Thursday, May 08, 2008


The American Masters documentary on Marvin Gaye, which aired on PBS the other night, reminded me of an article I'd read and saved from the Charlotte Observer, a couple of Sunday's ago (4-27-08). The article, written by Mark Price, wasn't about Marvin, per se, but about the man responsible for the stunning, "What's Going On" album cover, Curtis McNair.

Mr. McNair designed most of Motown's covers between 1968 and 1972. His work includes the cover for Stevie Wonder's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered," Smokey Robinson's, "Tears of A Clown," Diana Ross and the Supremes' "Love Child" and "Some Day We'll Be Together," and The Temptation's, "Puzzle People" (one of my personal favorites).

But when it comes to the album cover in which Mr. McNair takes the most pride, it is, of course, Gaye's "What's Going On." Released in 1971, the album is considered a musical masterpiece by many. The lyrics and music penned, produced and song by Gaye, dealt with drug abuse, poverty, the ecology, spirituality, racism and the war in Vietnam.

The photo on the album cover, which was taken in Gaye's backyard, only adds to the beauty and the impact of the work. It's a headshot of Marvin with the collar of his black, leather coat raised and flecks of water and sleet dotting his face and hair.

Interestingly enough, the executive in charge of McNair's department, expressed an intense dislike of the photo. The executive's reaction is even more interesting in light of Motown head, Berry Gordy's own initial refusal to release, "What's Going On" as a single, because he saw it as too political and uncommercial. From what I gathered from watching the American Masters documentary, Gordy wasn't keen on Marvin making a serious, political record period.

Isn't it fascinating how often in their quest to reel in those extra dollars or in their blind certainty about "what works and what doesn't" the gate-keepers in the business world sometimes totally miss both the beauty and the "bigger picture?" (LOL)

If you'd like to learn more about Curtis McNair, check out the April 27, 2008 Charlotte Observer article by Mark Price, "Designed, sealed, delivered."


pjazzypar said...

Barry Gordy was not all that keen on Marvin period, mostly because Marvin was not into conformity. Actually that is what made him special. Barry Gordy had an one idea of what Motown represented, but in reality with the ultimate release of "What's Going On", Motown became a larger than life entity. In my opinion that album is one of the best ever made and it paved the way for Stevie Wonder's "Songs In The Key Of Life" another great work of art. These albums are the BEST ever produced by Motown and arguably the two of the best albums of all time.

Lori said...

Excellent points and observations! You know I'm with you 100% when it comes to Marvin and Stevie's work. "What's Going On" and "Songs In The Key of Life" are in a league of their own.

Anonymous said...

We never hear of the background people involved in the music business, so I kept the article on Mr. McNair.

Lori said...

Yes, the McNair article is very much a "keeper." Actually, I'd love to read a book on his experiences and one full of his beautiful album covers.