The Secret Life of Songs

#3 - You're All I Need to Get By / Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell

May 21, 2020 Season 1 Episode 3
The Secret Life of Songs
#3 - You're All I Need to Get By / Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
Show Notes Transcript

The classic Motown duet, 'You're All I Need to Get By', seems to be about commitment - about a love which has recently been embarked on and which stretches ahead into the future - has come, perhaps surprisingly, to resonate with those mourning the loss of loved ones, including Marvin Gaye himself, who chose this song to play as he gave his eulogy at singing partner Tammi Terrell’s funeral. I look at this iconic soul recording, and in particular the song's use of pedal notes, extensions and inversions, to explore how it manages to chime with people in this way.

All the songs discussed in this episode, including 'You're All I Need to Get By', can be heard here

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You’re All I Need to Get By

Hello and welcome to the Secret Life of Songs - a podcast on the making - and the meaning - of classic pop records. I’m Anthony, a musician who writes and performs music under the name sky coloured. In the first episode of this series, looking at the Sam Cooke record, ‘Bring It On Home to Me’, I talked about the three most basic chords in tonal music - the tonic, which is formed on the first note of the scale, the dominant, on the fifth, and the sub-dominant, on the fourth. 

These form the basis of harmony - the relationships between chords - of pop. I talked about how the tonic chord is often thought of as the ‘home’ of a key, and that the sub-dominant and dominant are the most common ‘destinations’ for tonal music to pass through before it returns to the tonic. Then in episode two, discussing the Chiffons’ ‘One Fine Day’, I looked at the important minor chord that falls on the sixth note of the scale and chromatic dissonances - notes that don’t fall in the key, also known as accidentals and I talked about how these musical devices can darken the surface of otherwise optimistic, otherwise comforting popular music. 

In this episode I’m going to look closely at the classic duet between Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell, ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’, to explore harmonic devices that songwriters can use to alter the emotional effect of a chord sequence. These aren’t whole new chords in themselves, but rather ways of handling them, varying their effect, either through adding notes on to the basic triad (what we sometimes call extensions), rearranging the distribution of notes in the triad (what we call inversions), or, more generally, the ‘voicing’ of chords. 

But the first thing I want to talk about is the prominent use in this song of what we call pedal notes - a note that held across several bars as chords change around it. Typically a pedal note is heard in the bass, underneath all the other musical material, and the most common form of it is the ‘tonic pedal’, where the note being held on underneath everything is the tonic note. This is exactly what happens throughout the opening of this song. 

It’s a familiar pop device. In these examples we can hear the pedal note functioning to build suspense, giving a sense of development, while simultaneously, perhaps paradoxically, suggesting a rootedness, as if letting us know throughout the buildup that it knows exactly where it’s headed, as somehow it’s been there all along. 

  • Gimme Some Lovin’ - The Spencer Davis Group
  • Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough - Michael Jackson
  • In the Air Tonight - Phil Collins

And it’s not just the use of pedal in ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’ that maintains this fine balance between shifting movement and groundedness. The chords which are written over this long A tonic pedal make frequent use of accidentals - notes not occurring in the key - there’s a D# in the B7 chord and an F natural in the Dm6 chord. 

And then the chords themselves are made richer and more complex by the use of extensions - these are notes added to basic triads - sevenths, ninths, 11ths, 13ths. It’s a term taken from jazz harmony, and although sevenths are standard extensions in all music derived from blues, notes like the augmented sixth in the Dm6 chord are not, lending the music an unstable, enigmatic quality. To counterbalance this, the chords are very evenly distributed (one per bar) and the sequence sticks to a standard four-bar repeating phrase. 

