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Leon Ware’s Sensual Masterpiece

Read the Liner Notes for our new edition of ‘Musical Massage’

On February 23, 2021

There was a time in the mid-’70s when it seemed like the reigning King of Sensuality, Marvin Gaye, may never make another commercial record. After 13 studio albums in 12 years, the seismic success of Let’s Get It On and What’s Going On, a tumultuous, dwindling relationship with his first wife, and a blossoming one with his soon-to-be second, he’d been fruitlessly awaiting the right spark to bring him back to the mic. Berry Gordy, producer and founder of Gaye’s label Motown and, coincidentally, his soon-to-be ex-brother-in-law, was searching for the right creative carrot on a stick to tantalize Gaye out of his head and back into the studio. Gordy had a hunch that an under-the-radar singer, composer, and arranger by the name of Leon Ware — the rising songwriter quietly responsible for a handful of sultry heaters from the likes of the Isley Brothers, Quincy Jones, Minnie Riperton, and the Jackson 5 — might be the push Gaye needed.

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“Berry played ‘I Want You’ for Marvin, just the one song,” Ware told writer David Ritz in Divided Soul, his biography of Gaye, “And the next day Marvin was ready to do the album.” He originally wrote “I Want You” as a demo for his frequent collaborator and Diana Ross’ brother, Arthur “T-Boy” Ross, but agreed to let Marvin run with it. Late one night at Gaye’s house after recording the single, Gaye heard Ware playing some of his unreleased recordings, including three duets with Minnie Riperton, through the wall a room over. Gaye was hooked immediately, and the pair listened to the record a few more times as the sun rose. The songs’ rare occupation at the intersection of deep spirituality and deep sensuality ignited something within Gaye, and he knew he had to sing them.

Without even knowing it, Ware had written much of the blueprint for Gaye’s carnal and essential 14th studio album, I Want You. While he’d planned to use much of the material for his forthcoming sophomore album, the opportunity to work with the notoriously selective legend was too great to pass up. He offered up the songs and went on to co-produce the album that brought Gaye back. The album, and its title song, both reached No. 1 on Billboard’s soul charts and sold over a million copies, laying the bedrock for generations of pop, soul and R&B greats like Sade, Prince, Maxwell, and D’Angelo.

“When I'm told by different people all over the world how many babies that album has made — the record stands so high in my life. I could not be a prouder man,” Ware told Jason King and Harry Weinger in a conversation at the 2009 Audio Engineering Society convention that was later printed in Pitchfork for the 40th anniversary of I Want You.

But, while I Want You was an undeniable smash, Ware himself had just signed to Motown as a solo artist and given Gaye all of the material he’d intended to populate his Motown debut. Instead of starting entirely from scratch, Ware chose to remain in the same spiritual realm he’d occupied for Gaye, and most of his work prior to that. Ware was a savant in translating fervent love and raw bodily desire into the auditory realm — and Musical Massage, the album he’d compose and release in the same year as I Want You, is among his most impassioned manifestations.

“Music is the binding source of humanity. Without music, man would not be here. We would have already destroyed each other. And I’m glad I’m a music person. I like making the music world a richer place, because we need some more love.”
Leon Ware

Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, in 1940, Ware remembers performing as young as three years old. “I’ve since been, I’d say, in love with applause,” he said in an interview with Mi-Soul just after his 74th birthday. In his teens, he began developing his vocal style and building his strong musical foundation in a group called the Romeos. His talent and stand-out musical intuition was increasingly apparent, and by the late ’60s, after a stint at ABC Records, he met Gordy and landed a gig as songwriter at Jobete Music, the music publishing affiliate to his Motown Records. With a co-writing credit on the Isley Brothers’ “Got To Have You Back” already under his belt, his real breakout came in 1972 when he co-wrote Michael Jackson’s “I Wanna Be Where You Are” with T-Boy.

He shortly racked up a swarm of high-profile writing credits, and while he continued to fly behind-the-scenes and under-the-radar, his powerful musical fingerprints had an obvious throughline leading up to I Want You and Musical Massage: loving, high-vibrational sexuality. In the early ’70s, Ware was responsible for bedroom funk jams like Quincy Jones’ “Body Heat,” Ike and Tina Turner’s “Up In Heah,” and Bobby Womack’s “Git It.” But, even in his work for others, Ware was never interested in raunch or salaciousness or the incentive that “sex sells” — in fact, his inspiration was the inverse. For Ware, sex was inseperable with love and spirtuality, an act as pure as it gets, and his music was a vehicle to share that message with the world, the way a preacher orates to a congregation.

While the sexual revolution had been underway since the early ’60s, mainstream America and the powers that enforced its status quo held a white-knuckled taboo surrounding sexuality — and Black sexuality, in particular — well into the ’70s and beyond. Even as artists like Gaye were becoming popular household names, not everyone understood Ware’s position and expression surrounding the erotic. Just before releasing Musical Massage, he co-wrote Minnie Riperton’s electric 1975 album Adventures In Paradise, which, despite the popularity and potential of singles like “Inside My Love,” often struggled to get radio play.

