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The Spirit, the Flesh and Marvin Gaye

The voice of “Let’s Get It On” on God, sex and boxing

Soul, singe,r Marvin Gaye, plays, piano, records, studioSoul, singe,r Marvin Gaye, plays, piano, records, studio

Soul singer Marvin Gaye plays piano as he records in a studio. Circa 1974

Jim Britt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

The Marvin Gaye documentary should start like this:

A wide-angle helicopter shot of the bare Southern California mountains zooming down to a small, weathered-wood and glass canyon-top home. There are two jeeps parked alongside the dirt road. Windsounds, and far below, the Pacific Ocean. Slow dolly to one of the Pacific-side windows. Inside, a tall, athletic-looking black man in faded jeans stands braced against the glare, staring down toward the distant waters. His lips are moving slightly. Now, amid the wind and water sounds we hear Marvin Gaye’s tenor voice.

“Mercy, mercy me, what’s happening to….”

The voice breaks, goes reedy. Marvin checks the watch on his wrist. “Fifteen minutes,” he mutters disconsolately.

Cut to: Marvin at the wheel of his jeep, careening over the dry winter hills. “You don’t expect a man to come back after five years and give a perfect show. You have to make allowances. It’s like Muhammad Ali coming back to the ring. The first time out, he isn’t going to be at top form. I’ve been training for this concert. I started singing… trying to do the whole show. The first time I tried it, I could only do about five minutes. In the studio I sing a phrase or two at a time, but Friday I’m going to have to do over an hour. I’ve got it worked up to about 15 good minutes before my voice breaks.”

Close-up on Marvin, brooding. Long pan shot of the leaden Pacific horizon and a cold January sunset. Windsounds.

“It’s as if he’s developed this phobia about performing,” Marvin’s younger brother, Frankie, says.

And Marvin, a man who has sold four million albums in the last three years, who has sung about God and ecology, who has managed boxers and trained with them, who has prayed to God and sung finely of sex, says, “I used to be afraid about 70% of the time. I’ve got it worked down to about ten percent lately.”

The most frightening time was the first 17 years, the ones Marvin spent while living at 1716 1st Street, S.W., in Washington, D.C., in a ghetto he and his friends called Simple City. Tall but slight as a child, Marvin learned the rough facts quick. You had to bring your lunch money for the older kids, learn to run fast or get into boxing. “I was chicken,” Marvin says. He was also the son of a preacher a prophet, Marvin says, and a healer, and a philosopher and it wouldn’t do to bring reports of fighting. “I could never get angry enough to fight back,” Marvin says.

Marvin, his two brothers and two sisters, all performed at the church. He started at the age of two, and by the time he was eight, he and Frankie could count on bringing the congregation to their feet with their favorite song, “His Eye upon the Sparrow.” “Sure,” Frankie says, “my father saw a performing career for Marvin. Of course, it wasn’t hard to realize that Marvin was something special, even when we were kids singing in church.”

Gaye’s father, Marvin, Sr., says, “I used to travel and do evangelical work. Marvin, when he was five, went with me to Kentucky for a convention of the Church of the Living God. He sang “Journey to the Sky,” and that was probably the first time I realized that he could deliver a song and that he had a unique style. After that, when I traveled with Marvin, people would always want him to sing.”

Marvin Gaye thinks in terms of feelings, so if you ask him to describe his father’s church, you won’t get a physical description. “Our church was a very spiritual church and we were a very chosen people. The body was small, but the spirit was intense, and very evident to anyone who passed by or came in. It immediately encompassed them. And there were very strong people who seemed to bring the spirit forth.” He passed over their names, slowly, lovingly. “When they spoke in tongues, the words were foreign, but they were almost clear to me.” Something else. “I was frightened because of how the spirit came forth. I wondered why the spirit had such disregard for their bodies, making them bump into things and fall on sharp objects. Or when they tarried, which is saying, ‘Thank you, Jesus,’ over and over again until you know you have changed. It becomes evident, physically, that they shouldn’t do it that long. And yet the spirit is there and their mouths begin to foam and that’s part of it.

