These posts are about the songs that just barely failed to cross the key line of chart success, entering the Billboard Top 40. Every song featured in this series peaked at number 41.
Marvin Gaye was one of the stalwart artists in the Motown galaxy of stars throughout the nineteen-sixties, but he was growing disillusioned by the end of the decade. His mood was likely darkened by the grave ailments suffered by his regular duet partner Tammi Terrell, who collapsed into his arms during a 1967. Doctors discovered a brain tumor, evidence of the cancer that claimed her life three years later.
But Gaye was also weary of what he viewed as constant manipulation by Berry Gordy, the head of Motown and associated labels. The singer notched his first chart-topper in 1968, with his cover of the Gladys Knight and the Pips hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” but he took little joy in the accomplishment, feeling it represented an uncomfortable acquiescence to the Motown machine. Gaye was an artist at heart, and continually recycling entries in the well-worn Hitsville U.S.A. songbook was getting old.
Norman Whitfield was producing most of Gaye’s records at the time, and it was a highly contentious relationship.
“Norman and I came within a fraction of an inch of fighting,” Gaye later recalled. “He thought I was a prick because I wasn’t about to be intimidated by him. We clashed. He made me sing in keys much higher than I was used to. He had me reaching for notes that caused my throat veins to bulge.”
The 1970 album That’s the Way Love Is was representative of Whitfield’s approach with Gaye. It was comprised almost entirely of songs previously recorded by other artists, including four different tracks that were first the property of the Temptations. One of those, “How Can I Forget,” was released as a single. It was a middling performer on the pop charts, just missing the Top 40.
After That’s the Way Love Is, Gaye insisted on forging his own creative path. For his next studio album, he wrote or co-wrote all of the songs and served as the sole credited producer. Released in 1971, What’s Going On was a major hit, yielding three Top 10 singles and quickly rising in status to stand as one of the unquestioned artistic pinnacles in all of pop music.
Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Top 40 Smash Near Misses” tag.