In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
If Marvin Gaye was going to make a disco song, he was going to make a disco song his way. Specifically, he was going to make a disco song that, at least at the beginning, is about being too quiet and sensitive to hit the disco. This disco song was also going to be a subtle, jazz-inflected 12-minute odyssey. It was going to feature party chatter running through the background. And it was going to include the line “Let me step into your erotic zone.”
On paper, none of this looks like a good idea. Gaye was skeptical of disco and of the idea that he could make it himself. He was consumed with making Here, My Dear, his lacerating concept album about his divorce from ex-wife Anna Gordy. But Motown was insistent that Gaye give disco a shot, so he tried it. It’s possible to hear “Got To Give It Up” as pop-chart self-sabotage, or as Gaye’s idea of a disco parody. If nothing else, the song was a capitulation. But it worked. R&B radio loved it. Discos loved it. And the song became Gaye’s third and final #1 hit.
Four years earlier, Gaye had hit #1 with “Let’s Get It On.” But Gaye’s next 10 singles had all missed the top 10, even after he’d recorded an album of duets with Diana Ross. Gaye was more in-demand as a live performer. In October 1976, Gaye flew to London to give his first UK performances in 10 years. One of those shows was captured on the double album Live At The London Palladium. But the show had only been long enough to fill up three LP sides. So Gaye dedicated the final side to “Got To Give It Up,” the version of disco he’d come up with at Motown’s behest.
Gaye’s inspiration for “Got To Give It Up” was another #1 hit, Johnnie Taylor’s 1976 song “Disco Lady.” (It makes sense, since that’s not actually a disco song.) Talking to biographer David Ritz, Gaye said, “I love the way Johnnie sings, and I thought it was a fabulous song, as good as disco ever got. I appreciated the picture of the super-sexy woman on the dancefloor, though in my version, I tried to give it a little twist.”
He gave it a few twists, actually — the sprawling length, the loose feeling, the party-crowd noise. But the biggest twist may be that it’s really a song about being shy and about learning to overcome that shyness. As the song opens, Gaye keens, “I used to go out to parties and stand around / ‘Cause I was too nervous to really get down.” But Gaye’s narrator knows that he’s never going to get laid unless he comes out of his shell, so he forces himself out onto the floor and figures out how to lose himself: “No more standing there beside the walls / Finally got myself together, baby, and I’m having a ball.”
So “Got To Give It Up” is a song about discovery, about figuring out how to use your body. The standard disco thump is there in the beat, but there’s something off about it. It’s not four-on-the-floor. Instead, the drums keep hitting at irregular intervals. It’s equal parts lithe and awkward. It conveys some idea of the stress that Gaye’s narrator might be feeling, trying to figure out how to ride that beat and lose himself. The crowd noise, too, is ebullient from one angle, oppressive from another.
It’s a strange groove, but it’s still a groove, and Gaye catches it beautifully. As a singer, Gaye delivers all of “Got To Give It Up” in a ghostly, unearthly falsetto, flitting in and out of the track. His ad-libs bend and twist in dazzling ways. The four-minute single edit of the song is enough to conjure an atmosphere; the full 12-minute album version is enough to take you on a journey.
Gaye recorded “Got To Give It Up” in Marvin’s Room, his studio, and he brought in musicians who were already friends. Frankie Beverly, another R&B legend, played percussion. So did Gaye himself; at one point, he’s just banging on a grapefruit juice bottle. The party-noise chatter is Gaye’s brother and his girlfriend; Gaye looped their voices up. At one point, Gaye himself shouts out his friend Don Cornelius, the Soul Train host. So even if Gaye was singing about being uncomfortable and learning to get over it, he made sure he was comfortable when he was recording it. Maybe that’s why he sounds so deeply mellow on the song. Or maybe that’s just craft at work.
Michael Jackson, another Motown veteran who was just figuring out how to acclimate to disco, loved “Got To Get It Up.” He took a chant from the second half of “Got To Give It Up” — “Let’s dance! Let’s shout!” — and used it to build the Jacksons’ 1979 single “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground).” (“Shake Your Body” peaked at #7. It’s a 9.) And Jackson would also make use of the whole idea of “Got To Give It Up” — a shy young man finding freedom on the dancefloor — on his own 1979 single “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” a song that will eventually appear in this column.
Jackson wasn’t the only person to take inspiration from “Got To Give It Up.” 36 years after “Got To Give It Up,” Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams tried to create their own version of the song’s vibe on Thicke’s single “Blurred Lines,” another song that will eventually appear in this column. “Blurred Lines” didn’t sample “Got To Give It Up,” and it didn’t use the song’s melody. But Gaye’s children sued Thicke and Williams anyway. And they won. A federal jury awarded millions to Gaye’s kids, setting a troubling precedent for any musician who might take the slightest bit of inspiration from any other musician.
After “Got To Give It Up,” Gaye’s own life would only become more turbulent. Owing millions of dollars in back taxes, Gaye fled the US, moving first to London and then to Belgium. He got hooked on cocaine. He recorded a bunch of singles that didn’t land. He split bitterly with Motown after the label released an album that he considered unfinished.
Gaye hit the top 10 one more time. After leaving Motown for Columbia, Gaye reached #3 with 1982’s “Sexual Healing,” a song that he recorded at home in his apartment in the Belgian city of Ostend. (It’s a 9.) On “Sexual Healing,” Gaye sang over the handclaps and snares of an 808 drum machine that Gaye had programmed himself. It’s a sign that Gaye, unlike most of his ’60s contemporaries, was perfectly at home in the synthed-out ’80s. He could’ve kept going long into the future. He never got a chance.
In 1984, Gaye was living in his parents’ house in Los Angeles. One day, he tried to break up a fight between his parents, and his father shot him in the chest and shoulder, killing him. Gaye died on the day before his 45th birthday. His father, convicted of involuntary manslaughter, was given a six-years suspended sentence. It’s a hell of a loss. Marvin Gaye should still be making music today.
BONUS BEATS: In 1996, a 17-year-old Aaliyah released a funky, convincing cover of “Got To Give It Up” with a quick guest verse from an out-on-work-release Slick Rick. Here’s her video for it:
(Aaliyah will eventually appear in this column. Slick Rick never had a top-10 hit, but his 1988 single “Children’s Story’ will eventually appear, in sampled form, in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the scene from 1997’s Boogie Nights where Dirk Diggler shows off his new house while “Got To Give It Up” plays on the soundtrack:
(Mark Wahlberg will eventually appear in this column.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Got To Give It Up” soundtracking a dance-break scene in the 2002 movie Barbershop:
(Ice Cube has never had a top-10 hit, but Eve has. Two Eve singles have peaked at #2: The 2001 Gwen Stefani collab “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” and the 2002 Alicia Keys collab “Gangsta Lovin’.” “Let Me Blow Ya Mind” is a 7, and “Gangsta Lovin'” is a 4.)
BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s famous awkward dancer Thom Yorke and his Atoms For Peace band covering “Got To Give It Up” at a 2013 show in Mexico City:
(Thom Yorke has never had a top-10 US hit in any capacity; Radiohead’s highest-charting single, 1992’s “Creep,” peaked at #34. But Thom Yorke’s Atoms For Peace bandmate Flea has done better on the pop charts. Flea’s other band the Red Hot Chili Peppers peaked at #2 with their 1992 single “Under The Bridge.” It’s a 9.)