*Early one Summer Sunday afternoon in the late ‘70s, I was sitting on the steps of the mid-city Los Angeles duplex where I lived at the time, killing time.
Where I’m from, Oklahoma City, folk often while away humid Summer days in the shade of the porch, watching people drive by. Out in L.A. people don’t do much of this, but that’s what I was doing in the still of that afternoon when a single car came slowly rolling through the quiet residential neighborhood.
The man driving was the car’s only occupant. He looked directly at me, offered a bit of a smile and gestured one of those lifts of the chin Brothers used to coolly greet one another with back in the day. I reciprocated. As he passed on, I thought to myself: Wow, that car was a Rolls Royce and the man who just said hello to me was Marvin Gaye.
A huge fan of Gaye’s tremendous talents, I think of him often, but especially during this time of year.
This month-—on April 2—-Marvin would have turned 77. He was murdered by his father, the Reverend Marvin Gay, Sr. (Marvin added the “e” to his last name when he became an entertainer) on April 1, 1984—-a day before his 45th birthday–during one of the bitter, often violent arguments the two used to have.
More than once in their lives Gay Sr. had angrily warned his son, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out of it.” He ultimately made good on that threat, shooting Marvin in the Los Angeles home Marvin had purchased for his parents, Gaye Sr. and Alberta Gay, and where the singer himself was living at the time, not far from that duplex I was sitting in front of when Gaye drove by.
Remarkably, Marvin was one of the few influential popular R&B artists of the ‘70s and ‘80s that I never interviewed. I’ve asked myself why that didn’t happen. The only thing I can come up with is that I felt like the music itself told me more about its creation–and its creator–than Marvin himself would have been willing to say. It was that way with James Brown: during the times I met with the Godfather, I could never get him to discuss with me the craftsmanship of his music in a fashion more than perfunctory. It wasn’t a question of him hiding anything; it was just that the feeling was innate and The Groove spoke for itself.
With Marvin, instead of me interviewing him, there were “encounters.” It made perfect sense that I’d be sitting on my stoop in a neighborhood with very little vehicle traffic and have none other than Marvin Gaye randomly drive by (I mean, Marvin Gaye!). I found Gaye in places you simply don’t expect to see a superstar.
Like one Saturday evening, again, in the late ‘70s, when I was on my way to a house party deep in the ‘hood and stopped at a liquor store in The Community to pick up libations. Inside, I strode to the back of the small store and a wall of refrigerators, where a man was bending down toward a bottom shelf, deep in the selection process. Thinking I’m bumping into just another Brother shopping for alcohol, I started with a routine “What’s happen…” before altering it to, “‘Heyyyyyyyy, how you doin’ Mr. Gaye?!'”
“I’m just fine, brotha, how you doin?”
Wearing blue sweats, a scraggly beard and a black knit skull cap, he looked just like Marvin Gaye looked back then–like a guy way over the star thing and now bent on dressing for comfort as opposed to style. Being Marvin Gaye all day everyday, he was no doubted greeted and fawned over whenever he left his abode. And yet his greeting to me, someone he didn’t know from Adam, was warm, polite and conscious. Two of the three other customers in the place greeted him warmly, like an old, dear friend. The elderly Korean man behind the register wasn’t fazed.
Marvin was a People’s Hero. Like cultural icons such as his friend Muhammad Ali and, say, Sidney Poitier (whom I witnessed a few years back having lunch alone and unbothered at a bustling Norms coffee shop on La Cienega in West Hollywood), Marvin generated excitement but immense respect. I’m sure it happened, but during the times over the years that I observed Marvin in public, often alone—-at the original Fatburger stand one evening on Western Avenue; chatting with friends in West Hollywood’s busy Poinsettia Park across the street from Motown’s recording studio; strolling the boardwalk at the Santa Monica Pier with two men–I never saw fans scream or tug at him. I suppose his calm demeanor commanded the same in return.
In 1982 when “Sexual Healing” became a hit, launching Marvin’s comeback, Columbia Records hosted a private party for him at the exclusive El Privado Room above Carlos and Charlie’s restaurant on Sunset Blvd. VIP guests waited so long for Marvin to arrive that the room began whispering he might be a no-show.
When a dapper Gaye finally entered the club, through the back door, the first hand he shook was a buddy of mine who happened to be standing right there. Knowing he was a huge lifelong fan of Gaye, I’d invited him to come along. He was happy just to be in the place; shaking Marvin’s hand sent him to cloud nine. Gaye was gracious as he greeted friends, associates and peers, but it was clear that he was uncomfortable with all the attention.
I remember running into singer James Ingram when “Sexual Healing” first hit the charts. Ingram said he immediately knew it was going to be a hit because with that song, Marvin was “singing under the skirt.”
You could say that Gaye’s influence on pop music has been profound and it would still be an understatement. The opening line of the Jacksons’ 1979 hit “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)”, where Michael sings, “I don’t know what’s gonna happen to you, baby”—-the phrasing of that line, that’s all Marvin. So is Michael’s falsetto during “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” including his phrasing when he says, “I won’t be complainin’”….
Pop icon James Taylor’s vocal approach (not his tone obviously, but his phrasing) owes much to Gaye. And years ago singer Michael McDonald straight up told me he vocally took from Marvin whatever he could manage. This is true of a myriad of artists spanning many popular musical genres.
Michael Jackson did attempt to give back to the man who inspired him. Marvin, preparing for one of his ‘80s tours, asked Michael if he would teach him some dance steps. Nothing elaborate— the man wasn’t trying to moonwalk—-just some key moves that Marvin might execute while singing. Michael is said to have tried and tried, but couldn’t keep himself from laughing at his pupil’s ill-fated efforts. Marvin finally said to hell with it all. Listen, if Michael Jackson can’t teach you to dance….
I often wonder what Mr. Gaye would be up to were he alive today. There might have been collaborations with younger artists and producers, but maybe not, as Marvin didn’t appear easily impressed by too many newcomers. I’d like to think he would have recorded another orchestra album like Hello Broadway or the Nat “King” Cole tribute LP he cut for Motown in the ‘60s. Few Gaye fans know that the “Prince of Soul” actually longed to make Frank Sinatra-style recordings. Perhaps Marvin would have returned to the seclusion he embraced at one point in his life and career.
In any case, I seriously doubt he would have appreciated “Blurred Lines,” Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s 2013 smash, which a 2015 federal jury ruled had illegally borrowed liberally from Marvin’s 1977 dance hit, “Got To Give It Up.” As an artist, Marvin was fiercely competitive. To him, it was enough that, in his private opinion, R&B singers like Michael Henderson, Teddy Pendergrass and Luther Vandross were infringing on his Love Man kingdom. A direct rip of his work Marvin would have found absolutely unacceptable.
Smokey Robinson, a friend of Marvin’s who co-wrote and produced some of the singer’s early Motown hits, told me that when he got word Marvin Gaye was dead, he thought it was a cruel April Fool’s joke. “I said, ‘you have got to be kidding,’” Robinson recalled. “At some point I said to myself, ‘What are we going to do without Marvin Gaye?’”
We’ve managed, Smoke. But just barely.
Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]