“In life we have what-ifs,” says Broadway performer, recording artist, and songwriter Ryan Shaw. One particular what-if spurred Shaw to create his new album, Imaginging Marvin, as an answer to the questions: “What if Marvin Gaye were still alive today? Would his iconic recordings have evolved with his musicianship? Would he still be writing from his ever-evolving perspective?” he asks. “We will never have a definitive answer. But maybe the next best thing is to imagine.”
Shaw is a three-time Grammy nominee for Best Traditional R&B Vocal Performance. Tapping in to his church roots and fusing with his new band, Shaw combines his musical influences and prodigal skills in new arrangements of Gaye’s music as well as original songs Shaw imagines Gaye could have written or recorded had he lived past the age of 44. Here, Shaw breaks down the process of choosing songs, writing new ones, and telling a musical story of our past.
The 11-track album drops November 27, but you can pre-order Imagining Marvin from Broadway Records today.
“Save the Children/Mercy Mercy Me”
When Marvin did “Save the Children” originally, it was like a spoken word call-and-response song. By removing the spaces and spoken word of the original recording and just connecting the melody seamlessly, the tune is now reimagined. Throughout many artist careers, especially those with careers that have spanned more than a decade, they often create unique trademark phrases, rhythms or musical phrases. In this case, the drums in the interlude of “Save the Children” are also echoed on Marvin’s “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me,” the latter making sense to add and create this medley.
“Get Home” (Original Song) – Featuring Robert Randolph
Get Home is an ode to family. I wrote this song in London with Jonathan Shorten and Conner Reeves. It was our first session together, which usually starts with random conversations about where we are from to early music influences, etc. I remember talking about growing up in Atlanta and how Thanksgiving was a big deal for our family— like a family reunion—because at some point over the course of the holiday weekend, I would end up seeing everyone I grew up with. This was great for me since I lived in NYC. I remember telling Conner and Jonathan that it is my favorite time of year; I couldn’t wait to get home. As we dug deeper into the song it brought up all the places we call home. The sentiment behind the longing to see our lost loved ones is also a sense of home. I had recently lost my younger brother, Kenneth and maternal grandmother, Nettie Ruth Thornton, at the time. Since then I have lost another brother, Dantevis and both paternal grandparents. “Home” simply put, speaks to the people and places we miss.
Back in October of 2006 I had just finished signing my record deal with Columbia Records. The album was set to be released in April of 2007. The label was so excited about the album that they wanted me to start touring and performing immediately. Robert Randolph and the Family Band was my first tour as a signed recording artist. This is my first self-produced, self-released album, so having Robert featured on a song entitled “Get Home” is a homecoming in itself.
“I Want You”
Upon choosing the concept for this album, the first song that I did a demo of was “I Want You.” When I first began my musical life here in New York, I would always go to open mic night at various venues. The most iconic of which was at the Village Underground hosted by the late Ron Grant entitled, “Ron Grant and Friends.” Ron would often open the evening with this song and bring the house down with easily a fifteen-minute version of this tune, complete with band solos, modulations, and modal changes. This particular song is not just a nod to Marvin but also to my late friend, Ron, who imprinted this song into my musical soul.
“Love in Pain” (Original Song) – Featuring Rob Thomas and Derek Trucks
This co-write with Rob Thomas and Derek Fuhrmann was one of the first COVID-19 Zoom Sessions I did. It was really refreshing to see how much creativity and kinetic energy we could conjure despite the disconnect and limits of the current technology. The cool part about the creative process is that sometimes what is said and what is heard is the difference between good and great. In this case, we were fooling around with some chords and Rob was just singing off the cuff. A lot was stream-of-consciousness phrases and some was gibberish, which happens when you are channeling from the other side. But at the end of the phrase he sang the words “Love and Pain,” at which point Derek and I both heard “Love in Pain.” This led to a very deep conversation about love and its relationship to pain and also one hell of a song! So good in fact that the album originally only had ten songs, now it has 11.
We added this song to the project because it's not only a hit, but it’s that perfect mix of gospel and R&B. The call and response of the love and pain gave me the same energy as Marvin’s 1962 hit single, “Hitch Hike” from the Stubborn Kinda Fellow album. When you hear it, you’ll see what I mean.
Writing with the great Rob Thomas was one of my favorite writing experiences. I love how open and down to earth he is. It makes it so easy to throw ideas at him because he absorbs them and becomes a true collaborator. You couldn’t ask for more.
I grew up southern Pentecostal. If you don’t know what that means, Google it. But there were just certain things that you weren't allowed to be free about and sex was one of them. My father wasn’t so much of a churchgoer as my devout mother, so when we were with him, he would play secular radio. I remember working with my dad when he owned his corporate janitorial services company. (Yes, I was a professional janitor in my early days.) This song would come on the oldies station and I would be like, “What in the world? Can they say stuff like this on the radio?” It was the first time I heard someone sing about sex and actually use the word “sex” plain as day. It forever marked me and not in a bad way. The acknowledgement that you can musically just say what it is without fear and with full creativity was very powerful to me. It opened me up in my songwriting to pen “Sin,” my ode to creative freedom and saying what it is without fear.