“I never tarried that much. But I am a prayer.” We are sitting in a room on the 18th floor of the Century Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles. Marvin is one of those rare men with a presence that makes his moods infectious. At this point in the conversation he is not really talking to the people in the room, but staring off into some regal inner space. “I try to sense the spirit, feel the spirit, be aware of signs of the spirit.” What he is saying, in fact, begins to sound like a soft prayer. “I try to sense the spirit in a gust of wind, or in a bird chirping, or in a drop of rain.

“I think that somewhere down the line, God owes somebody a favor. If I do my job well, then God will smile on my offspring and on their offspring. I’m sure my father is seeing a blessing in me.”

“What is your father like?” I find I am whispering, caught up now in Marvin’s hypnotic rhythm. Perhaps it is something we have been smokinga sin, I suppose, in the fundamentalist sensebut Marvin’s next words sound to me like whispered melodic poetry.

“My father is a black man. My mother is very fair. My father’s hair is very kinky, and my mother’s hair is fair.” He speaks even slower here. “My father is very strong, extremely independent.” He lingers on the word “independent,” and repeats it. “My father has a magnificent body. My father has a great voice. My father used to sing…just sing. He would take the guitar and sing….” Marvin begins to sing in his sweetest, softest voice. “Oh precious fountain, hear my call, oooohhh Jesuuuuuus, hear me, Lord. …”

Marvin says his father has a gift of prophecy; and though he won’t say that he, too, has the gift, he always knew that he would sing for people and that they would demand it of him. When he was very young, he heard music in his head. Just once he heard it, but he knew that it was an ultimate musica breakthrough, a new form that he is still working to hear again, and eventually to play. It is somewhere in the melody. When Marvin composes, he sings the melody until it is firm in his mind. Then he hums the horn riffs, and the rhythm pretty much takes care of itself. Except that he has come nowhere near the sound he heard as a child.

As a teenager in the mid-Fifties, Marvin hung out on the streetcorners, singing. “I was afraid,” his father says, “I’m a worrier and I thought he could get in with juvenile delinquents. I said, ‘Marvin, either get a job or go into the service.'” Marvin, at 17, enlisted in the Air Force.

“It was the worst thing I’ve ever done. One of the real horrors of my life.” He decided that it was finally time to start hitting back, which he did in some pretty good fights. But the real problemthe “horror”was that his spiritual, spacey, independent streak didn’t mesh well with military discipline.

“I had gone insane. That’s what they told me because I was ready to go home and they said I couldn’t because I was in the service. They would say, ‘Okay, do KP,’ and I would say, ‘Excuse me, but I can’t do KP. I’ll do it tomorrow if that’s all right with you.’ And they’d say, ‘Hell no, it’s not all right with us. You do KP.’ And then, somehow, you have to do KP. No matter what. And it is kind of frightening. So … I guess I’m crazy. They said I was crazy.”

“Did they send you to a psychiatrist?”

“I didn’t walk to one. I figured at that point that I didn’t have to do anything. It was ludicrous. I lost all perspective. If they told me to get up, I’d lay down. If they told me to wash up, I’d throw dirt on myself. If they had threatened to shoot me, I was mad enough to say, ‘I dare you.’ And it would have been okay dying then, if I could hear just one of them say, ‘Wow, he sure didn’t go for none of this shit, did he?'”

Marvin Gaye, for obvious reasons, was given a general discharge under honorable conditions. He began singing and touring with a group called the Moonglows. In 1961, he sang at a private party in Detroit and Berry Gordy, founder of Motown, signed him to an instant contract. He had his first hit the next year with “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” and followed with million-sellers throughout the Sixties.

Gaye performed often in the early and middle Sixties: tours that took him to 36 cities in 40 days the famous, blistering Motown schedule. Never a dancer of the caliber of Jackie Wilson or James BrownMr. Excitement and Mr. Entertainment, respectivelyMarvin was billed as Mr. Professional. By the late Sixties, Marvin found himself emotionally crippled by certain vague sensibilities. He couldn’t stand it if the audience didn’t like him. Motown began billing him as Mr. Perfectionist, and later, as the live dates tapered off, as the Perfectionist’s Perfectionist. It had to do with “spirit,” Marvin said. If he didn’t feel, then the audience didn’t feel it through him, and the show was no good.

