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.
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.
George Plimpton . . . he’s an actor in many ways.
But my thing is different. I’m going to use my knowledge, and my body, to defeat some guys, that’s all. Because I think I’m as good or better. Just ’cause I’m a singer has nothing to do with it.
You’ve got to be on some kind of battlefield, right?
That’s right. And with the best. And if by some miracle I defeat them, can you imagine the feeling that’ll be? That’s worth all the agony and pain. And what is life anyway – except, I mean, really . . . you get up the next day and you say, “Well, better be careful because I may catch . . .” or “I don’t wanna,” or . . . Why not be bold? And so I get mine out there. So, “What a stupid thing to do.” Was it really? So you live another 20 years. So what? It’s what makes you happy in life, and to pursue it, I think, is brave and a wonderful thing. I don’t care what people say. I just want to pursue what makes me happy. I’ve been competitive all my life. I’ve never had a chance to exercise my competitiveness through athletics, of course, because my father loved, I imagine he overloved me, if that’s possible.
He sheltered you . . .
Quite a bit. Yeah, he thought I would get hurt because I was kind of a frail kid . . .
And the church played a part, too.
I’m in the church since I’m a baby, till I’m 17 . . . But getting back to where my heart is . . . it’s hard to explain. It just means something to me. I just want to say that I bested you, at a physical game or a mental contest, football or chess. Just for the thrill of it. If I beat you playing pool I enjoy it. But what I enjoyed was controlling myself when I was behind. And I think, “Now am I going to be a chicken and just fall away or am I gonna muster myself together, swallow my spit and really get down and win?” If I come up from behind and win like that, it’s a fantastic feeling; I get chills all over. If I lose, I feel like a faggot.
Did your father teach you a different kind of idea, of what getting ahead, what satisfaction, could mean?
Outside of the feeling that I was trying to express to you, the only other feeling close to that would come when I had my moments with God as a child – or the Spirit, as we called it. And the Spirit as it manifests itself through my mother and my father in church and the other – as we called them – brothers and sisters. It wouldn’t happen all the time, but sometimes my mind would get fixed on a certain . . . dimension, I guess. I could see things and sense things, and feel the kind of happiness that I don’t get now, quite frankly. That I really miss. God was very good to me as a child, and I’m a very blessed individual.
* * *
What’s Going On was my first production ever. I conceived every bit of the music. I hate to brag and everything like this, but I had no musical knowledge, I can’t write music, can’t read music. But I was able to transmit my thoughts to another person, and David Van DePitte, through the graces of God, had enough talent to be able to receive it and put it on paper for me. He is fantastic, and he did the horns and the strings on the “Inner City Blues” track for me.
I thought at one time that I would take off and go to school and learn to write music, because as I listen to composers like Gershwin . . . I mean I’m awed by him, that he wrote all his music himself. You know, I can go around all day and say, “Hey, dammit, I composed that album,” and Dave can come back and say “No you didn’t, I wrote it,” and I’m going to take it to a judge and say “Well, I thought it,” and he’ll say, “Wait a minute, well, who wrote this music?’ Dave Van DePitte. Well, you get it; it’s yours. But I’m gonna learn how to write music, so I can do it. Why? Because I want all the credit.
Did you get to a point where you thought, wait, I’m singing everybody else’s ideas?
No. Singing other people’s ideas is good because you owe them that service, in a sense, because they can’t sing it. I feel in that sense I’m like . . . who was the piano player who played everybody’s stuff? Franz Liszt. Like a guy who writes a symphony wants to hear what it sounds like, he’ll go get Franz Liszt to play it for him. Because he’s a great pianist. So a guy writes a piece of music, and he says, “Well, hey, listen, I can’t sing this but I know it’s beautiful, and you’re the guy I want to sing it,” so in that respect singing other people’s ideas is a trip, and a good one. But I can’t be on that kind of trip all the time because I got some highways to ride up myself.
You were thinking about this before What’s Going On?
I felt that had I gone to school in the last couple of years, right now I could take a pencil and just put ideas down. And I can hear instruments. Once I learn an instrument I can create new instruments. I have a theory, like that stuff I played for you. There has to be another dimension. Why are there cracks in the keys on the piano, for instance? There’s some music in those cracks. Why couldn’t there be another musical system in fact, a whole new system that I could invent. And why is it that when something is out of tune, it’s not music? It’s still a note. Can get a little complex, you know, but that’s the area, the unknown area, that I want to get into. I’d like a bunch of those sour notes to make into a symphony.
