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Can I Get a Witness - Marvin Gaye

In the UK, Marvin Gaye became a big star almost overnight when in 1968 "I Heard it through the Grapevine" stormed up the charts to number one. If it weren't for a couple of minor duet hits with Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell respectably, very few people who weren't ardent Tamla followers would have heard of him. Even now, for most, this is the starting point for the singer who is now also famous for recording the first major "concept" album, the classy "What's Going On", and the classic singles "Let's Get It On", "Got to give it up" and "Sexual Healing". But what they are missing is his consistently superb output from his first US hit "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" in 1962 until the aforementioned "Grapevine" six years later. In this period Gaye worked with a variety of songwriters and producers, starting with William Stevenson, and working through the pantheon of classic Motown teams Holland-Dozier-Holland, Smokey Robinson, and Norman Whitfield with Barrett Strong.

"Can I Get a Witness" is the first time Gaye worked with Holland-Dozier-Holland and allegedly he only listened to the song once as sung to him as a "learner" by Eddie Holland, before recording it straight off reading the words from a sheet of paper on the first take. If you see the films of Gaye's tv appearances in the early sixties he is incredibly impressive for his smart, suave sophistication, way beyond that of his rivals. But the thing that stands out with his singing is the time he seems to have to fit in the phrasing of the words of each song without ever risking losing its tune. The singer that he most sounds like, timingwise, is Little Willie John, who must have been a big influence on him. Eddie Holland claimed Gaye was "the most versatile vocalist I ever worked with." Adorned by a stonking piano line from Earl Van Dyke, these vocals are as soulful as anything Gaye ever did, and the Funk Brothers' brass section give hot ensemble backing along with the Holland Brothers and the Supremes.

People often say that the Beatles were influenced by Motown while the Rolling Stones were influenced by the Chess blues stable, but it's no accident that the Stones covered "Can I Get a Witness" on their first album, and Gaye's "Hitch Hike" on their third. Jagger's vocal on "Can I Get a Witness" is totally dwarfed by Gaye's in soulfulness, emphasis, timing, excitement and sheer beauty. Way back in 1964, Jagger still had an awful lot to learn and I'm betting he learnt most of it from the early Marvin Gaye.

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