What’s Going On This Day in 1939?

Marvin GayeCharlemagne was born on this day back in 742. Certainly, I could have named him the winner of today’s birthday contest, but there is no good video of him. Buddy Ebsen was born in 1908. He only died back in 2003 at 95—outliving Irene Ryan by 25 years! The great actor Alec Guinness was born in 1914. Most people know him from Star Wars. Frankly, I get him confused with John Gielgud, who I like rather more. (And who I will talk more about on his birthday in a couple of weeks.) And Rodney King was born on 1965—not so much a person as an important cultural symbol.

The lovely Gloria Henry is 90 today. Barret Eugene Hansen (Click the link!) is 72. Leon Russell is 71. Diminutive and wonderful actress Linda Hunt is 68. And bad girl philosopher, who I both love and hate, Camille Paglia is 66.

Man of the Day

Just a pop star? I don’t think so. On this day in 1939, a musical genius was born: Marvin Gaye. He died tragically young. And he was still producing great music up to the end. It is sad that he is gone, because I’m sure he would be thrilling us today if he were still around. Just the same, we have the decades of great music he left us.

Here is a live version of “What’s Going On” from the DVD Marvin Gaye: The Real Thing – In Performance 1964-1981. (That’s the great bassist James Jamerson in the band! He sadly died the same year as Gaye.)

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “What’s Going On This Day in 1939?

  1. Late comment — ever check out the documentary "Standing In The Shadows Of Motown?" It’s about the band, mostly struggling jazz musicians, who provided the Motown sound. Part of the documentary is very annoying new live versions of annoying new white people performing those Motown classics with the reassembled Motown band — skip that shit or suffer. But the stories of how the band lived and played way back when are very good.

    Years ago, a friend who is Croatian/Mexican married a German woman, and the mixture of mismatched cultures and languages at a meet-‘n’-greet before the wedding was painful at best. Until someone had the good sense to put on some Motown. Instantly everyone’s faces lit up, and soon there was dancing and laughing. For ages afterwards, my friend and I wondered — what makes Motown magic? Why does it cross cultural barriers so effortlessly? (My mom, a staunch racist from Chippewa Falls, WI, learned to not be a racist loving Motown songs with Black friends in the Air Force circa 1967.)

    It’s the context, of course (non-US people fighting their own fights admired Black singers who broke through to US white audiences) and the good songwriting and the talented vocalists, but I think more than anything it was the band . . . specifically James Jamerson. After watching that documentary I got a Motown best-of CD from the library, and listened to it with the bass turned up. I hadn’t realized how many songs I knew and loved by heart hooked me because of him.

    Any competent chanteuse could have done justice to "You Can’t Hurry Love." What’s the memorable thing about the song? Jamerson’s bass intro. Same with "Reflections," "Don’t Mess With Bill," and about 20 others. The best of Motown had vocalists who couldn’t be duplicated, like Gaye (odd that Berry Gordy used more supremely gifted male singers than female ones, because it’s not as though there was a shortage of terrific female singers at the time), but behind them all was that monster awesome band.

    And, especially, Jamerson. In terms of creating riffs and patterns which just inexorably nudged their way into your memory, he might not have an equal in the brief history of mass-distributed pop music. I understand he’s regarded as God by most bass players old enough to have heard him in their formative years; and quite rightly so.

  2. @JMF – You are right: the band is great. I mostly know Jamerson because I used to try to play bass and he was [i]the man[/i]. The main thing is that he had a great sense of melody. I think the bass is the hardest instrument in a rhythm section. You have to be solid as the drummer, and hold the tonic, and (this is where most players fail) create an interesting line. No one was better at that than Jamerson.

    And you are right that just about anyone could make YCHL work. Proof: Phil Collins had a hit with it! Here’s the real deal:


    Maybe you’re wrong. That kicks ass compared to Collins!

    Note: Bruce Thomas of [i]The Attractions[/i] is also a great (and under appreciated) bass player; working with Costello’s chords is no easy matter!

