I think the thing I love so much about Trouble Man is that it shouldn’t work as well as it does. First and foremost, the Trouble Man soundtrack is probably one of the most fascinating seventies soundtracks because it’s for a film that was immediately forgettable. Additionally, in the age of Blaxploitation soundtracks that delivered such classics as Shaft, Superfly and Sparkle, Marvin Gaye’s foray into the genre is mostly instrumental, so much so that its probably more accurate to call it a score with one or two vocal songs. Along those lines, Trouble Man is not something that seems like it is representative of Gaye during this period.
Arguably, the fount of Gaye’s creative force throughout the seventies was how he managed to channel his personal demons and complicated experience into achingly beautiful art. While it’s true that the social commentary of What’s Going On is his greatest achievement, the iconic musician channeled his personal life into the bulk of seventies output. Gaye created two albums, I Want You and Let’s Get It On focused on his longtime yearning for the sixteen year old Janis Hunter, (which, uh, I guess at some point, we’re going to have to address that, huh?) He also exorcised the demons associated with his disintegrating marriage to Anna Gaye through the viscerally uncomfortable listening experience of Here, My Dear. Marvin Gaye turned his life into music. Yet, somehow, Marvin Gaye stepped outside of himself and created a fascinating score to a film that, frankly, didn’t deserve it.
Scores are difficult to pull off. On the one hand, they have to provide a necessary backdrop to the action occurring on the screen. It’s a vitally important part of the film landscape (and, if you don’t think so, next time you watch a movie, try and imagine the action with no aural framing at all…) but it almost has to be an invisible one. There are a few notable exceptions - John Williams’ work comes to mind immediately-but, for the most part, a score cannot distract from the more important part of the action…uh, the action.
In the case of seventies Black films, the score had an even more thankless job. While aficionados acknowledge the quality of the work that Earth, Wind & Fire did on Sweet Sweetback’s Badassss Song, when most of us think of the music in Blaxploitation era movies, we start with Isaac Hayes’ legendary theme to Shaft and, immediately, go right to an acknowledgement of Curtis Mayfield’s extraordinary work on Superfly. And, while those two albums are classic examples of seventies soul, in a lot of ways, they distorted the expectations of what music sounded like in the later Black films. Yes, most of the films from this era had scores but, let’s face it, cats were there for the explosive soundtracks.
So hungry was the public for these post-Mayfield and Hayes’ efforts that folks ate up soundtracks for movies that weren’t even that good. Trouble Man definitely fits the bill. I have to admit; I think I’ve seenTrouble Man one time and I have absolutely no memory of it. Pretty sure it’s something about Robert Hooks and he’s a detective or hitman or a lawyer or a ski instructor or something. Oh! It looks like Ivan Dixon directed it! That’s kind of interesting!
But the album itself? Magnificent. It begins, appropriately enough, with “Main Theme From Trouble Man,” a bluesy, saxophone driven instrumental that serves as opening salvo and leads right into a funked up saxophone riff played over the ri-di-cu-lous drums in “T Plays It Cool” (for my sample heads, this is the joint that those horn come from in Jazzy Jeff’s “Touch of Jazz…) With the lush strings, subdued piano and, yes, more saxophone on the third track, “Poor Abby Walsh,” you begin to get a sense of Gaye’s approach. He is creating an atmosphere and sense of place through instrumentation and, only when the situation requires it, (in the case of “Poor Abby Walsh”, three minutes into a four minute song,) does Gaye utilize the greatest instrument he commands: his voice. This construction of an aural landscape, one that is sexy, urban, urbane and melancholy, continues throughout the next two tracks. Then, exactly halfway through the album, Gaye drops the bomb. “There’s only three things that are sure: taxes, death and trouble.” “Trouble Man” is a Blaxploitation theme as interpreted by a visionary in complete command of his gift and what he believes Blackness should sound and make you feel like.
“I know some places and I've seen some faces
I've got good connections-they dig my directions
What people say that's okay
They don't bother me”
And Marvin Gaye, being Marvin Gaye, of course comes down from that high with “Theme From Trouble Man” featuring an oboe. Because, what else would you use but an oboe? But, that’s all you get. There’s a bit of reprise but the vocals on the theme are the extent of Marvin Gaye singing on the album. It’s a ballsy move. While, yes, the dark lushness of the production on his albums are a great feature, Gaye is known as a singer, first and foremost. For him to really focus on the instrumental side of his talent reflected, not only a level of confidence in his craft, but a single-mindedness of purpose that, frankly, putsTrouble Man more in line with the torturous Here, My Dear than anything else.
Y’know, when we talk about Marvin Gaye, we divide him into two periods: the classic Motown phase and the auteur phase as he moved into the seventies. Unsurprisingly, I’m a seventies man. I respect that early sixties, “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” era but, yeah, it does have a bit too much of the Baby Boomer stink on it for my taste. Now, without question, What’s Going On, Let’s Get It On, and I Want You are iconic soul standards. And, again, Here, My Dear is one of the rawest representations of regret, anger and sadness I’ve ever heard. But I’m always drawn back to the smoky, wine colored ambience of Trouble Man. Yes, Gaye was hired to make one of those, oh so hot, Blaxploitation soundtracks but, in true Marvin Gaye fashion, he made something that was totally his vision. And I bet it was no trouble at all.
— Vincent Williams @MicheauxMission