What were those early “Motortown Revues” like?
The people were great to be with, but, other than that, they were nightmares for me. I had a lot of hang-ups. It was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life, which I thought was completely unnecessary. Working for a lot of mercenary people. The people at Motown weren’t so mercenary, it was the promoters – get as many shows out as you can, work them till they drop. Make all the money you can. There was no more than one concert in one city per night, but we did more than one show a night. Very seldom would we do three shows. But during the earlier years we did as many as seven shows a day. In, say, the Apollo theater.
How long would you stay on stage?
Were you paid a salary, or what?
A salary. A very small salary.
Later on, and even now, Motown is known to set up the whole show for its artists – the kind of clubs they perform at, which means how choreographed you have to be, with the real rehearsed stage band, and the jokes between songs and . . .
The same old bullshit.
But some acts have avoided that. I’m talking about those who never had to start that way, like Sly and the Family Stone or Isaac Hayes. Do you think you would have the chance now to do that?
I haven’t thought about it very much. But you’re right, Motown is very instrumental in the makeup of their acts and shows and the way they perform, where they even sleep, to be quite honest with you. They’re very protective. That protective care is breaking down a great deal now of course, but they were super-protective five years ago.
Have you enjoyed an independence at Motown?
No, I have not. I have not. I just happen to be a very loyal person. I can’t help it. If I were with Pipsqueak Records, I’d still probably be with Pipsqueak Records. You know the type.
Seems like you stand apart, though, from the other acts, the so-called “Motown Sound.”
Only because I demanded it be that way. Only because I’m an individual, and I demanded that I be treated as an individual and not as cattle. My position and my independence has gotten me into a great deal of trouble in the past, but I’ve managed to overcome it because my convictions are honest.
What kind of trouble?
I don’t know. Attitudes . . . towards me . . . publicity. But I have no problems today. I don’t care. Eventually I’m gonna do it anyway. Just be a little longer. They’re just putting their agony off [laughs]. It’s gonna happen. I mean, are they kidding? Am I going to join this rat race? I mean, I’m not going to be part of it.
What’s your normal Motown session?
Couple weeks. But not as a producer. As an artist it wouldn’t take more than a couple weeks to complete a project.
As an artist you went into the studio and you were given 15 songs or however many . . .
Sometimes that many. If I were a good artist, I would do good and not squawk. If I’m a bad artist, I go in and say, “Hey, I’m tired of doing – I mean, the ball game’s on tonight and I mean really, I’d like to finish them, I know that you don’t care about the ball game, but I really want to get home and watch it.” And then they’d call up and say, “Hey are you kidding me with this guy, he did two songs, and he’s talking about going home to see the ball game.” And somebody calls up and says, “Hey Marv, uh, time is valuable and I mean” . . . and they make me mad, and I say, “Yeah, well, up your Auntie’s Fanny and off to the ball game and don’t call me for the next session,” and, “my contract will be up in three years, talk to me then,” and . . . all that crazy temperamental jazz.
Tell me abut “Grapevine.” Was that an accident?
Um hmm. No, no it wasn’t. “Grapevine” was a divine thing. People . . . “Is he kidding? Not again!” you know. It wasn’t supposed to be anything.
You were, what, the third person to do the song?
Who chose the song?
It was probably . . . who chose . . . well, I didn’t choose it. I was being a good artist at the time. They tell you, “Marvin, you gotta come in and do this tune, because this song is a good song for you and it was written by so and so, so come right in there and be a good guy and cut it, Ok?” And that always bugged me. Generally I say go take your song and stuff it. But this particular time I said oh, hell, I’ll be a good artist. But it was the Lord who was working and He knew I should have gotten to do it, so I did. And that’s why it became a big hit. I needed the money, really, at the time. I was really a bad guy, and I needed the money . . .
How were you bad?