In addition to all this, the melody is a steady chromatic step-wise movement downwards to the major third of the tonic chord, so we have a journey through certain harmonic tensions towards a resolution that somehow feels inevitable, and it turns out I’m not the first listener to have noticed something like this in a famous pop song. As part of his work on conceptual metaphors, the philosopher Mark Johnson, with music theorist Steve Larson, spots a very similar moment in the Beatles song, ‘Something’

Johnson writes:

‘motions are shaped by forces. Whether we are experiencing the physical motion of our bodies or of other objects, we learn that the motion is influenced by physical “forces” like gravity, magnetism, and inertia [by which he doesn’t mean stillness but the tendency of a motion to continue in the same way it has begun] … Musical forces often pull us in different directions. But at one point in the Beatles’ ‘Something’, they all agree in a way that elegantly illustrates the meaning of the text “attracts me like no other lover.” The line “Something in the way she moves” may be heard as an embellishment of the simpler, whole-note melody C-B that begins a descending motion in half-steps … Musical inertia, the tendency of a pattern to continue in the same fashion suggests that this whole-note motion will continue descending in half steps [i.e. the C-B-Bb-A of ‘Something’]. Musical gravity, the tendency of a melody to “descend,” suggests that this whole-note motion will continue by going down. And musical magnetism, the tendency of an unstable pitch to resolve to the closest stable pitch, suggests that Bb will resolve to A. Thus, all three musical forces here reinforce each other to powerfully “attract” the Bb of “attract” to the A of “lover”.’

Exactly the same concepts of magnetic force and downward motion are at work in the opening of ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’: the melody formed by that four-bar, four-chord loop conveys a powerful pulling towards the tonic note. So the music of the opening is a delicate combination of suspense and ‘groundedness’, and the tonic pedal contributes to both. 

That all changes however at the start of the chorus. The tonic pedal ends at this point, and the rate of harmonic change doubles - the musical material suddenly generates a new sense of urgency and energy. The bassline moves through half-arpeggios of first A major then B major. Harmony and bassline are both working together to provide a sense of ‘rising’, and the faster harmonic rhythm generates momentum towards the climactic point, the second half of the chorus. This sudden injection of energy is mirrored in the way they’ve arranged the vocals - they’re distributed in such a way as to reflect this sense of acceleration towards a climactic conciliation. They start by singing four bars each, then two, and finally in harmony. 

That climactic point is reached at bar 17, on the line ‘there’s no - no looking back for us’. As you’d expect, the chord is the tonic chord - the home chord - but the sense of tension, of suspended resolution, is in fact preserved because the songwriters use what we call an inversion. When a chord is in its ‘inverted form’ it means its root note is not the lowest note heard in that chord. When I talked about triads in the first episode, I showed how the triad - the fundamental chord type in western music - is made up of a root note, ie the ‘note of the chord’, C in a chord of C major, D in the chord of D, and so on, a third, and a fifth. The typical way to ‘voice’ these is to place them exactly like that: 1, 3, 5, on top of each other. But songwriters can change the order of these notes to produce subtly different effects and there are two basic types, the first and second inversions. A ‘first inversion’ is where the 3rd is the lowest note and the root note and fifth are heard above it. A second inversion is the same but with the fifth underpinning the root and third.

In each case, using an inverted form of a chord makes it feel a little less stable - literally it’s less ‘rooted’, the root note is not the lowest note and thus does not have the sort of harmonic precedence it usually does. When we hear the tonic chord of A at that crucial culminating point of the chorus, it actually doesn’t feel like resolution - it feels like an extension of the build-up of suspense that has characterised the whole of the song up to that point.

In this section, the music is generating, through our expectation of how pop choruses resolve, a sense that a huge resolution is coming but when it comes two things are unusual: firstly it falls on the tenth bar of the chorus: two bars after the conventional length of chorus - which makes it feel, in some very subliminal way, like it’s overwhelmed the musical structure, spilling over almost into the next section. And the chord it falls on uses both accidentals and extensions (Dm6/F), in an inversion - in fact it’s very close to forming a ‘diminished seventh’ chord - an emblematic chord in the the tonal tradition, which, as the modernist composer Arnold Schoenberg, wrote: in Mozart and Beethoven, ‘Whenever one wanted to express pain, excitement, anger, or some other strong feeling - there we find, almost exclusively, the diminished seventh chord.’ So at the point in the song we’re anticipating complete resolution we have the song’s most dissonant chord and one which is very close to the sort of harmonic convention used for hundreds of years to express tension or crisis. 

