pride and racial consciousness. In 1963, Motown recorded Martin Luther King, Jr.'s June 23 speech before 125,000 demonstrators in a historic civil rights march in Detroit, and released it on August 28, the day King gave his legendary "I Have a Dream" address at the march on Washington.

The album, entitled The Great March to Freedom, was the company's first spoken-word recording, paving the way for Motown's spoken-word label, Black Forum, which would provide "a medium for the presentation of ideas and voices of the worldwide struggle of Black people to create a new era...[and as] a permanent record of the sound of the struggle and the sound of a new era."

Black Forum's first productions included Free Huey!, a speech by activist Stokely Carmichael in support of the imprisoned Black Panther leader Huey Newton, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s speech, Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam, which later won a 1970 Grammy Award. In 1970, Black Forum released Poets of the Revolution, featuring the poetry of Langston Hughes and Margaret Danner. Later it released It's Nation Time by poet-activist Amiri Baraka; Elaine Brown: Until We're Free, a collection of songs by the Black Panther leader; Black Spirits, which featured the work of figures like Baraka, Clarence Major, the Original Last Poets, and David Henderson; Guess Who's Coming Home: Black Fighting Men Recorded Live in Vietnam, a recording based on the research of the late Wallace Terry in Southeast Asia among black soldiers; and The Congressional Black Caucus, a recording of keynote speeches, including those of Ossie Davis and Bill Cosby, presented at the caucus's first annual banquet.

After the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968, Berry Gordy dispatched Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight and the Pips, the Supremes, and the Temptations, to perform at a benefit concert in Atlanta for the Poor People's March, the campaign on which the leader was working when he was murdered.

Despite these significant interventions, the Black Forum label was comparatively obscure, and aside from King's efforts, its offerings weren't nearly as aggressively promoted as Motown's musical fare. Motown vigilantly separated its support for venting black struggle and its keen desire to captivate and capitalize on white America through pop music. The rigid segregation of politics and music kept Motown's enormous popularity intact. But the rise of a new black political consciousness, the flames of urban riots and rebellions, the war in Vietnam, the expansion of American protest music, the relentless appropriation of black music by white artists, the evolution of student activism, and the resurgence of progressive politics began to shape the music of some of black America's bravest artists. Many black jazz artists had already been politicized in the fifties and sixties, and the recordings of Sun Ra, John Coltrane, and members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) showed how the line between music and social conscience could be artfully blurred.

The work of Nina Simone ("Mississippi Goddamn"), Les McCann and Eddie Harris ("Compared to What"), Julian "Cannonball" Adderley ("The Price You Got to Pay to Be Free") and Eugene McDaniel (Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse) proved that the black aesthetic and the black politic could be one.

Curtis Mayfield defined the gospel-drenched Chicago sound with music of haunting eloquence and lyrics that touched the soul of black struggle. His work with the Impressions produced not only elegant romantic ballads, but edifying songs of racial pride. In the mid-sixties, Mayfied wrote socially uplifting tunes such as "Keep on Pushing," and "People Get Ready." While not explicitly political anthems, these songs nevertheless brought inspiration to the civil rights movement. In 1968, Mayfield more straightforwardly embraced black pride on his stirring "We're a Winner," followed in the next couple of years by such message songs as "This Is My Country" and "Choice of Colors." In 1969, Sly and the Family Stone's album Stand! ventured into socially conscious territory with songs like "Don't Call Me Nigger, Whitey" and "Everyday People." In the early seventies, they added the masterly and stylishly bleak manifesto There's a Riot Goin' On.

Motown slowly came around. Stevie Wonder was the first Motown artist to nod to politics on a single when in 1966 he released a well received version of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind." He followed it later that year with the similarly themed "A Place in the Sun" on his album Down to Earth, which was the first Motown album cover to depict a ghetto landscape.

Despite these recordings, the songs failed to ignite a trend of socially conscious music at Motown. In 1968, the tide turned with the release of the Supremes' "Love Child," a song that probes the plight of unwed teen mothers. "Love Child" leaped to the number one position on the pop charts and became the biggest hit of the Supremes' career. With the commercial appeal of socially relevant soul music established, Motown waded a bit further into these waters under the innovative guidance of Norman Whitfield, who was, according to one critic, an architect of the "ghetto sound" that speaks directly "to the concerns of inner-city blacks."

Excerpted from "Mercy, Mercy Me," by Michael Eric Dyson. Copyright © 2004 Excerpted by permission of Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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