. . . Invariably, when you are a free-thinking person, one who feels he or she has something on the ball, and involved in a group of people who are in power, and you don’t become part of the power or bend toward it, or . . . that’s the problem right there, it was power against me, and I didn’t like the feeling of being made to do something simply because a bunch of people said that this is what I should do, as though I’m a robot and couldn’t think for myself or didn’t know what I liked or disliked, and the biggest insult was that they always claimed they recognized me as talent, musical talent, but they never proved it by letting me do my own thing.
* * *
There’s been a change, affected by dope, and I wondered . . .
You think I use dope, do you?
This morning, in fact, probably . . .
You thought I was floating around somewhere, [laughter] Could have been drunk, you know . . . Well, I enjoy . . . I think that if you know yourself and if you’re in control of yourself, narcotics can be used in moderation, if you want to. I happen to be an individual, and if I choose to do something then I do it with full knowledge of what I’m doing, with the full knowledge of my body and its capacity . . . I’m a very careful person, I’ve always been, I was a careful teenager, and when the crowd was having a ball I’d drink my limit. I’ve only been drunk once in my life. And I had to get drunk one time to know what it was like. I do some things of course, but I don’t think that marijuana is . . . I like grass, you know. I don’t like booze.
You decided at one time that you didn’t like booze. When did you make that choice about grass?
I’ve been open to grass since I was a kid. I’ve also been open to alcohol, cigarettes, uppers and downers, heroin, cocaine, but I mean, you know, . . . I dug all of them too. But what I dig and what’s good for me are two different things.
What gave you that kind of control, do you think?
Wanting to live.
Anybody else influence you?
No. Only me, I just wanted to wake up in a way.
What’s your wife’s reaction to you? Have you always been this way?
Well, the thing about this is it’s very dangerous because, what the hell, the Police Commission or somebody reads this copy and he said “Jeez, man, that Marvin Gaye, I didn’t know that about him or nothing. I think we’ll watch his mail or I think we’ll snoop around a little bit, see if we can get a sensational bust.” That’s our society, how people get promotions. A guy like me has to be very careful, and it’s a shame, because I’m not doing anything to anybody. Doing it to me. That’s what’s so amazing. I’m going to be punished for doing something to me. Who has that right other than God?
It seemed to me that there was a particular turning point that led to What’s Going On.
I imagine I’m going to live a long time. I like to think I am, but I probably won’t. And whatever hallucinogenic properties . . . whatever grass I’ve smoked or whatever booze I’ve consumed . . . in the back of my mind maybe I know that I won’t live long. And maybe I also need those properties to see, because I cannot see if I’m like you. And if I’m not like you, you can’t see me the way you see those who are like you. Consequently you’re going to change how you are to try and see me. Probably during that course I’ll be able to see you, and from seeing you I’ll be able to know what I want to transmit into my music.
Maybe I get the vibration from that, whatever I’m trying to say, maybe when I sit down at the piano I’ll get high again because maybe in my state, since that was my environment and that’s how I lived for so long, maybe I cannot relate to that in a sober state, a state normal people are in when they just have a couple drinks when they go home. Maybe I cannot compose or I cannot create if I cannot recall. So in order for me to recall and create I have to be where I was when I dug it.
Who do you conceive to be the people you’re communicating to? Your audience could be straight.
Who am I to say whether they are straight or not? I don’t know that either. All I know is what I know and what I feel I know is truth to me, and that is how I live.
Where do you get your truth from?
I don’t know, I have a computer in my mind, and I compute things. Like I’ve computed you already.
Do you think you’re adapting your words to fit what you think I want from you? What this magazine might like? Are you that media-conscious?
Uh, yeah. Yeah.
And if I had said I was from . . .
Life? I’d be a different kind of guy.
Even from the morning on, from when you woke up?
Yes. Yes. From when I came out. I’d probably be dressed differently. I mean you wouldn’t even know me.
Do you still think that you’re being totally honest?
Yeah. Because I would have not conceived it that way. I’m not laying down saying, “Ok, tomorrow I’ve got Life Magazine coming and I’m going to get up and put a suit on,” not like that . . . but I do know there would be a difference. If you left now and another guy came in from Soul Magazine I would probably be different, I’d probably talk to him differently because I would try to communicate to him the way I think I can communicate to him best . . . But when you say totally honest, I think that’s a mark against my . . . I would hate for anything hypocritical to be inferred. I think I am probably the most non-hypocritical person I know; I’m a chameleon. There’s a difference. I happen to be able to adapt. But I’m always honest in whatever adaption I take.