The spirit, as Marvin would have it, was dealt a near-killing blow in 1967. Gaye had racked up a series of hits with Tammi Terrell, songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “I Could Build My Whole World around You.” In late 1967, the two were performing at a college concert in Virginia when Tammi collapsed onstage into Marvin’s arms while singing “Your Precious Love.” She survived six operations in 18 months, but died of a brain tumor on March 16th, 1970. Marvin wept openly at her funeral.

There were few concerts for Marvin after Tammi’s collapse. The Perfectionist’s Perfectionist often found himself ill enough to vomit before a performance. Motown press releases began mentioning that “the lithe, handsome, recording star” “loathed” interviews, and that he was spending a lot of time at home listening to melancholy pop balladeers such as Tony Martin and Frank Sinatra.

“I think Tammi’s death triggered something in my boy,” the elder Marvin Gaye says. “He troubled up and I would call and ask him, ‘Marvin, why aren’t you working?’ He would say that he was tired of his music, but his excuses didn’t satisfy me. It just didn’t sound like him. I have to attribute the fact that he wasn’t working to the girl’s death. It took something from my boy.”

Five years later, Marvin came roaring back into the music business with a vengeance. His million-selling album What’s Going On was an instant classic.

To be sure, it took some getting used to. There were strange, innovative production techniques. Gaye ran brass and strings on a single take causing a sound leakage that gave the record an infinite sense of space. The illusion was compounded by the rhythm, which floated about in the distance, four or five times uptempo. The bass and drums were soul; the horns sounded of jazz, and Marvin’s voice came up soft and spontaneous, sometimes like a pop balladeer, sometimes like a tired bluesman.

The subject was the ghetto: Simple City. The stance was involved, passionate, political. The words had all been said before“Save the children,” “What’s happening to the ecology”but there was something in the trance-like production, the fusion of styles, the spirit in the singer that gave the cliches new meaning. What’s Going On was a masterpiece.

Between ’71 and ’73, Marvin released two more albums. One, a collaboration with Diana Ross, was a critical disaster in comparison to the earlier Tammi-Marvin albums. The other release was the jazz-oriented soundtrack for a picture called Trouble Man. Like all soundtracks, it was a necessarily limited effort. Though Marvin defends it as one of his better workssurely it was the best thing about Trouble Man—it has the sound of someone flexing his muscles in the field of jazz.

Marvin Gaye’s second classic album hit the racks in the summer of 1973. Let’s Get It On was a brilliant celebration of the joys of sex. The music had many of the same hypnotic production values, the same fusion of styles, the same depth of feeling as What’s Going On, but the lyrics, as Marvin’s father notes, “were, uh, a little spicy.”

“Oh baby,” Marvin sang, “you sure love to ball.” It was a sweet, languorous, coital chant, punctuated with melodic falsetto moans. And, while What’s Going On had sold primarily to the urban R&B market, Let’s Get It On crossed over onto the pop charts and has sold over two million copies to date. “When I first heard the song on the radio,” Marvin’s father laughs, “I called Marvin to congratulate him on the music, but I said, ‘Please, please, don’t go any further. You’re supposed to be a minister’s son.'”

Rock and soul have always been about sex in one way or another, but it has generally been a raw, thumping, throbbing evocation. Marvin Gaye was singing about the tender and romantic joys of even the most casual act. Somehow it seemed more shocking than doing it in the road.

“I don’t think being religious means you can’t have sex,” Marvin Gaye says brightly. One remembers his father saying that Marvin was always the standout Sunday School student: “He had a quicker grasp of Scripture, and sometimes, as a small boy, he almost sounded like a grown man, a minister.”

I think,” Marvin says these days, “that you can do it and still be good. I think it’s ridiculous to say you can’t be a priest and also screw. People are supposed to say, ‘If he’s giving up the Supreme Goodie, then he must be a good man.’

“Why shouldn’t a religious man have the Supreme Goodie and be an even greater man? If he is intelligent enough to be a priest, he ought to be intelligent enough to handle the goodies.

“I think sex is great. I think sex is sex and love is love. I think they can be and are separated. I think they are beautiful together, but they are two separate things.

