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Thursday, March 12, 2015

Did Marvin Gaye actually write "Got To Give It Up"? Up to a point.

Lots of interesting things came out of the Marvin Gaye/Pharrell Williams court case.

There's the $32 million the track is said to have earned, which indicates that today's big hits are bigger than ever.

There's Robin Thicke's admission that he had no part in writing the song, despite having his name among the composer credits. (All the big hits today are written by teams. The artist's name is generally included, though it's impossible to know how much part they play in coming up with it. One very famous superstar is known as "add a word, take a third".)

There's a good piece here from today's New York Times which argues that the whole case is based on a way of looking at the world that no longer applies. One of the point it makes is as follows: "Implicit in the premise of the case is that Mr Gaye's version of songwriting is somehow more serious than what Mr Williams does, since it is the one that the law is designed to protect".

I'll go further. "Mr Gaye's version of songwriting" was probably nothing like we think it was.  For a start "Got To Give It Up", the song that was allegedly copied, was never actually written. It was recorded from various jams, often surreptitiously, by Marvin Gaye's engineer Art Stewart, who is quoted in David Ritz's Marvin Gaye biography "Divided Soul" saying "Marvin wasn't sure of what I was doing but he left me alone to piece the song together. On Christmas Day, 1976, after working on it for months, I ran it over to his house. He liked it but still wasn't sure - a typical Marvin reaction."

We'll never know how true that recollection is but it certainly chimes with other accounts of how Marvin Gaye made records. He had to work through other musicians and producers because he didn't have the know-how to make a track on his own and in those days the technology still required specialist operators. And he could never make up his mind about anything.

He used to complain that Motown never paid him properly for his efforts. The musicians he worked with used to mutter the same thing about him. God knows what they think of all this money going to his children, who certainly had nothing to do with it.