What if Life asked you what I did, about dope?
I would have said exactly what I told you – another way.
What if they said just “Have you tried marijuana?”
I would say, to Life magazine . . . depending on how I was rolling at the time with the interviewer, and that has to all be in it . . . I would have said “Yes.” Plain and simple. Nothing behind it. And I wouldn’t have gone any further. With you, it’s different, I mean, we’re talking. I don’t care any more. I care only because it’s a criminal offense, and you can get time for it, which is totally unfair and ridiculous.
But what is it if I can’t have a little variety in life? Life isn’t interesting to me if a Life reporter comes in and I can’t be something else. I’ve been an actor, too, and I enjoy being an actor. If there were a bunch of ballplayers in the room, you’d think I were a ball player. If there were a bunch of music professors in here, I could fit in very well.
How about black radicals?
Yeah, I would be one, sure. I mean I could be in here and you would not say, “Hey, there’s a guy over there who probably isn’t a black radical.” I don’t know if I would want to, in that situation, but I’m telling you I can adapt. I’ve done it many times when I’ve gone abroad, like to go South. I’ve become Southern in three days. I mean I start to walk and talk and feel like a Southerner. When I go to England. I become English. I even begin to talk like an Englishman. I’m living in the suburbs, my speech becomes sort of suburbia. It’s not a thing I do or anything, it’s just how my environment is.
* * *
The $45,000 Misunderstanding
The next question was about the voicings on particular tunes, like “It Hurt Me Too” or “Sandman,” where Marvin seemed to push more towards a vocal, emotional edge, as if inspired by Sam Cooke or Jackie Wilson.
“That,” he explained, “is my rock voice; I got all these voices, man,” and he got up and strode to the tape machine. “Some things I could play you, you probably wouldn’t believe.” He set up the tape he wanted. “This is my white voice,” he announced. “I figured, ‘Another Johnny Mathis. Wow, the world would love me!’ Boy, does he ever have a heavenly voice. But they wanted me to keep screaming, like on ‘Stubborn Kind of Fellow.’
“That was then, this is now,” and he puts on another tape. “Last year I wrote some songs for Sammy Davis Jr. who at the time was coming to Motown. I just finished What’s Going On, and everybody said, ‘Hey, man, Sammy’s coming. Why don’t you do some stuff for Sammy?’ I thought they were asking me to do it. I felt so groovy about it. This is a guy I admire. To do an album with him. Wow. So I did all that, I wrote and wrote, just for Sammy. Which he’ll never do, of course. Cost me $45,000. I have to eat that. Not that it’s Sammy’s fault . . . but executive bullshit. The tapes never got to him. Never even talked to him.”
As the backing track flutters in, Gaye shouts: “On me, now, this is no good. It isn’t my image,” and he proceeds to sing, oblivious to – or maybe encompassing – the children’s din. It is “middle-of-the-road” MOR, strings and silky words straight out of films, cymbals crashing to say how lonely a man can be, never never never having had a sunny day.
The second tune is even closer to Sammy, and as Marvin sings the line, “Will we meet again come next summer,” he asides, “He’s a romantic little guy, you know,” and into: “and make love by the ocean/where it is fresh and warm and wonderful/and the tingle tingle tingle tingle tingle of your salty kisses . . .”
Marvin climbs the scale effortlessly with eyes warm and gazing out windows at Detroit stillness. He is too proud, now, to go to Davis with tapes in hand, and right now he’s in a most expensive reverie. He tugs at a bit of whisker as he sings. “Happy Go Lucky” wraps up the live concert, and this one has a talk bit that Sammy could do in his roguish British way . . . “And my dahling, should I paht, I want you to keep those times neatly, in yaw haht . . . because happiness is where it’s at . . .” Marvin claps hands, snaps fingers. Perfect! Kitsch as can-can! . . . But Sammy Davis, Jr.?
“Well, I respect what I can sense and hear as truth. Nat Cole had one album where he was like super-on, and from this album I got tremendous respect for him. Same with Sinatra. One album. Even Tony Bennett, and Billie Holliday, especially Billie, the Lady Day album. I like Gloria Lynne . . . James Moody, Last Train from Overbrook. I could go on and on. There is always an album an artist puts out that stands ‘way out above the rest. What’s Going On may be mine.”