“I’m a fantasy person myself. I think there is a point where you can live out your fantasies and not go over in pervertiness. Is that the word? Perversity. I think society makes people creep and crawl about and it only accentuates perversity.” Marvin pauses thoughtfully. “I suppose that makes it more fun for the pervert, though. Who wants to be perverse if everybody says, “OK, go ahead, we don’t care.'” Back to the original thesis. “I don’t know, I just think we’re all too uptight about sex. All of us.”

I asked Marvin if he turned to sex because he had already made his statement about his people.

“No,” he said. “I have not made my statement. Boy, have I not made my statement.”

“Why did you concentrate on the tender, romantic aspects of sex?”

“Because that’s the way I would like to be presented. If someone were to say, ‘I wonder how he is,’ then they could listen to the album and tell.” Marvin suddenly breaks into laughter, as if he has just begun listening to himself. “Oh, is that egotistical.” His laugh is infectious and I find myself breaking up along with him. “That’s awful,” he says, rocking back and forth on his chair. “Just awful.

“It’s strange but there is a time of yearpardon mewhen I’m irresistible to women. Even if I’m stupid, they like it. One time when it was happeningand I don’t know if it’s the moon or the seasons or whatI said this really stupid thing. And it was great. Any other time, if I babbled something that stupid, most people would say, ‘Marvin, you’re an idiot, good-bye.’ This time it was great.”

“How many people,” I wondered, “do you suppose, put your album on before they go to bed?”

“Some swingers, probably.”

“There’s a problem in that there’s only about 15 minutes to a side.”

“Well, that’s a pretty long haul. I’ve done that, you know.”

“What, right through the album? Finished on the last note?”

“No, no, just one side at a time.”

“I know. That’s what I meant. You couldn’t very well get up in the middle and turn the record over.”


“So what side do you like?”

“I like the ‘Keep Gettin’ It On’ side.” Marvin breaks up again. “This is awful. Awful.”

“What are you doing about the sexual offers you must be getting?”

“Turning them all down.”


“My bark is worse than my bite. I’m really pretty straight. Hey, but I’m a good bluff.”

* * *

The ten percent of him that was always afraid had increased exponentially. It was like a terror. That was the word he would use later“terrified.”

Early this year Marvin Gaye was propelled by a strange set of obligations to do his first real concert in over five years. He had promised an Oakland, California, concert to Wally Cox, his friend and producing protege. But when the November date came up, Marvin balked. Cox and his partner, Mel Reid (a fixture in the local gospel-music community) had advertised the show. Now they argued that Marvin “owed” it to his people.

The show was rescheduled for Friday, January 4th. It wasn’t until a week before the show that Marvin finally gave the final go-ahead. Now he was terrified.

Rumors of the concert drifted into Motown’s Los Angeles office the same day. The company had worked with Marvin since they signed him in 1961 and they were used to his little … eccentricities. In the halcyon days of the Sixties, when Marvin Gaye singles were selling almost as fast as they could make them, Motown used to call Marvin in, give him ten songs, and turn on the tapes. Marvin might sing two or three takes, look at his watch and say, “Gee, time for the football game.” And he’d go home, leaving all the engineers and musicians and creative directors sitting there for three and a half hoursand hundreds of dollars’ worth of paid-up studio timewhile he watched his favorite team, the Detroit Lions, slug it out with the Chicago Bears on the tube. He’d come back, of course, and with visions of some incredible end-zone catch still fresh in his mind, record something like, “I Heard It through the Grapevine,” which would top the charts a month after release.

So, after dealing with Marvin Gaye for nearly 13 years, Motown had a fine fix on both the extent of his talent and the nature of his capriciousness. If Marvin had hit the charts no less than 34 times through the Sixties, by the early Seventies he was given to statements like, “I could be perfectly happy playing split-end for the Detroit Lions.” Split-end, in fact, was very like the position Marvin plays for Motown. He operates at some distance from the brutal, grinding, day-to-day business. “Marvin, uh, doesn’t check in regularly,” a Motown publicity person said ruefully.