“Sin” (Original Song)
Sin was a collaboration with the Platinum Brothers in my hometown of Atlanta. Most, if not all of my writing comes from some sort of personal experience or reflection on conversations with others. This song was one of those beautiful stream-of-consciousness songs that happen with me. I will hear a piece of music and will just let it loop. I then turn on the mic and sing whatever I’m feeling the piece of music is asking me to. I would say 95 percent of the lyrics and 100 percent of the melody of this song was written in five minutes or whatever the original length of the track was. The pay-off line of the chorus is where scandal came in for me, “Doin’ what they call sin.”
I grew up in the church so I held on to this song for a long time for fear that this simple statement would somehow wreak havoc or encourage people to sin. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m aware that sex out of wedlock is considered sin in the Bible. It is also something that I have been guilty of many times, SMH. This song is a reflection of my experience from my perspective. Whatever it does to you is on you, LOL. When I decided to do Imagining Marvin, I knew it was time for “Sin” to come out of hiding and not be afraid of the light. I feel like this song definitely would have been Marvin’s baby making follow up to “Sexual Healing,” which is why the songs are on the album back-to-back as a mini suite.
“Good Lovin' Ain't Easy To Come By” – Featuring Shoshana Bean
While trying to find some Marvin Gaye duets, I was on a road trip with a friend and was listening through his catalogue and making notes of the ones that stood out to me that weren’t his Ashford and Simpson hits. About 45 minutes into the trip, “Good Lovin’ Ain't Easy To Come By” jumped out of the rental car speakers and into my heart. I had my friend write it down. When we arrived at our destination, I did a quick Google of the song only to find out that it was an Ashford and Simpson song! Damn, they are good! Months later when I went to Valerie’s house to write “Strong Men Can,” I told her I was also thinking of doing that song on the project. She said she always knew that song was a hit but wasn’t quite sure what went wrong with its trajectory. So, I said to myself, “Well it’s gonna get a second chance!”
This song was also the catalyst for finally collaborating with my friend, Shoshana Bean. We had been talking about it for years, so this was a long-time coming. Her voice on this duet humbles me. She is truly one-of-a-kind.
“Strong Men Can” (Original Song)
“Strong Men Can” is the first single from the new album written with the iconic Valerie Simpson. For the few people who don’t know: Valerie is half of Ashford and Simpson—in my opinion the greatest song writing duo in the world. The hits they wrote for Marvin Gaye alone include: “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “For Your Precious Love,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.'' I'll stop there.
When I first moved to New York City I went to the Sugar Bar, which was owned by Valerie and her husband Nick. I remember Valerie approaching me asking, “What are you doing with that voice?” I remember saying, “Just trying to make it,” almost childlike because I was being addressed by the Queen. After that, she and Nick took me under their wing and became what I call my industry parents. Over the years, they imparted in me wisdom and skill in the craft as well as just being awesome people. When I decided the concept for this new record, Imagining Marvin, I immediately thought to reach out to Valerie Simpson and see if she would be willing to co-write a new song with me for the project. She said, “anything you need.” We live in a society where men have always been told to be a certain way. And nowadays we're seeing that develop into some serious social and mental issues. This song is about us as men living the full spectrum of life. As much as we take time to show our strength, we should also take time to be vulnerable and to acknowledge our weaknesses and nourish growth. That’s really what it’s all about: balance…finding that balance.
“Choosin'” (Original Song)
Some songs are timeless, and some timeless songs wait for their time. “Choosin’” is that song. I wrote “Choosin’” with Rob Guariglia aka “Robbie G,” who was my touring guitar player at the time. He was in the back lounge of the tour bus one day playing the very hypnotic, perfectly rock and perfectly soul guitar riff you hear in the song. I walked to the back of the bus and asked him what it was. He said it was just a riff he had been playing around with. I took a seat and wrote most of the lyrics and melody right then and there. The next day at sound check I turned to Rob and asked him to play the guitar lick again because I was loving it so much. By the end of soundcheck the song was written. Michael “Tiny” Lindsey, my bass player and Keith McCray, my drummer, both jumped in and added to the vibe. So, Rob and I decided to add them as writers on the song. I used to perform it live all the time and the response was overwhelming. “Choosin’'’ has been waiting for a long time; waiting for her turn to inspire the masses. She will be an anthem for many, if not all.
“I Heard It Through The Grapevine”
“I Heard it through the Grapevine” is a song that I have been singing for years. It was one of the first songs that I sang in corporate bands of New York many years ago. More recently, I sang it at a Motown benefit in Alaska with my best friend Bobby Lewis who added the rip raving turnaround at the end. It was so refreshing and instinctually gospel that it inspired me to put the song on the record.
“The Shadow Of Your Smile”
Marvin Gaye always wanted to be a crooner. In the early years he tried often to get Berry Gordy to let him make a “Rat Pack” style record. During his Motown years he never got that opportunity, but in his later years he released an album called Vulnerable. This album is easily my favorite Marvin Gaye recording. When an amazingly original musician puts their interpretation on any body of music, the music will always be more authentically them above universal recognition of the work. Vulnerable includes some select choices from the American Songbook that Marvin interpreted so uniquely that they seemed to become “his” songs. That is true artistry.