  3. Check this out! I just found this isolated bass track from "What’s Going On." It isn’t that much fun all by itself, but it does show how hard the bassist’s job is and what Jamerson manages to do. It is also interesting to notice how he opens up the line as he goes along:


  4. Speaking of bass players, here is Carol Kaye (who just turned 78) talking about the need to understand chords and the cycle of 5ths to play jazz. This was a real pleasure to watch:


    In case you don’t know her, Kaye was a very famous session bass player from the 60s onward. She is notable for being a woman. But unlike, say Tina Weymouth (who is really like), Kaye has the goods. Here she is playing "These Boots Are Made For Walking," which has a very memorable bass line:


  5. Thanks for the links! I know absolutely nothing about how music is made, and when music people speak in their special language, I hide my head in ignorant shame. The SO, a classically-trained piano teacher, then punches me in the arm and reminds me "see, I told you it was really hard stuff and you’re not such a brainiac for knowing some history!" Agreed. I am not a brainiac — I can remember a few things that piqued my interest, but that’s nothing compared to the deluge of wizardry skilled musicians have to absorb just so that they can be even approach competence. (I comfort myself by being reminded that I may not know anything, yet I’m less dumb than Greenspan & Paulson et. al. Bigger idiots do exist.)

    These links reinforced my sense of dumbitude, yet a reference to Tina Weymouth never does. You know, she had never played bass before Chris Frantz recruited her into the band. Frantz taught her to avoid the cringe-inducing bass solo (as drummers in pop music should avoid solos), and she became as important a member of the band as anyone. (Think the bass line to "Heaven," or the cool intro to "Nothing But Flowers.")

    The Heads are the first band I ever loved. I grew up in a household that regarded rock music as Satan’s earworms, and protected us kids from aberrant sexual atrocities by restricting our listening to library recordings of Broadway showtunes. Yup, my folks decided to make me not-gay via insisting I knew, by heart, every musical number ever recorded. And I still know ’em all. (Never challenge me on who can sing "I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair" more accurately, because You Will Lose.)

    When my father became sick enough (mental illness brought upon by staunch Republican beliefs and religious mania) to stop micromanaging my every move, I decided to get some of that Satanic rock-and-roll everyone talked about from the library. It was daunting; that was a huge selection of records, and not only was I unfamiliar with the band names, but I suspected 90% of them would send me straight to Hell.

    I settled on one with a non-sexual cover and a reassuringly-themed title, "Speaking In Tongues." Inside of a week I knew every track by heart. (It didn’t hurt that David Byrne sounded like King Of The Nerds, which, as it turns out, he utterly was.) Thus began my gateway descent into senseless pop addiction, like the Beatles/Stones and even some current acts.

    I’ll never not love the Heads, just for that first taste of sheer depravity. (Never let a kid dance around his bedroom to "Don’t Worry About The Government"; he might get unholy ideas that a building should have every convenience and make it easy to relax along with loved ones.)

    I’ll (sadly) never understand how music is made. I can hear a bass player now in a song (and, incidentally, I want to look as normal and healthy as Carol Kaye does if I make it to her age) but the window of opportunity vis-a-vis youthful information-upload is over. Now I just occasionally learn than bass players like Kaye/Jamerson are terrific, while most of what remains in my gray matter is devoted to shit like figuring out how to fix a faucet. I’m not complaining! Fixing a faucet is very cool.

  6. Also, re-reading this, Elvis is a personal hero of mine. He had a free concert In Saint Paul a few years back, where the money was supposedly to be made from a swank close-to-the-stage premier seating section. Almost nobody sat in it. After a few songs, Elvis suggested the rest of us climb into the premier-seating section. "Nobody else bought it," he said, "and you can see the band better from there." We didn’t take him up on it — Minnesotans are polite to a fault — but I loved that Elvis pissed on the premier-seating section.

    And nothing is better on the 4th of July than "What’s So Funny About Peace Love And Understanding." Yeah, it’s Nick Lowe’s song, but Elvis owns it now, and saying "happy birthday" before giving a free concert rendition of it is beyond cool.

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