It is this apparent distance between the company and the singer that gives rise to periodic rumors that Marvin Gaye is looking to sign with another company. Such rumors are dismissed out of hand by Motown President Ewart Abner’s office. Marvin, they would have one understand, has a contract with Motown “for the next couple of years.”

Marvin, too, is vague and, for his part, is likely to say, “You choose a record company for what it can do for you.” In another mood, he might say, “I have emotional and social ties with Motown which would be very difficult for me to break.”

“So,” one decides, “the answer is you are not looking to sign with anyone else.”

“No. The answer is, ‘I don’t know.'”

At Motown, Marvin has a reputation as a man with a changeable mind, especially in relation to concerts. Indeed, while the company had heard about the January 4th show by December 28th, it wasn’t until December 31st that they were sure he was going to go through with it. In additionwith all due respect to the two men who had actually broken Continued through to Marvin and generated the concertCox and Reid were novice promoters. A one-night stand in a 14,000-capacity hall like the Oakland Coliseum must be as carefully planned as a successful bank robbery. Motown, a day before the show, dispatched 30 of its best peopleincluding President Ewart Abner, Vice President Susan De Passe and Don Foster, manager of the Temptationsto help take care of business.

Even so, by 8:30 PM showtime it was one of the most chaotic backstage scenes I have ever seen. The overriding problem was that the 46-member orchestra had not actually rehearsed from the stage. This was because as late as 7:00 PM there was no stage. There used to be one. Ordered by the promoters, it measured 16 by 20 feet and might have accommodated Rod McKuen and a sheepdog. A new stage was hastily ordered and was still being built two hours before showtime.

“This,” an executive from another record company said, “is not the way to treat an artist of Marvin Gaye’s stature.” Well, true enough, but it was Marvin himself who gave his company a scant week to swing into action, and, to be fair, there was a feeling of hopeful anticipation shining through the general sense of murky hysteria. One got the impression that this concert was to be a test run for Marvin. If he could do it, if he felt the spirit again, perhaps he might decide to return to live performances.

It was, Marvin said of the last hour backstage, like stepping onto a roller coaster as a kid. Once you were on, there was no getting off, no matter how terrified you got as the thing cranked its way to the top of the first pike. Marvin Gaye hit the top of the first pike when he stepped onstage to a five-minute ovation. Wearing his trademark knit cap and faded jeans, he tore through 16 triumphant numbers. The house mixer apparently gave up trying to balance the strings and bass by the third number and cranked Marvin’s voice up to full volume. It broke on the fourth number, but Marvin sang through it, sounding harsh and reedy like the Marvin Gaye of 1965. He sang “Flying High,” “Mercy, Mercy Me,” “Inner City Blues,” “Distant Lover,” “Come Get to This,” “Jan” and “Keep on Getting It On,” before coming to the most successful part of the evening, the medley of hits, including “I’ll Be Doggone,” “Can I Get a Witness” and “How Sweet It Is.” For a time it was 1965. The young ladies stagefront moved with Marvin en masse. They grabbed for his legs and fought for the towel he wiped his face with.

He finished with “Let’s Get It On” and “What’s Going On.” In all it had been a fine roller-coaster ride, full of ups and downs, and suffused with a speedy sense of exhilaration.

* * *

A few days after the Oakland concert, Marvin lay back on a bed at the Century Plaza, listening to a working tape of the show. Marvin’s voice sounded strong and confident. When Wally Cox finished the show with, “The Marvelous Marvin Gaye, ladies and gentlemen, a legend in his time. Marvelous Marvin, ladies and gentlemen…,” Marvin winced mightily.

“Oh that’s terrible. I wish he didn’t do that.”

There was a film script on the table. Rumors had it that Motown had the rights to a Sam Cooke movie and that Marvin was in line to play the lead. Motown refused to confirm the rumor: “We are preparing a feature film and you will definitely see Marvin Gaye in it. That’s all I can tell you.” Marvin, for his part, thought that playing the part of Sam Cooke was a morbid idea.