Eventually we have the long-awaited resolution to the tonic, the home chord, as the introduction is reprised before the second verse, but it doesn’t come via a conventional cadence, which I think preserves the sense of something unresolved on that word ‘need …’. And of course with the return of the introductory music, we are right back in that succession of extended, ‘jazzy’ chords, with all the sense of ambiguity they bring, that I discussed earlier.

Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye started performing together in early 1967, releasing an LP, United, in that year. It appears that not only was their partnership a great commercial success but it was also an important element in Gaye’s development as a performer - he cited Terrell as an inspiration who helped him overcome his issues with performance anxiety. 

Terrell had been suffering migraines throughout that time and in October she collapsed on-stage (performing with Gaye) and was consequently diagnosed with brain cancer. ‘You’re All I Need to Get By’ was recorded in the first session after Terrell’s first round of surgery. David Ritz, the writer of the brilliant Gaye biography, Divided Soul, wrote about how it was an open secret that Terrell’s health problems had resulted from domestic violence: ‘Although no legal charges were ever filed, almost everyone who knew her believes the ‘brain tumor’ that finally killed her - she underwent eight brain operations in the year and a half after her collapse - resulted from physical battering.’

And he quotes Gaye at length on the matter: ‘Tammi was the victim of the violent side of love. At least that’s how it felt. I have no first-hand knowledge of what really killed her, but it was a deep vibe, as though she was dying for everyone who couldn’t find love. My heart was broken … In my heart, I could no longer pretend to sing love songs for people. I couldn’t perform’.

In a brief period out of hospital in early 1970, Terrell made her final public outing to see Gaye perform at the Apollo Theater in Manhattan. When Gaye saw Terrell in the audience, he went up to her, and the song they sang was "You're All I Need to Get By". She died in March of that year, and this was also the song that played as Gaye gave his eulogy at Tammi’s funeral. 

There seems to be something about the song which helps people find solace in bereavement. When I first lived in London, I worked as a waiter at Ronnie Scotts Jazz Club in Soho. Very early on in my time there, the young drummer who had been in the house band before I arrived had died in a car crash and when they held a tribute concert for him, this was the song chosen to finish the night. 

The song is a pledge song: it consists of a series of statements from each partner that they will commit themselves to the other forever. ‘Looking to the future and seeing unending happiness and devotion’ is one of the most common pop song tropes there is, and, on the surface, it makes this song a strange choice for accompanying the act of remembrance.

I think there are two things going on which people hear - firstly, as we’ve seen, the song is kept within standard tonal harmony but from the start there are notes and chords which stray outside the home key, including, most dramatically, that final chord of the chorus [play]. The combination of the extended ten-bar chorus form, which seems to spill over the standard 8-bar structure, with that elongated note on ‘need’, lingering over a strikingly dissonant chord, is a gesture - a gesture of reaching beyond the confines of regular musical structure.

There’s a sort of subtle irony involved in much of the effect of pop music - the type of irony involved in grieving for someone who has died, in unbearable tragic circumstances, via a song about commitment to a lifelong relationship. James Baldwin, in his famous essay about the state of race relations in America in the early part of the 1960s, ‘The Fire Next Time’, wrote ‘In all jazz, and especially in the blues, there is something tart and ironic, authoritative and double-edged. This idea of irony embedded at the deepest level of music of the blues tradition - this sense that what is being said is only a small part of what is really being said, that the language of the blues is often best thought of as an intuitive type of code - is one I will return to in future episodes. For now, I simply want to reflect on how the combination - or perhaps the tension - between the words and the music of Marvin and Tammi’s song allow the words to be very naturally understood non-literally: ‘you’re all I need to get by’ means, in the instant of listening, ‘I’ll always remember you’, and the fact that those apparently contradictory feelings can exist together is the crux of the song’s emotional power.