A Marvin Gaye discography is not so impressive, from a quick listing of greatest hits: “Pride and Joy,” “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” “Can I Get a Witness,” “You’re a Wonderful One,” “Hitch Hike,” “I’ll Be Doggone,” “How Sweet It Is,” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” “That’s the Way Love Is,” “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby,” and “What’s Going On.” With Tammi Terrell, in 1967 and 1968: “If I Could Build My World Around You,” “Your Precious Love,” “Good Lovin’ Ain’t Easy To Come By,” “You’re All I Need to Get By,” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” And with Kim Weston, in 1965, “It Takes Two.”
But, of course, in there you’ve got work with the majority of Motown’s major producers – Norman Whitfield back as early as ’63 (“Pride and Joy”); the long-time bread-butterers, Holland-Dozier-Holland (“How Sweet It Is,” among others), Smokey Robinson (“Ain’t That Peculiar”), and Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson (the Gaye-Terrell sides). And these are songs with brilliant, gospel sharp points to them or, conversely, tender, tenor weavings with various women’s voices; songs that had the Supremes and the Marvelettes as backup; songs that the Stones, Creedence, and Aretha Franklin would do.
And yet, as we learned, Marvin is kind of sub-total when it comes to recall of the songs he’s sung. All the music, or too much of it, at least, was lost under a general cloudy attitude about Motown. Seven years ago, he says, he could just go into Berry Gordy’s office and talk. Now, there’s executive protocol. He doesn’t mind, of course, but . . . and Berry’s his brother-in-law, and that’s all there is to say about that. As for the sessions, specific songs notwithstanding, they were simply work. And often enough, he was a good worker. And there you have the discography.
Marvin says he hasn’t been interviewed in a long time, and he won’t again, after this one. Soul Magazine, he said, pissed him off. He didn’t say how, or when . . . I’d guess it was around the time he went into seclusion, after Tammi’s death.
* * *
“I kept saying you wouldn’t print it if the editor’s brother was the singer, and the letter said, “Well, I think the editor’s brother is ridiculous and we hate his records and he should go and screw himself.” You should have the right to print what people send in, but there should be some ethics involved. There should be a part where the guy says “Hey, I don’t think that should be printed about Marvin because as I know him, man . . .” What do I spend 32 years living a plain life for, not being caught doing something by anybody. I spent 32 years creeping around. I don’t want people to know what I’m doing and everything. And so far so good. “Marvin, great guy, you know, wow, what a groovy cat” . . . which I probably am, but I’m not perfect. But at least I have enough respect – for people and my public – to not get hung up with these crazy headlines, “Marvin Knocks Up High School Girl” or “Marvin Involved with Sex Triangle . . .”
You have to have a healthy respect for people to be that way, and then all of a sudden some guy who’s kind of hard on me because his old lady probably likes me or something like that, he doesn’t particularly like my records and hasn’t ever liked me – and I confess, you may not get everybody to like you, which is a tragedy because I really honestly wish everybody did like me, everybody in the whole world – and some guy writes in and says, “Well, we think Marvin’s ridiculous” and . . . you’d be surprised how many people believe that – “Yeah, he really is. Why? Because I read it in Soul.”
Once you get involved with trying to satisfy all the people, you’re in trouble. There’s no way to do it – your politics, your race, your music, your limitations, anything could be the stumbling point . . . Do you read reviews?
I don’t read very many things, I don’t read the charts. I don’t know where my records are, I don’t really care because I can’t help them wherever they are . . .
When you put out What’s Going On, though, did you start following it?
Well, that was different. I didn’t follow it then out of fear. I wouldn’t read the charts because I didn’t want to know if it were falling or . . . I didn’t want to know, I didn’t want anybody to tell me. People would call and say, “Hey, your record jumped 20 spaces.” “Wow . . .” in a voice that was sort of subdued. “Gee, that guy is really great, he said, ‘Oh, wow,’ in a subdued voice, like it’s really nothing.” I get that all the time; I was ecstatic because I wanted it to do well, so badly, and I wanted it to even do better than it did. I have a feeling that it’s going to be number one again one way or another. I don’t know why I keep hanging on to it . . . got that crazy feeling . . . and it’s even done; it’s going to be off the charts in a week or so.