The screenplay he was looking at opens on a slave ship in the 1800s. It is dawn. Several of the slaves come topside looking scared and sick. All except for these six guys who are all 6’6″, proud and unaccountably amused by the situation. They arrive in America, bring high prices and go happily through the horrors of slavery. When whipped for disobedience, their wounds heal instantly. They do not cringe. Eventually it becomes apparent that these are beings from another planet. Having assessed the sad state of earthly affairs, they decide to return to their own land, but not without first having an otherworldly joke of their own. They turn the evil plantation owner black.

In addition, Marvin is looking at two other scripts: one called Gandydancer, and another called Spirit in Darkness, a Civil War escape drama. Gaye, according to his personal manager, Ronald Ross, has had offers from the three major film studios as well as a few independent producers.

So it appears that Marvin Gaye will begin work on some film in 1974. Motown says it will release an album from the Oakland concert soon and that, sometime this year, there will be a special four-record Marvin Gaye anthology album, including all the hits from 1961 on.

But for all the activity going on around him, Marvin seems a remarkably unfocused man.

He wants to do movies. He wants to produce a Marvin Gaye television special. He is thinking of marketing “some device” that, combined with music, will help us know ourselves better. He manages fighters: two heavys and a middleweight. Sometimes he trains with the fighters. Next week he will get up at five for four mornings to run seven miles with heavyweight Lee Mandingo, who will fight Duane Bobick a week and a half from today.

The alternatives open to Marvin Gaye occasionally seem to overwhelm him and he is, at times, quite ding-y. In the midst of a conversation he may stop to stare off into some moody distance for several minutes. “What, oh sorry,” he will say, smiling apologetically. “I go away like that every once in awhile but I always come back. Is that crazy?” He’s not entirely serious.

“No, everyone does that once in awhile,” I say. “Oh boy, now I know I’m crazy. That’s what they do when they put you in the little white room. They tell you don’t worry, nobody‘s crazy here.” Not being crazy strikes Marvin funny.

Someone tells Marvin that a Coliseum guard told Frankie Gaye that he hadn’t seen such crowd reactions since the Beatles played Oakland.

Marvin smiles broadly. “God, it was unbelievable. I’m 34 and at Oakland … I mean, some of them were little girls, really little girls. I don’t understand it. I’m flattered but I don’t understand it.”

Somebody asks Marvin if he will do more live dates.

“I think so,” he said gently.

* * *

Two weeks after the Oakland date, Marvin Gaye was in San Diego to watch his man, Lee Mandingo, go a ten-round main event with Duane Bobick at the New Coliseum. Bobick, a 1972 Olympic boxer, turned pro last April and has since won 15 fightsall by knockouts. It is the most impressive record since Muhammad Ali won 14 fights in 1961. He is 6’3″ and weighs 210 pounds.

Mandingo is a 6’6″ giant who weighs nearly 280 pounds. He has a 19-and-8 record and hasn’t fought in 14 months. Marvin has been running with him these last few morningsseven miles a day. The fight is Mandingo’s big chance. If he can knock off a bright young prospect like Bobick, he could start looking like a contender. Lose and he’s a bum. In the yellow adobe dressing room with the unshaded single bulb swinging from a cord above, Gaye is telling his man to get in there, jab twice and back out. Feel the guy out. Pace himself. One of the trainers is throwing rapid-fire jabs, as if to say, “Looka here boy, like this, jab, jab, out.” The other trainer is working on the big man’s confidence. “The guy’s a bum. He goes for the body. You can knock him out.”

Mandingo nods balefully. There is about him an air of hysterical desire. He is a malevolent electrical storm and wants this one bad. “Jab twice and out,” Marvin cautions as the fighters are called.

Round One: Mandingo out fast, moving more rapidly than a big man should. Jab, jab, out. Bobick moves in. Mandingo jabs twice andHoly God he pastes Bobick something good with a right upside the head. Pandemonium. 280 pounds of killer flesh boring in. Punches coming up from the floor, from over his head. Bobick weaves, staggers, clinches hoping to clear his head. The referee separates the fighters, and Bobick is out of trouble.

Mandingo comes back in, still looking for the kill and throwing rights and lefts from every point on the compass. Bobick tucks his chin into the collarbone and pounds away at the giant’s unprotected body. Marvin Gaye is on his feet at ringside, yelling for his man to pace himself now. Mandingo charges madly, catches a good solid right to the ribs and stumbles toward his corner where the trainers are yelling for him to remember the fight plan, for Christ’s sake. The giant lurches off toward Bobick, still looking for the kill.

