I remember when the song “Inner City Blues” first came out.
Of course I was a teenager then. I remember it being quite controversial, because of it’s title, it’s vibe and it’s subject matter.
In fact we all remember the famous story of how when Marvin Gaye completed the “What’s Going On” LP, that Berry Gordy refused to release it into the marketplace, because it was so different. He ordered Marvin Gaye back into the studio to record “something he could release.” But he did so with the promise that he would release the title cut “What’s Going On” as a single to see how it did. Of course the rest is history.
“What’s Going On” became a hit single and the album itself has become legendary.
Looking back I suspect that one of the biggest objections that Berry Gordy would have had about the album was the inclusion of the song “Inner City Blues.” This was one tough song. It’s a jazz cut, and it’s lyrical content is an extreme departure from “the sound of young America.” It’s what some might describe as “an angry Black man,” discussing topics that are far removed from what teenaged consumers would supposedly be interested in.
However the song “Inner City Blues” ended up being #1 on the R&B Charts for 12 weeks and eventually reached #9 on the Pop charts in 1971.
In 1972 “Inner City Blues” was “covered” by Grover Washington Jr and reached #42 on the R&B charts. And of course it has been covered many times since.
Grover Washington, Jr. (1972) Sarah Vaughan (A Time In My Life from 1972) The Chi-Lites (A Lonely Man from 1972) The Impressions (Times Have Changed from 1972) Reuben Wilson (Sweet Life from 1972) Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express (Closer To It from 1973) Gil Scott-Heron (1981) Sly Dunbar with Robbie Shakespeare (Sly-Go-Ville from 1982) Working Week (Working Nights from 1985) Joe Cocker (1986) Nona Gaye (Inner City Blues: The Music of Marvin Gaye from 1994) Angela Winbush (Angela Winbush from 1994) The Chi-Lites (1995) Ideal (Original Gangstas (soundtrack) from 1996) Maceo Parker (1998) Mayfield Four (Fallout from 1998) Carla Cook (It’s All About Love from 1999) Peter Mulvey Ten Thousand Mornings from 2002) James Last (Inner City Blues from 2003) John Mayer (As/Is from 2004) Sevendust (Seasons from 2003 & Best of (Chapter One 1997-2004)from 2005) Marc Broussard (S.O.S.: Save Our Soul from 2007) The Asteroids Galaxy Tour (Fruit from 2009)
Fast forward to 2001
I was attending a Doo Wop show in NYC and I met a White woman there who was at least 10-15 years older than me. We had a nice conversation about the artists who were appearing on the show. Then she mentioned that she had been to the Soul-Patrol.com website and really liked it.
She told me that she especially liked the section about Marvin Gaye and that her favorite Marvin Gaye album was “What’s Going On.”
She told me that the album had literally changed her life. She explained; “I wasn’t prejudiced or anything like that, although most of my family & friends were. But I just never thought about Black people at all. There weren’t any Black people in my neighborhood or church, and I didn’t go to school with any.
However I did like listening to R&B music on the radio and I brought the music. I was always a big fan of Motown, so when the Marvin Gaye album “What’s Going On” came out I brought it.
I just wanted to let you know that listening to that album changed my life. It gave me the freedom to think about Black people as people and I think that it did the same thing for many other White people who grew up like me.”
That evening, driving home I was reminded of the famous quote; “The Civil Rights Movement didn’t free Black people, it freed White people….”
Fast forward to May/2013
I am in Bethlehem, PA. I am sitting in a fabulous nightclub there with my wife & daughter. Besides the three of us, out of a crowd of perhaps 300 people, there are only about 5-10 other Blacks in the audience, most of whom appear to be there working.
We are there to see our friend Jason Miles doing his “Grover Live” concert. This is an excellent show that I have reviewed previously. It is a tribute to the music of the late Grover Washington Jr.
On this night Jason had the fabulous Maya Azucena as the featured vocalist. And of course the time in the show, that I knew would come, finally came. They did “Inner City Blues,” with Maya doing a great vocal rendition.
As well you might expect, I started bobbin’ my head, snappin’ my fingers, bangin’ on the table like it was a set of bongos, etc.
Then I turned to my daughter and asked her; “Have you ever heard this song before?”
She looked at me like I was crazy at first, then I could see “the gears inside of her head” moving and finally she said; “Of course I know this song, it’s Marvin Gaye…”
I breathed a sigh of relief (maybe I have raised this kid the right way after all…..lol)
Then I started signing the lyrics…
And my daughter said; “Dad I think that I would rather hear your friend Maya sing it instead…”
(so I stopped….lol)
However I did look around the room and observed that all of the White people sitting in the audience were either bobbing their head, beating on the table, snapping their fingers, moving their feet under the table or mouthing the lyrics.
Seeing that made me smile.
It also made me think about the story that the White woman told me at the NYC Doo Wop show in 2001.
And I wondered if the once controversial song “Inner City Blues,” had now become elevated to the status of being an American Pop music standard?