By the early 1970s, Marvin Gaye was very much his own man, making music only on his terms. Especially after the massive success of his 1971 landmark album What’s Going On, and the not inconsiderable matter of a new $1 million deal with Motown that gave him greater creative control than he’d ever had. What Gaye did next, far from trying to repeat the sound of his last album, was to branch out into a movie soundtrack. This is the story of Trouble Man.
Now in full production control and writing almost all of the material himself, Gaye seized the opportunity to write for a low-budget blaxploitation crime thriller starring Robert Hooks and directed by Ivan Dixon. Trouble Man hoped to follow in the footsteps of Shaft, Superfly and other successes.
If the picture is little remembered today, the soundtrack has outlived it and stands tall as a rather underrated part of Gaye’s body of work. It’s also the perfect change of pace in between the ecologically aware What’s Going On and the romantically focused Let’s Get It On of just nine months later.
Trouble Man was released on December 8, 1972, charting in America on the penultimate day of the year and rising to a No.14 peak in a 21-week chart run. If that was nothing on the 53-week residency of What’s Going On, it’s nevertheless an album that really repays revisiting.
After Motown’s closure of its Hitsville studios in Detroit, Gaye was initially reluctant to follow the label to Los Angeles, but he couldn’t resist the chance to work in Hollywood. He made the move to L.A. permanent in 1973. Trouble Man had Gaye displaying his skill as a composer in jazz and blues just as much as a soul figurehead, and treating the album and the score as two separate entities.
It wasn’t until a 40th anniversary reissue in 2012 that the difference between the two was fully appreciated. The opening main theme is a saxophone-led, big-band style workout that sets a confident tone, and much of the score is in an atmospheric instrumental vein that certainly conjures the cinematic mood of the day.
Nevertheless, even in the discipline of film scoring, Gaye managed to maintain his run of big crossover singles, when the atmospheric, grooving title song climbed to No.7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No.4 R&B.
Buy or stream Trouble Man.