By Joel Francis
The Originals had appeared on nearly a dozen Motown hits before they finally landed one with their name on the label. As backing vocalists, the Detroit quartet saw their performances on “Function at the Junction,” “Twenty-Five Miles,” “For Once In My Life” and “My Whole World Ended (The Moment You Left Me)” – to name but a few – rise to the top of the chart.
When Marvin Gaye had the group sing on his singles “You” and “Chained” he felt an immediate rapport and took it upon himself to give them the breakout single they deserved. Working with his wife Anna (label boss Berry Gordy’s sister), Gaye penned the lyrics for “Baby I’m For Real.”
With its soft arrangement and doo-wop influences, the song was an about-face from the psychedelic soul singles Motown was sending to the top of the charts. Gordy balked, insisting Gaye release the other song he wrote and produced for the Originals, “You’re the One.” When it flopped, Gaye convinced his brother-in-law to release “Real.”
With its quivering strings, silky saxophone and smooth vocals, the song fit more into the Philly soul mold than the Motown model. Even the drums on the track are gentle and the performance floats by like a cloud across a lazy summer afternoon sky.
Gaye’s intentions were not entirely altruistic. He wanted to spread his wings and used the song’s success to convince Gordy that he was capable of producing hit material. The triumph of “Baby I’m For Real” was quickly parlayed into the Originals’ follow-up hit, “The Bells” and helped paved the way for Gaye’s groundbreaking “What’s Going On” album.
Nearly a generation after its original release, After 7 refurbished this classic and, blending it with Bloodstone’s “Natural High,” took it to No. 5 on the R&B chart. In 1972, soul singer Esther Phillps put her spin on the number. Faux-soulster Michael McDonald included his take on the more recent “Motown Two” album.