“[Programmers] felt it was too risqué,” Riperton’s husband and producer Richard Rudolph commented on “Inside My Love” in the liner notes for Petals: The Minnie Riperton Collection. “There is a duality, but we always believed that to truly have love and to express that love physically, you have to have the other side of it — the emotional side… Minnie would introduce it saying, ‘This is the song that got me banned. But I got a letter from a nun who said that she didn't think anything was wrong with it at all. In fact, she kinda got off on it…’”

Sure enough, the song’s title was Ware’s doing, and it was one he’d been waiting to use for many years, remembering the way he’d heard the pastor say those words when he attended church as a young boy. At the end of the sermon, he recalls, the church organ would play softly, the pews would fall silent, and the pastor would ask, “Won’t you come inside the Lord?” magnetically and hypnotically summoning everyone to the pulpit. “Do you wanna ride inside my love? You can see inside me, will you come inside me?” Riperton moans in the chorus, seamlessly gliding into her signature hair-raising whistle tone.

“All I can say is we understood that that was going to happen when we wrote the song,” Ware says, reflecting on the pushback that “Inside My Love” received, “Minnie was just as daring as I was.”

Perhaps this is why — while it’s widely considered a spiritual extension of its blockbuster companion, I Want YouMusical Massage went criminally under-noticed. According to Ware, Motown thought Musical Massage would’ve been better fit to be another Marvin record and neglected to champion the release as wholly as it deserved. Without much label support or Gaye’s exalted name to help it along through the barriers of new artistry, taboo and censorship, an album with the same chops as one of the cornerstones of modern R&B remained underplayed, under-marketed and misunderstood in its time, but no less fervent, transcendent or outright magical.

"'Musical Massage' is of the body, and beyond the body. Far past merely the physical or the sexual, or even the romantic — the engine of 'Musical Massage' is a spirit, a cohesion, a rhythm, a way of life and a shared understanding."

“Oh baby, I'm learning the way you like it,” Ware croons on Musical Massage’s opening smooth soul track, conversing with pulsating strings in his satin tenor — not entirely unlike Gaye’s, but gentler and more androgynous. “Learning How To Love You” establishes the tone for the journey that follows. Ware is setting the mood: confident, yet humble, open and religiously committed to a reciprocal connection and the spontaneity that lies within it. The song leads into its perfect sonic partner, a duet with Minnie Riperton that captures the intangible weightless feeling of falling in love. Sweeping string arrangements by Dave Blumberg and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson unite the album, strategically prancing a line between elegant romance and playful extravagance, like a waterbed hidden in a bedroom in the Palace of Versailles.

Things heat up on Ware’s own, punchier take on “Body Heat,” a song he’d written for Qunicy Jones a couple years prior for his 1974 album by the same name. Whereas Jones’ rendition is subtle, slow-burning and smoldering, Ware’s version hits right out of the gates with lustrous horn lines punctuated with slurps, gasps and heaving breathing that, out of context, may be blush-inducing for even the most emboldened modern listener, were they not so smooth and grounded in the music. For Ware, shame and inhibition had no place in neither the bedroom nor the studio.

“Out of all the ‘isms’ on the planet, I stress, had man not been so insecure, he would’ve made sensualism the first place to get on his knees and pray, because he would’ve been, then, praying to who he is himself,” Ware once remarked in a late-aughts conversation with John Legend, recorded for a documentary by Reelblack. Ware eventually went on to become an ordained minister, and is even occasionally referred to as “The Sensual Minister.” Ware’s underlying ethos of love and sensuality as the root of and uniting factor throughout humanity is the palpable life-force that makes Musical Massage so heavenly, in a sense. Musical Massage is of the body, and beyond the body. Far past merely the physical or the sexual, or even the romantic — the engine of Musical Massage is a spirit, a cohesion, a rhythm, a way of life and a shared understanding. It’s in Bobby Womack and Marvin Gaye’s vocal features on “Holiday,” in the steady, toe-curling percussion on “Turn Out The Light,” in the wandering, thrilling bass line on “French Waltz.” Most unmistakably, it’s in Ware’s performance. From the wistfully whispered questions of “I Want To Be Where You Are” to the funkier snarls of “Body Heat,” Ware lived, created and preached sensuality in every vocal phrase, and every pause between them.

“People like me, Marvin, Barry White, Isaac Hayes — voices of the Black community that brought to its public an allure that could have been called pornographic — were bringing to the forefront a love that is natural. It is not prefabricated. It is not nasty. It is not wrong to say things that make one want to make love. That’s why I can tell my granddaughter [about this music] without being ashamed and having her think that her grandfather is a dirty old man. I am proud to sit before any group and say, ‘Embrace where you come from, it’s not a bad place,’” Ware remarked at the 2009 Audio Engineering Society convention. “Music is the binding source of humanity. Without music, man would not be here. We would have already destroyed each other. And I’m glad I’m a music person. I like making the music world a richer place, because we need some more love.”

Profile Picture of Amileah Sutliff
Amileah Sutliff

Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.

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