David Van DePitte: Arranger of Marvin Gaye's epochal album 'What's Going On'

The arranger, composer and music director David Van DePitte played a crucial role in the creation and recording of Marvin Gaye's epochal concept album What's Going On.

Released in May 1971 following a power struggle between Gaye and the Motown boss Berry Gordy Jnr, who thought a protest album was out of keeping with the singer's image as a sophisticated crooner, What's Going On spawned three US hit singles – the title track, the prescient "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and the haunting "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" – and now regularly tops the lists of critics' favourites.

The sleeve credits Gaye as producer but the front cover states: "Orchestra Conducted and Arranged by David Van DePitte". Indeed, the division of labour wasn't as clear-cut as that and the arranger cajoled the singer into recording some of the best vocal performances of his career. Van DePitte put up with Gaye's many foibles and was nominated for a Grammy in the best arranger category for the album. He also arranged several tracks on Gaye's follow-up, the erotically-charged Let's Get It On, issued in 1973.

A staff arranger at Motown from 1968-72, Van DePitte didn't collaborate with Gaye until 1970. "Somebody said to me: 'Guess what, you're elected'. After taking a quick poll around the room, I came to find out that nobody else wanted to do it. They had all worked with Marvin before and found him to be such a pain in the fanny," he recalled in Adam White and Fred Bronson's excellent, exhaustive tome Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm'n'Blues Hits. Van DePitte's hunch that things might not go smoothly was soon proved right.

"As we sat down and started working on these tunes, not only did he not have a concept, but I thought it bizarre that all this material was finished but he didn't have lyrics for all of it," said the arranger. "Then it dawned on me that there were more people involved that I'd been led to believe."

Gaye used "What's Going On", co-written by Obie Benson of the Four Tops and Motown staffer Al Cleveland, as the starting point for what became a song cycle about the state of America and the world at the start of the Seventies. "The way the tunes were laying, they were little stories, and it just kind of felt that one should flow into the next," explained DePitte, who suggested the musical bridges between the tracks which proved important in unifying the album's themes. "Marvin couldn't read or write music per se. He needed not only a musical secretary, but somebody who knew how to organise the stuff and get it down on tape."

The sessions involved Motown regulars like pianist Earl Van Dyke, guitarists Joe Messina and Robert White and bassists Babbitt and Jamerson, but it was the arranger who brought the saxophone players Eli Fountain (alto) and Wild Bill Moore (tenor), as well as the drummer Chet Forest, into the fold. "Marvin wanted somebody other than the normal drummers who worked at Motown," Van DePitte said. "Chet was coming from a little different place. He was a white guy and he had done a great deal of studying in the classical vein. He was also one of the best jazz drummers I ever worked with. When this guy locked into a groove, you couldn't shift him."

The arranger proved adept when it came to translating Gaye's ideas into musical charts and suggesting what each instrumentalist should do when cutting the rhythm tracks at West Grand Boulevard. He also took conducting the string section – from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at the Golden World Studio in Detroit – in his stride. But getting the singer to record his vocals proved another matter.

"It was a prolonged process because Marvin didn't show up half the time. He would have an afternoon or evening appointment and he'd not show. The actual time we spent working at the album probably wasn't any longer than a week but I think it ended up going over a period of three to four months, because of trying to hook up with Marvin." One of the many distractions was Gaye's friendship with several of the Detroit Lions American football team. The singer considered playing the game professionally until better counsel prevailed.

The arranger was proud of What's Going On and amazed at the label's lack of faith in the project: "Motown thought Marvin was absolutely insane, and that I had lost my marbles too. This was going to be the biggest fiasco that ever was. Nobody believed in it at all. I thought it was different enough that it might hit with the general public. Of course, his messages were rather timely. They may have been a little strong, but not necessarily when you compare them to what other artists of the day were doing. It was just that it hadn't been done in that format before. People didn't get up and start screaming and hollering about dope and the ghetto and things."

Born in Detroit in 1941, Van DePitte showed great promise in high school and went on to study at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles. This gave him an understanding of classical, jazz and pop and a grounding which would prove invaluable when he returned to Detroit in the mid-'60s. He played trombone and then upright bass with Johnny Trudell's orchestra and met many of the jazz musicians who were part of Motown's hit factory at 2648 West Grand Boulevard, notably the bassist James Jamerson.

In 1968, Van DePitte joined Gordy's Hitsville USA operation and worked alongside producers-writers like Norman Whitfield and Frank Wilson. His sophisticated arrangements graced recordings by Kiki Dee, Chuck Jackson, The Originals, David Ruffin, the Marvelettes, Edwin Starr, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, the Jackson Five, Rare Earth and even Stoney & Meatloaf. Van DePitte could sit at a desk and turn what he heard in his head into musical charts the session-players could use instantly. He also conducted a 50-piece orchestra on the Supremes' "Stoned Love".

Van DePitte worked on many other landmark releases including the Still Waters Run Deep album by the Four Tops, the Psychedelic Shack and Sky's The Limit albums and "Ball of Confusion (That's What The World Is Today)" single by the Temptations, "Stoned Love" and "Up The Ladder To The Roof" by the Supremes, "If You Really Love Me" by Stevie Wonder, "Indiana Wants Me" by R. Dean Taylor, "If I Were Your Woman" by Gladys Knight & The Pips and "Keep On Truckin'" by Eddie Kendricks.

When Gordy moved his company lock, stock and barrel to Los Angeles in 1972, Van DePitte went freelance and subsequently arranged music for Jackie Wilson & The Chi-Lites, Denise LaSalle, Millie Jackson, Johnnie Taylor, General Johnson, The Dramatics, Marilyn McCoo & Billy Davis Jnr and George Clinton's Funkadelic, Parliament and Brides Of Funkenstein projects. He also co-wrote "How About You" for Diana Ross in 1970, penned "Please, Be There", the B-side of Gloria Gaynor's 1979 multi-million selling disco anthem "I Will Survive", and composed and arranged radio and TV commercials for clients including Chrysler, Ford and General Motors. From 1979-83 he was an adjunct professor in the Jazz Studies programme at Wayne State University in Detroit.

Van DePitte also served as music director when Gaye appeared on the The Ed Sullivan Show and when acts like the Temptations, the Four Tops and Diana Ross made the transition to Las Vegas casinos. He later served Paul Anka in a similar capacity. In the 1980s, he arranged several tracks on Don't Walk Away, the solo album by the Was/Not Was vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson, and worked with Michael Henderson and Stanley Turrentine.

As one of many background figures behind Motown's success, Van DePitte's significant contribution was highlighted when he was interviewed for Billboard Book of Number One Rhythm & Blues Hits in 1993. Though he wasn't one of the Funk Brothers featured in the 2002 documentary Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, Van DePitte was happy to lend his charts and arrangements to the Grammy-winning project. Last year, he took part in a recording session organised for Carl Dixon's Bandtrax project, which reunited him with Motown alumni such as the drummer Uriel Jones and the guitarist Dennis Coffey, as well as Bob Babbitt, the bassist who played on "Mercy Mercy Me" and "Inner City Blues". He died of cancer.

David J. Van DePitte, arranger, composer, music director, songwriter: born Detroit 28 October 1941; married (divorced, two daughters); died Detroit 9 August 2009.

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