You say you don’t care, but still it’s important to you to be number one.
Yes, very. It matters in sports and in music also. But I tell myself I don’t care if I’m not number one, because that way I don’t get my stomach all messed up, and my nerves and stuff.
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Can you explain how What’s Going On came about?
Just through trial and error – and experimentation. I do something and then I listen to it and say, “Wow, this will sound good on this.” And I listen to that and say “Wait, here I can put behind that, this,” and then when I do that, I say, “Yeah,” and this would sound good if I put some voices here in this spot, and when I did that, I listened and I say, “Wow, a couple bells, ding ding, here, and that’s the way you do it, you build. Like an artist paints a picture, he starts slowly, he has to paint each thing at a time. You just can’t say “wop” or “zap.” A lot of guys go into a studio and try to have everything there and go Instant track!
You’re covering ecology, your own sense of religion, children, veterans of war, brothers on the street. How did all these begin to come together?
What you’re trying to find out is am I really a genius or a fake. And I think I’m a fake. A lot of people ask me that same question. “Tell me this, how did you put that damn album together? A nut like you, I mean, really, explain that.” And it kind of bugs me a little sometimes, but then I say, “I don’t know; it just happened.” It really did. It happened through divinity; it was divine. And somebody said, “Ok, you’re divine, you be divine, and I’ll be rich.” I say I like it better, I’d rather be divine.
Being rich already, you could afford to make that choice.
No, I’m not rich. I will be rich. I’m going to be rich. Rolling in dough one day.
But What’s Going On was your first album in many ways. It was a concept album. Did you see it as the beginning of a more serious work you’re planning?
I really probably shouldn’t answer that question, because it could be incriminating. That was a feeler, the way I see it. If you notice, I never stepped on anybody’s toes, and I didn’t intend to. Somebody said the other day, “That’s a fine black album.” I said, “Wait a minute. The word ‘black’ is not in my album from the A side to the B side.” I was very careful not to do any of those things.
It’s a feeler for what?
Some of these guys go around and think they’re crusaders, King Richards and everything, and I don’t know if I’ve been knighted or what [laugh], and if I have, I may just try and save the world. What can I tell you? A lot of people don’t want you saving the world. They like it the way it is. You gotta be careful.
Which ties back to the point of trying to satisfy everybody, making everybody like you.
You can’t do that. But I’d like probably to become a little more explicit with my next thing. But then again people will start getting in little groups on you. And I don’t want anybody taking my work and going off in little groups.
Your next album is going to be another feeler?
Umm . . . with longer fingers.
A little sharper. Maybe a scratch here and there.
Yeah. A little scratch. It would be nice if I could lead a million people out of despair, and I may try. I am really quite an evasive fellow on the subject – at the moment. It’s tricky.
When did you start doing production work?
Six months ago. It was just a new pastime. Something different to pursue. Before, I always had a say, but I was only interested in becoming a good performing artist. To this day, I don’t feel that I have accomplished that. One of these days I shall.
Is Van DePitte involved in the next album?
No . . . not yet. I’ve done all the music so far. You have to keep stepping up. I don’t like routine. I don’t think I even like order . . . I just feel that I have creativity to burn, and I’ve been telling a lot of people that for a long time, but I’m just patiently waiting, dangling and saying, “Hey, if you just give me a chance to do my thing, I can really do something different.” Then they hear it and say “That’s too different.” Or “You can’t do that because it just isn’t done.”
Was that the reaction to What’s Going On?
Was there any delay in releasing the album?
No delay. I needed a record and by this time, it was pretty much old hat that I was kind of a nut. And so the fact that this is what I’d come up with was right in line with me as an individual. “So this is what Marvin wants to go out next. Let’s hear it.” “Oh boy! Well, it’s got a beat, though, kind of groovy, but man that’ll never – whew! Boy’s really had it!”
Motown had you recording with various women. Your first was with Mary Wells; second was Kim Weston, and Tammi Terrell was third.
I went a year and a half without recording between recording with Kim and Tammi. It was my choice. I’m a moody person.
You had a hit with Kim, “It Takes Two.”
Yeah, right. They cut us probably with the express purpose of furthering my career, and, of course, getting Kim out into the public eye. They cut us to put out a single and entitled the album, Take Two.
