Greatest Songs Of All Time: “Can I Get A Witness”

Although it never became a top ten hit, the gospel music influenced, “Can I Get A Witness,” written by R&B music writing superstars Holland-Dozier-Holland became one of Marvin Gaye’s earliest signature hits, helping to establish his career as one of the greatest R&B singers in history. The very heavy Black church influenced style of the song was very apparent, and made good use of Marvin Gaye’s background as a Gospel music singer in his church. Adding to the gospel feel of the song was Marvin Gaye playing piano on the song, along with other Motown greats such as The Supremes and The Funk Brothers backing up Marvin Gaye. The song was a far greater landmark of music than it’s peak #22 on the U.S. charts would ever suggest.

Although not a huge American success, the song nonetheless became a huge influence on the British music scene as many White music singers over in the UK began to incorporate R&B influences into their music, creating what was known as the “White Soul ” sound there. Rod Stewart was the lead singer of an early group named Steampocket, and this UK act covered the song along with other acts such as Lulu and Sam Brown. It also became an early R&B cover for The Rolling Stones as well, who started their career as basically a White R&B act, before the team of Jagger-Richards began to write unique songs for the act. White Soul singer, Dusty Springfield also did an early cover version of the song as well.

In 1971, session musician Lee Michaels brought a single version of “Can I Get A Witness” back to the pop charts, although the song only peaked at #39 in the U.S., but it was nonetheless a very nice showcase for the talents of Lee Micheal who played a Hammond organ as his primary instrument. Lee Michaels had previously backed uo such notable musicians as Jimi Hendrix in some of his work. His early albums failed to gain much traction, however his album FIFTH, produced the AM radio hit, “Do You Know What I Mean”, and “Can I Get A Witness” was his follow-up single to that surprise hit. “Do You Know What I Mean” peaked at #6 on the U.S. charts.

Unfortunately after the album FIFTH and his single “Can I Get A Witness”, Lee Michaels’ career took a strange turn. He was in the process of breaking his contract with A&M Records, but was contractually obligated to produce one more album, so he quickly threw together an uncharacteristic hard rock album, SPACE AND FIRST TAKES, which only included just four songs, because two of the songs were largely long jam pieces. “Hold On To Freedom” was a very good single from the album, but failed to make the top forty. Even worse, his two albums for his new label, Columbia Records, were clear flops. NICE DAY FOR SOMETHING and the hard rock album TAILFACE both were huge commercial failures, especially TAILFACE which almost seemed like just pointless hard rock noise. After turning to a couple of minor labels and having no sauces there, Lee Michaels eventually went into semi-retirement from the music business. One rumor circulated by some disc jockeys was that this Los Angeles native bought a Northern California home in the mountains, and had a pet lion he once owned.

But, for Marvin Gaye, “Can I Get A Witness” was probably the greatest career move moment of any singer who ever covered the song. Marvin Gaye’s career only improved after the song, but sadly ended when he was shot to death by his elderly father who was suffering from a brain tumor at the time. Marvin Gaye’s life had spun out of control in his final years, plagued by a drug abuse and a nasty divorce and an album, HERE, MY DEAR, with the title a sarcastic comment on the huge divorce settlement he had to pay. Yet, Marvin Gaye is stilled recognized as the #6 greatest singer of all time by ROLLING STONE Magazine. No personal problems can take away that achievement.

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