How Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On changed soul music forever

Jon O'Brien

BY Jon O'Brien

21st Aug 2023 Music

Marvin Gaye's 1973 album Let's Get It On was a landmark release not only for soul music, but for music in general…
“Birth and copulation and death. That's all the facts when you come to brass tacks.” Marvin Gaye may have quoted T S Eliot’s slightly reductionist summary of mankind in the sleeve notes of his 13th studio album, Let’s Get It On, but as its title suggests, the soulman was only really interested in one of these human conditions.
"Gaye took a far more inward, intimate approach for his 1973 album"
Indeed, having put the world to rights on socially-conscious predecessor What’s Going On, Gaye took a far more inward, intimate approach for its 1973 follow-up. And inspired by a complicated extramarital affair which not only impacted his wife but his label boss and producer too, it pushed soul music into a whole new sensual realm.

You’re the Man to Let’s Get It On 

Gaye had initially planned for the record, his first since signing a $1 million deal with Motown that assured him more creative control, to be political and titled You’re the Man. But undergoing a period of uncertainty—his marriage to Anna Gordy was struggling, while his mentor and brother-in-law Berry Gordy’s decision to move his label from Detroit to Los Angeles had left him feeling even more unmoored—the singer then developed a severe case of writer’s block. 
It was only when producer Ed Townsend recognised that Let’s Get It On’s iconic title track, best-known for its mating call wah-wah intro, worked better as a bedroom jam than a protest song that Gaye began to rediscover his mojo. And their collaborations at Los Angeles’ Hitsville West studio would also change the star’s personal life forever too. 

The influence of Gaye’s love life 

Then only 17 years old, Janis Hunter had been invited to watch a recording session by family friend Townsend. Gaye, twice her senior, was instantly smitten, later telling biographer David Ritz, “I saw her as more than a real girl. She suddenly appeared as a gift of God.” Hunter, the daughter of jazz guitarist Slim Gaillard, was actually present during the chosen take of “Let’s Get It On.” And she continued to serve as a muse throughout the rest of the album’s inception.  
For example, Gaye had initially turned down “If I Should Die Tonight,” an emotional orchestral ballad penned by Townsend about two married strangers who, after essentially falling in love at first sight, decide against acting on their lustful impulses.
"Even if you’re entirely unaware of the real-life soap opera behind it, Let’s Get It On is still a compelling listen"
The star, who much preferred singing lyrics he could relate to, argued he’d never been immediately bowled over by a woman in that way before. After one particular date with Hunter, however, an enthusiastic Gaye practically demanded the producer to cue the track up.  
However, the album’s most autobiographical moment pertains to Gaye’s crumbling marriage. Closer “Just to Keep You Satisfied,” first shopped to fellow Motown acts The Originals and The Monitors, was initially co-written with Anna as a love song in 1969.
Four years later, Gaye abandoned its romanticism to reposition it as a surprisingly candid insight into their turbulent relationship (“I stood all the jealousy/All the bitchin' too/Yes, I'd forget it all/Once in bed with you”).
Even if you’re entirely unaware of the real-life soap opera behind it, Let’s Get It On is still an incredibly compelling listen. Later released as one of the all-time great live singles, doo-wop throwback “Distant Lover” proves Gaye could play the wounded soul as convincingly as the wounder, eventually unleashing what can only be described as a tortured howl as he pines over a lost love.
Further showcasing his astonishing vocal abilities, “You Sure Love to Ball” is a remarkably sexual affair whose orgasmic moans, unsurprisingly, caused quite the stir at the time of release.  

Success and influence 

Let’s Get It On became the artist’s biggest-selling Motown LP, peaking at No 2 on the Billboard 200 on its way to sales of more than three million. And although its central love story didn’t get an entirely happy ending—Gaye and Hunter married in 1977 and had two kids before divorcing four years later—the record remains one of his most influential.  
You can trace its carnal energy in everything from the sexually charged funk of Prince and Rick James to the smooth come-ons of Usher and John Legend. In fact, it practically invented the slow jam.
"It’s on Let’s Get It On that Gaye channeled his inherent sensuality to the most potent effect"
Its emphasis on atmosphere, rather than the big pop hooks typically associated with the Motown factory, also paved the way for the neo-soul scene which spawned the likes of D’Angelo, Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. It’s little wonder that in 2004, the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.  
The LP’s success would give Gaye the confidence to further explore his turbulent personal life on record, firstly on the loved-up I Want You and then the post-divorce confessionals of Here, My Dear. It’s on Let’s Get It On, though, that he channeled his inherent sensuality—“Marvin could sing the Lord's Prayer and it would have sexual overtones,” Townsend once noted—to the most potent effect.  
Cover image: Photograph by Jim Britt, whose other (copyrighted) photos of Gaye from the same session—many of them in full color—can be seen at his website. Originally distributed by Motown Records., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
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