How long was it before you, by yourself, had a hit? The press releases give the impression it was quite immediate.
It was over a year. Berry recorded me right away because he was fascinated with my voice. He always said my voice was something . . . He also tried to record me the way I wanted to be recorded – as a jazz singer. I wanted to get into the top echelon of show business without paying all the dues. Which I ultimately had to pay.
What kind of tunes were they?
Stuff like “How High the Moon.” Oop-shoop-de-doop. Oo-wee, baby. Stuff like that. I was cutting everything.
How about that Hello Broadway album [1964, following the first string of hits, and featuring “Days of Wine and Roses,” “My Way,” “Hello Dolly”] ? Was that your idea or Motown’s?
Sort of mine and theirs. Partners in crime on that one. Some of those things were my fault. They were. “Keep him happy . . . hey, look, do it, it’s his money.”
You had to pay studio costs.
Well, all artists do, generally, have to pay for all those sessions. Boy, did I cut up a lot of money. So I got locked in; that was the way.
Was there ever an attempt to turn you into, say, lead vocalist of a group?
Oh, well, there were many offers. But I’d had it as a member of a group. I sang with the Moonglows for two years, and that was enough. I was about 19, and I was just a member – first tenor. I sang one number during the show. We played clubs around Detroit, and that’s where Berry heard us and me, when I sang my one song.
You lived in Washington around this time?
I didn’t live anywhere. I wouldn’t go home, I had no home. I was on my own after the service. I got an honorable discharge – a general discharge under honorable conditions.
How long did you serve?
About a year. Texas, Wyoming, Kansas.
What was the problem?
Authoritative symbols. Regimentation. Having to do what mortal man tells you to do. I couldn’t take the idea of authority.
On the other hand, could you have dug being the authority, ordering the troops around?
So you left the service and joined the Moonglows.
Harvey Fuqua was the founder and organizer. We were a little group in Washington called the Marquis. Could have named ourselves the DeSades, but . . . what happened was he heard us on a talent show. We were proteges of the Moonglows, we sounded so much like them, so he disbanded the other group, kept a couple original members, and a couple of us, and we went on the road. Which was not fate, it was meant to be. I’m supposed to be in show business. That’s that. Some guys are supposed to be doctors. This is this. I was born for this.
After the Moonglows . . .
I was a musician. I played piano and drums. I played drums for Smokey Robinson for about six months, on the road. I played drums on all the Marvelettes recordings, and on several of Smokey’s, and several of my own. So I made my living initially as a musician when I left the group.
And you were under contract with Motown?
Yes. In those days – no, there were no contracts. You sorta paid musicians what you wanted to pay them. Five dollars a side.
Yeah, If you took eight hours on one side, that was $5. You sweated and ached and played. But you were young, and your eyes were full of love and show business and music. And you were having fun and getting money for it. So if they paid you a dollar, it was Ok.
When was this during Motown’s history?
That was a couple years after I signed.
You toured with Smokey; he already had his first hit by that time?
He’d only had a couple, three records out. Temptations hadn’t had a hit. Supremes were back-up singers.
Did the Supremes do some back-up on some of your songs?
Yeah, they were background singers. They were a group but they had a different name . . . the Primettes.
They were into the same thing you were – signed but also doing sessions.
Everybody helped everybody. I played drums for everybody, sang background, I helped everybody with their notes. They brought me songs and they helped me. There would be a gang of us, 15 or 20 of us down there, trying to get a hit. Somebody’d play drums, someone else’d pick up some bells . . . you would all come to work every day. I should probably also mention the Andantes. They have been around a long time. And the fellows who make up the group that’s called the Originals. At that time, the Temps and Stevie Wonder would always lend a hand.
What did Stevie do?
He played instruments and everything. He would be very instrumental . . . Stevie’s blessed. Very much so. And he has been that way since he was a child, able to hear music rapidly and bring it to being very rapidly. He amazed everybody.
Come And Get These Memories
It’s been four hours since we began; outside it’s dark blue and bright white; inside the kids are noisier than ever, and another team of pre-teens, three neighborhood boys who sing together – with Marvin Gaye their main teacher – and call themselves Mother’s Love – are itching to take over the carpet and do their version of the J-5 for us. We break. Gaye invites us to meet him at the King Solomon Baptist Church’s recreation gym, where he’s going to get in some boxing, and tomorrow we can finish up and take pictures.