No dice. Mandingo’s wild headshots leave his body wide open and Bobick is bouncing solid shots off the ribs easy as heavy bag work.

Round One ends with Mandingo stumbling oddly. He has taken the first round, but he looks like a bad bet to finish the fight. Gaye and the trainers try to calm their man down. Bobick shook off the punch, they explain. Remember the fight plan, Lee. Pace yourself. Mandingo nods as if he understands, but when the bell sounds for Round Two he lumbers out to the center of the ring and throws about 20 consecutive missed knockout blows while Bobick continues to thud methodically away at the body.

“What is he doing,” Marvin asks the trainers. Both shrug helplessly. They have given up yelling instructions. It looks very bad. Bobick throws a triple combination of solid shots to the midsection, and Mandingo, backing off, catches another quick left to the ribs. It isn’t a terrific punch, but the big man is exhausted, and his footing is bad. He falls backward onto the ropes, and a huge roar wells up from the crowd. It looked for a minute like Mandingo would uproot the entire ring. But the ropes hold and bring him slowly upward where he catches a short right to the side of the jaw and drops like a pole-axed grizzly. Stiffed in two minutes, 20 seconds of the second round.

* * *

“God,” Marvin told me the next day, “it looked like he was falling for about 20 minutes. He’s a good fighter. He has all the tools, everything. For a big man he’s phenomenal. He’s fast, he’s agile. But exhaustion killed him. Because he got excited, and started thinking like, ‘I can win! I can win! I actually hit him. God! I actually hit him!’ It was terrible. I looked at him and thought, ‘You’re not tired, Mandingo. Jesus Christ, don’t wobble like that. Please don’t wobble.’ Oh, it was terrible, man. He fell on the ropes and they thought the whole ring was gonna come up.

“I’m sitting with the trainers and they’re looking at me. I said, ‘What’s he doing?’ And they say, ‘I don’t know.’ Is this what’s going on when I’m watching fights on TV? Guys sitting there talking about ‘I don’t know?’

“See, Mandingo’s last fight was 14 months ago. It was like me coming back on the stage after five years. Knowing I’m not really ready. He knew that. And he panicked and saw the guy looking trim and in shape and said, ‘My only chance is to knock the guy out.'”

I wondered if Marvin thought he was learning anything about his business from the fight game.

“I don’t know. If there is something to be learned, I’ll get it subconsciously and maybe it’ll help me at alater time. I don’t know what it could be, unless it’s something about controlling my mind.”

It was a provocative remark. We continued to talk boxing but I found myself going back over our previous conversations. He had said that lately he was afraid only about ten percent of the timea pretty good average by anyone’s standard, but sometimes the fear welled up in him. So he said. There were all the alternatives to consider: the tenuous Motown contract, the movie, television, more live dates, another album. There was the music he had heard once as a child and never played aloud. And the spirit. And a perfectionist God that worked through him. And a statement he had to make about his people.

Too often Marvin thinks he is lazy, and the thought makes him feel guilty.

So while Marvin talked about maneuvering Mandingo into heavyweight contendership, I found myself wondering if Marvin wasn’t talking more about himself than his fighter. “Mandingo can do it if in fact he has one thing: if he has heart. Which I don’t have about a lot of things. But I know what you’re supposed to do in order to do the number right. You have to have heart and make practice work. That’s the way it is when you’re playing football or boxing. You practice these moves and you can’t let yourself be intimidated to the point where you can’t remember the moves.

“Boom, boom, boom. I’m getting hit but I’m working. I’m working and I’m clicking. If I get it, it’s just because my number’s up. That’s where heart comes in. You can be the greatest everything, but you still must work, you see. You must work under tremendous fear. I think that’s the meaning of heart: to be scared shitless and still work.”

A month later, Gaye’s manager, Ronald Ross, announced that Marvin will do at least 20 live dates, in 20 different cities, starting in mid-April.

In This Article: Coverwall, Marvin Gaye


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