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Honor Thy Brother-In-Law: A Visit With Marvin Gaye

Candid conversation, a live performance, and a bit of boxing

April 27, 1972
marvin gaye cover 1972
Marvin Gaye and other on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz

This used to be Berry Gordy's house, the Motown man says, sitting on the main couch in the sunken parlor. Then Berry solidified his R&B kingdom, found his own castles, and sold the place to his brother-in-law, Marvin Gaye. We sit in an area of town near the Wayne County line, to the north of downtown Detroit. Driving out here, the Motown man had taken his right hand off the steering wheel to indicate the division . . . "the rich white folks over on that side . . . the rich black folks on this side of the street." We turned this way, to the ranch-level home, all snow outside, all gold (the walls, the furnishings) and green (the plants) inside.

Up from the parlor area, around the corner, we hear music, stopping/rewinding/restarting. Marvin is at work. Soon enough, however, he glides into view, picks a spot on the hallway, stops, and smiles. Dressed and exuding casual . . . cozy . . . loafy. He's been doing some things on his next album, he says, and he looks happy and hungry. It's 1:30.

"Can I offer you gentlemen something? Scotch? Grass? Gimlet?" and he slides out of view.

He returns, sits down to wait for lunch, and immediately begins chattering. He went out the other night and saw Smokey Robinson in the local segment of the Miracles' farewell tour. "I never seen him perform quite like that before," says Marvin, who once drummed for the Miracles on the road. He pokes fun at a teenager who runs around the house acting like a second servant. "He couldn't figure out what to call me," says Marvin. "Started with 'Mr. Gaye,' and I said 'no'; then he called me 'Sir,' and I said to never call me 'sir.' 'Marvin?' 'Absolutely not!'"

He talks to one of the three children who are constantly nearby (one his own, two adopted), playing and screeching at each other. "'We ain't doin' nothin','" he repeats, in his high velvet voice, eyes laughing. "That's great, the way we talk. That's our birthright. Our own ethnic thing."

He chuckles at himself, at the coaster on the table, a miniaturized, laminated Marvin Gaye Hello Broadway album cover. He fingers his silk shirt, as if searching for something. "I never understood people who leave cleaners' tags on their clothes," he finally observes, and he breaks into another tight, light laugh, crinkling his eyes. And, of course, it stoned me.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: Marvin Gaye

The Motown man had cautioned, on the way from downtown, "Don't expect him to be too open at first," and in fact our meeting was an uncertainty until the last minute. "We hope Wednesday," the beleaguered man had said from Detroit while we made flight plans. "He's kind of a moody guy." I had planned to meet Marvin Gaye nearly three years ago in Los Angeles; Marvin didn't show. Now, besides "Hitch Hike" and "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" and all the others in the early Sixties and "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" early in '69, there was his personal triumph, What's Going On, to talk about. And yet he had stopped touring shortly after "Grapevine" hit the top; and he stayed silent through the death of Tammi Terrell, with whom he'd had several hit records.

Motown biographed him as a quiet, conservative fellow, son of a Washington, D.C., minister, now "an avid television fan" who stayed at home with his wife Anne and their son, Marvin III. "Usually, we just lounge around listening to Tony Martin, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, or Harry Belafonte," Marvin was quoted in 1966.

Early the next year, a serious-sounding Gaye defined a goal for another bio: "To realize completeness within myself," and, in performance, to seek truth, combining "sincerity, love, duty, and a positive approach to people and audiences."

Then, the long lull, lasting until after he'd picked off a handful of honors at the end of last year – from all the trades, from Time, from the NAACP – for his finely-woven What's Going On. And it was announced that he would host the first Martin Luther King Birthday Commemoration concert in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 12th. At the last minute, he backed out.

Now, a month later, on a crisp, snowy afternoon at home, he is breaking his silence . . . but what a way to break. He is saying how a year ago he wanted to be a football star. Now, he runs several miles to begin each day, and he has regular training sessions with a boxing coach across town, in the ghetto.

"I dream," he says, looking into his imagination, "about running a hundred yards, across that goal line, slam the ball down, hear the roar of the crowd, turn around and lick my tongue at the rest of the team . . ." He laughs again, easily, easing us into another bit of candid camera/flash: "This morning I felt, I suddenly felt that women should be made to be inferior to men . . . you know, they'll want to be the man next." He wanders off to check on his steak and – surprise! – to get the tape he's working on.

The in-progress work tape is . . . strange: ". . . right after I smoked this terrific jay yesterday," Gaye offers quietly by way of explanation into two tracks running simultaneously, at one another, oblivious of each other's music and beat. One is Marvin, singing in a rougher tenor than usual, singing about a road he's traveling, repeating simple figures on the piano, miked from a distance. There are kids in the background, noising it up. On the second track is a man, too close to his mike, boom-booming plosives, five notes at a time, a Fifties R&B basso gone looney. Then brushed drums, a melodic piano, bass, a choral wail and Marvin himself, sitting in his couch, is tapping the bottom of a stew pot; a bit of enamelware jazzmatazz.

"It's just some ideas, some stuff I put together," he says, warily. "It sounds like a bunch of crap. I can't explain it.

"I'm not a Hal David . . . but I cry when I hear some of Gershwin, and Rhapsody in Blue, because I know the guy really felt it when he wrote it. And it wasn't his hand that did it; it was God's hand, and it was written for him . . . and I'm under the impression I'm gonna do something like that."

Marvin's steak and Kool-aid are in front of him; for an instant he is a child again. He bows his head, murmurs a blessing, and begins chomping, mouth open on the up-chew. He read the news today, and boy, is he hurt. He didn't see his name among those nominated for the Grammies. Shafted.

He would've liked a Grammy, he says, to add to his tableful of trophies and plaques and gold records and laminated Cash Box charts in the den. He sprinkles some LaChoy soy sauce on the steak. "I like trophies – I mean little things like Oscars and Grammies, little things like that."

* * *

Why would you be hurt if you didn't get a Grammy or get nominated?
Because . . . it's human to get hurt if you feel you deserve something and you don't get it. I've swept several awards this year, but I really want the Grammy. Not that I'm not happy with the others; I'm just . . . cocky . . . or selfish, maybe that's the word.

Well, you've got to be an egotist, don't you, to put your ideas out for millions of people?
I hate to think that, to have that kind of ego, though. Terrible, terrible, it's worse than power. It gets you in worse trouble. My ego is going to cause me to get knocked out, too. I have just enough ego to think I can go in there at 32 years old and win the heavyweight championship, defeat Smokin' Joe [laughs].

You think you're big enough to be a football player?
Umm, the question is, is my heart big enough? 'Cause there're a lot of little guys out there playin' ball. I never got a chance to play. My wife says I'm running around here trying to prove that I'm a man. She's probably right. I happen to think it's because I'm a sports nut. I play everything, even played ice hockey the other day. Can you imagine a black man playing ice hockey? [laughs] They were all kidding me. "Jeez, you're going to be the first black hockey star in America."

Why do you always put yourself on a professional level? Can't you be happy just being an amateur football player? Or an amateur boxer . . .
No no no. That's the ultimate. And I . . .

But you already have close to the ultimate in music.
That's what a friend told me, she said, "You're already probably one of the great young voices, musicians around town. Do you have to be the black George Plimpton also?" And I just told her, "Yes, I do." Quite frankly, yes.

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