American Masters: Marvin Gaye

Jheri Curl Fridays 41: “Sanctified Lady”

Not too many soul singers blended the sacred and the profane the way Marvin Gaye did, and for today’s Jheri Curl Fridays column, I’d like to revisit one of his lesser-known hits, one which did an expert job of blending the two extremes.

“Sanctified Lady” wasn’t a smash–it didn’t make the pop charts. But it did peak at #2 on the R&B chart, and it did so a year after Marvin’s tragic murder at the hands of his own father. It’s got a danceable, electronic groove that was perfect for mid-’80s clubs, but seemed a bit odd for a posthumous single choice, especially given the subject matter and the fact that the song is more than a little profane. Hell, there were stations that wouldn’t play “Sexual Healing” (or announce the title) just two years before, so there was no way this was getting any pop action.

See, the song was originally titled “Sanctified (Another Word For Lady Parts,)” and you can actually make out the offending word several times. Listen closely and you can make out several other words that my 8-year old self was a bit surprised to hear coming out of Marvin’s mouth. I’m assuming the word was edited out on the radio, but…considering I remember hearing Prince’s “Erotic City” on the radio around the same time with lyrics completely intact, I can’t say that there were officially edits made. Originally recorded during the sessions for Marvin’s 1982 comeback Midnight Love, “Sanctified” wasn’t finished when Marvin was murdered. After Marvin’s death, his label (Columbia) put together an album called Dream of a Lifetime, and co-writer and co-producer Gordon Banks went in and completed the song with background vocalists and the vocoder that opens the track. Of course, Marvin’s work had been somewhat suggestive for years, but this was definitely the most explicit the guy–or any commercial R&B singer this side of Prince and Millie Jackson–had gotten up to this point.

It goes without saying that Marvin was ahead of his time, and you can hear the influence of songs like “Sanctified Lady” today in songs all over R&B radio. Most recently, singer/songwriter Brian McKnight pledged to release an “adult mixtape” featuring a song whose chorus is “let me show you how your (lady part) works.” It got tons of people up in arms proclaiming the death of R&B, as you can hear from “Sanctified Lady” McKnight’s explicit ode to vaginas is certainly not without precedent.