Twelve minutes into the trip back across town, we’re on West Grand Boulevard, and suddenly it’s “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Shop Around” and “Heat Wave” and “Jamie” and “Money” and “It’s Growing” and “Fingertips.” Dozens of Tamla/Motown/Gordy memories evoked by the Hitsville USA house, Motown’s first quarters, just a little white house, still looking like somewhere inside someone’s fixing dinner. The surrounding houses along W. Grand, once held by the company, have been leased out by Gordy to various community groups at low rent, but the central property still holds a much-used recording studio.
Now, Motown Records is in downtown Detroit, just down from the half-circle central park, the Grand Circus. An unimposing, middle-aged, ten-story building, windows blued out and chromed. From Woodward Street you push through two heavy doors into an interim lobby, where a poster of Motown artists, all sketched into one light blob, is on display. A sign warns: Do Not Sit On Ledge. The door inward is locked; a voice from the inside lobby is aired: “Pick up the phone, please.” Shades of an impossible mission. You are checked out, registered, given a pass, which is taken from you by an escort, and led into the publicity office, a large, open room with baby blue walls, the gilded ceilings of long ago painted over by white, outshone by the chrome of contempo office furniture. And that is your Motortown Revue of today. (Plus, of course, a major office and studios in Hollywood, and, just announced, operations beginning in New York, where some newer groups will be recorded).
In the ghetto, Marvin Gaye is down to clean white T-shirt, track shorts, knit skull cap, and mid-ankle gym socks. He is neatly lacing up his white shoes. He chats passionlessly with locker-neighbors. Outside, a light snow falls onto this school-like red-brick building. The gym has a high-school cafeteria ambience, high milky walls and harsh lights, but with the fights all around you – shuffling feet and beating leather and “WJLB, 28 Degrees in the city, and here’s Detroit Soul, the Naturals” out a transistor radio’s tin-thin speakers on a ringside table. A young middleweight has just finished three rounds of fending off a red-shirted, blue-panted hulk, and his trainer is bulling, screaming at him, hoping it’s loud enough so everyone can hear. Nothing more effective than a whole gymful of sweaty, smelly humiliation. “Quit then! You audda! You like a punchin’ bag! You might’s well give up. You ain’t gonna fight. I don’t have to keep fightin’ for you! I gotta make you do everything you do. I’m tard of it.” The trainer takes his knit jacket off and throws it up, behind him, onto a hook on a ringpost. He is a dramatic man. Big, angry Poitier eyes. Looks a little like Berry Gordy, Jr., in fact.
“He’s right. It’s a tough game.” Marvin has come up to my side. “He’s just trying to make it so you protect yourself. You’ve gotta be good.” Later, the same trainer is like a Little League father; he lifts his 12-year-old trainee off the big ring. “Good work,” he says, massaging the mild compliment into the boy’s face. The kid comes up to me, I unlace his gloves, and he goes off to do some shadow-boxing.
Earnestness reigns in this bleak naked room; the entire gym is a ring – spit is squished, and sweat is dropped, all over the floor – and you bounce from wall to wall, corner to corner, hitting your trainer’s bare hand, slamming down against a sit-up, leaping up to a chin-up bar, mirror-boxing, rope-jumping, bag-punching, toe-touching.
Marvin himself is doing just light training tonight, stabbing at the heavyweight punching bag, shadow-boxing, slowly, methodically punching at his trainer’s right hand, taking aim at the bare cupped mitt while, up on the ring, a pair of teenagers exchange flurries. Marvin’s coach is John, the man with the bulging Poitier eyes, the gruff paternalism.
Marvin also wants to introduce some of the regulars . . . Leonard Hutchinson, won the national AAU title . . . the welterweight, Tommy Roland . . . Joe Hanks, son of the middleweight champ, Henry Hanks . . . “and here’s the one I own . . . Tommy Hanna. I think I can make him the next middleweight champion.” In the ring, a motion-picturesque man, a touch of Italian in his makeup, dressed in brown trunks, striped brown socks, striped T-shirt, groin protected by something right out of Anthony Burgess . . . plastic, maybe . . . orange, for sure . . . Cockwork Orange, of course . . . while his sparrin