February 15, 2017
Gordon Banks: Lead Lines
by Jim Newsom
Listening to Marvin Gaye’s best-selling album, Midnight Love, you probably wouldn’t know that it’s essentially a two-man production. But it was. The other guy in the studio with Gaye was Granby High School graduate Gordon Banks.
“‘Sexual Healing’ was the first song,” Banks recalled recently. “Keyboard player Odell Brown stayed with us for a while, and he played the synthesizer. When he left, it was just Marvin and me. CBS had given us all this new gear: the Roland 808 drum machine, the Roger Linn drum machine, the Jupiter 8 synthesizer. That’s all we used on the album other than horns.”
Banks, who will be honored as one of six new inductees into Norfolk’s Legends of Music Walk of Fame at the Roper Performing Arts Center on Sunday, February 26th, helped the legendary soulman come up with a new sound on that 1982 album. It was an intentional break from the Motown sound the singer had been famous for, and the new style owed a great deal to Banks’ musical input:
“While we were doing ‘Sexual Healing,’ he was in the vocal booth and he asked me ‘how does that sound?’ I said, ‘Man you’re crazy, I can’t tell you that. You’re Marvin Gaye. Why are you asking me?’ And he said, ‘Just tell me.’ Can you imagine telling a superstar how to think, the way he sang? So I started producing the vocals. If I didn’t like a line he sang, I’d tell him to sing it different. If it was flat, it was flat.
“To me, that made the whole thing sound different. I would play my lines and he would pick some of them up and start singing the line. I played seventeen lead lines on ‘Sexual Healing’ and he took most of them. That’s where the vocals come from. So he headed in a whole new direction, even when it came down to rhythm. Midnight Love was so different that it had to come from somewhere.”
That somewhere had its roots in Norfolk, where Gordon Banks began playing guitar with The Showmen when he was in junior high school in the late ‘60s.
“There weren’t too many places around here to play,” he said, “so we went to North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia. It was mostly weekends. It taught a lot of lessons. We opened up for people like Sam & Dave.”
He claims that as he got older, “people wouldn’t let me play in their band. I wasn’t good enough, so they said.” So he decided to go elsewhere:
“I left at the end of my seventh semester at Norfolk State. I never graduated. I went to Georgia and met up with Paliament/Funkadelic. They were just street players, hoping. I was in school so I put on some augmented chords and some diminished chords and they didn’t know what they were. All they did was play funk music. But because of that, I kind of thought it was easy, if the big guys don’t know what they’re doing. What about me, I’ve been in school!
“So I just left. There were only jazz clubs around here back then, in the mid-to-late ‘70s. I wanted to make money so I went to LA. I went with somebody who knew somebody, but that didn’t last long. I was prepared when I went because I joined the union and they got me gigs with some people.”
He quickly made some connections, recorded and learned about producing and engineering. He met Marvin Gaye through one of those fortuitous right-time, right-place situations:
“His drummer lived a couple of streets from me. He had some drumsticks around his neck. I asked him if he played. That was a stupid question, but anyway he said, ‘Yeh, I play with Marvin.’ I told him I played guitar and he said ‘why don’t you come around and jam.’ And I did. And I got in the band. We did two albums and two TV shows.
“The tour in England where ‘Got to Give It Up’ came from, I didn’t play on. But when they came back, that’s when I really got involved. 1977.”
The two became good friends and Banks served as Gaye’s musical director, playing a major role in the singer’s last two Motown records, Here, My Dear and In Our Lifetime. He stuck by Marvin through drug problems, tax problems and other musicians’ claims that they were not paid by Gaye.
“Some of them did sue,” he told me. “But the thing is, you have to take care of your own business. I knew about copyrights and publishing. When he wanted to use my first song, he said he was gonna take publishing because I’m a new guy. And I said, ‘No Marvin, it’s already published.’ And that put an end to a whole lot of stuff. Norfolk State also taught the business of music, so I was prepared.”
He played with a bunch of other acts, including The Temptations, Edwin Hawkins, War and Mandrill, but “but when Marvin called, I would always go.”
They were finishing up a new album when Gaye was shot and killed by his father on April 1, 1984.
“After Midnight Love came out,” he explained, “CBS wanted Barry White to produce him. And Marvin said no. He wanted me. So night after night I was in the studio, just recording. The next morning I’d go over and give his mother a guitar lesson. And then I’d go talk to his father. After that I went to Marvin’s and he’d make mockup lyrics to the stuff I’d done the night before.
“I was at the house the day he was murdered. That night I went into the studio and that was it. I not only lost a boss, I lost a friend.”
Banks returned to Hampton Roads a couple of years later and for a while had a band here called Midnight Love. He’s still playing, still making music, still has unreleased material he and Marvin recorded together. And he’s proud of the work they did together:
“He’d had the Funk Brothers behind him, the Motown band, for his whole career. And he never won a Grammy. The first Grammy he won was with me. Wow! Do you know how that makes you feel? The instrumental version of ‘Sexual Healing’ was the first Grammy. Berry Gordy couldn’t even do that!”