Two Conversations with Marvin Gaye

On the anniversary of 'What's Going On' I revisit early '80s interviews with the soul music icon

I was raised by a soul music loving, finger snapping, Saturday night party-giving mother who had a particular affection for “love men” like Otis Redding, Al Green and that major deity Marvin Gaye. I would stand on my tippy toes to watch the yellow & brown Tamla 45s of “Hitch Hike,” “Stubborn Kinda Fella,” etc. spin on my mother’s Motorola High Fidelity record player. As an adolescent and teen, the Let’s Get It On and I Want You albums were instructional manuals in the art of seduction, while all righteous, newly named “black Americans” hailed What’s Goin’ On’ as Marvin’s defining artistic statement.

By the time I’d grown up and become a music reporter, Marvin’s career was in decline. A new generation of sexy singers (Teddy Pendergrass, Rick James, Frankie Beverly) were in demand, and while Marvin was releasing some deeply, personal, uncommercial music (Here My Dear, In My Lifetime) he had been in exile in Europe, far from his demons, but also his core audience and artistic roots.

When I joined Record World in January 1981, his latest album, ‘In Our Lifetime,’ was being released on Motown. But there would be no publicity tour and not much promotion in the U.S.At the time Marvin was living in London and the interview we did was conducted by phone. I remember feeling both excited and intimidated at the prospect of talking to someone who’d been the soundtrack of my childhood.

The interview itself, which went on for about thirty minutes, made me sad since Marvin was clearly a man at odds with his country, his past, and himself. I liked ‘In Our Lifetime,’ though it wasn’t in the class of his previous work. Apparently Motown had remixed the album without his permission and some songs had been deleted.

On the album cover Marvin is depicted as an angel and a devil, which for him illustrated that “the music deals with the two principal forces we all struggle with in life, the good and evil in one’s environment. Having emerged from quite a long negative period I am looking for many years of good positive energy,” he said.

Marvin left Los Angeles because it was “a psychological hellhole… I wanted more love, more respect, as an artist. There were lots of things said about me there that tarnished my image. So I plan to give life on this side of the ocean a try for the next few years. I’ll be concentrating all my work here[1] . I also have a home in Senegal, West Africa. My roots have been traced back there, so I intend to spend a good deal of time there as well.”

I’m not sure if Marvin actually spent any time in Africa during this period but he expressed a deep interest in the continent. “I’m listening to a lot of third world music, reggae and various African musics because I think that is the direction things are heading toward. The African market is a few years away from maturity, and I have hopes of working with some friends from Nigeria and building a company there… I feel I will only be actively involved in making music another eight to ten years, so I want to do as many things as possible while I can. I want to venture outside what people say I can or cannot do. The commercial aspects are not as important.”

‘In Our Lifetime’ would be Marvin’s last album with Motown. Though the split wasn’t yet official Marvin made it clear it was imminent: “Motown is one of the finest companies in the world, but they are very commercially oriented and they want my music to come from a traditional R&B point of view. I love that music, but from an artistic point of view there are other things I want to do.”

Speaking of his creative process in making ‘In Our Lifetime’ Marvin made it feel very improvised. “All the music came off the top of my head. Not one note of music was written out beforehand. I walked in, had the musicians in the studio and just did it. Later I added lyrics and the sweetening. On and off it took a year and a half to record with two or three months between lengthier sessions. I am capable of working faster than that, according to what the budgetary constraints are. But I don’t have to rush, so I don’t.”

When the conversation was over I felt very frustrated. I did phone interviews with folks all the time, but the list of questions I had for Marvin about his career was long and we hadn’t made a dent in them. The whole thing felt like a tease. We’d talked about a minor album quite briefly. I was deeply dissatisfied. Moreover, I was beginning to form the idea of doing a book about Motown Records but, from this talk, I’d gotten nothing substantial from Marvin about the label. It was a wasted opportunity. How often do you get to interview Marvin Gaye?

About a year or so later I began hearing stirrings of a Marvin Gaye comeback. Word leaked that he’d been signed to Columbia by its aggressive black a&r head Larkin Arnold. With a new powerful label behind him Marvin released “Sexual Healing,” a drum machine driven mid-tempo track that defined early ‘80s sensuality as powerfully as “Let’s Get It On” had the early ‘70s. It dominated every format of American radio as the ‘60s legend made a record perfect for the sonics of ‘80s radio. “Sexual Healing” sold millions of copies, the album ‘Midnight Love’ went platinum, and Marvin returned to America for a long, sure to be triumphant tour.

In 1983 Musician magazine assigned me to interview Marvin. A date was set for me to fly out to speak with him in the Bay Area near the start of his tour. Finally my chance to really interview him had arrived.

It was my first trip to the Bay and Terri Hinte, a publicist at Fantasy Records, had offered to pick me up and let me stay at her Marin County home instead of staying at a hotel. As Terrie drove us across the Bay Bridge I got an intense migraine headache and felt incredibly nauseous. The same malady struck me down on my first three trips to Los Angeles. I’d suffered from migraines since I was a schoolboy but something about the cross-country trips triggered a particularly painful bout. So I spent that first night in laying down with a cold cloth on my forehead.

The next evening, still feeling a bit fragile, Terri and I went to the Circle Star Theater, one of those once popular suburban venues where the stage revolved, ensuring everyone a frontal view of the show, as well as the back of the band. It was always a horrible idea but a few of these spots have survived to this day. Still the awkwardness of the venue had no impact on the performance, which was sublime. Backed by a twenty-four-piece band, including three percussionists, three electric keyboardists and a seven-piece horn section, Marvin was in beautiful voice, performing all his standards, plus a medley of his duets with Tammi Terrell, Mary Wells and Diana Ross that had the band scrambling through their charts trying to keep up.

Much the material from his mid-‘60s run of hits was re-arranged or slowed down by musical director McKinley Jackson. His classic “I Heard It through the Grapevine,” already ominous, felt even heavier in a slowed-down version that brought out its bluesy underpinnings. This wasn’t the same Marvin Gaye performance from his “Live” album. The range of material was wider and, because he performed several tracks from ‘Midnight Love,’ the sound much more ‘80s with synthesizer-laden tracks bumping up against the more stripped down ‘Let’s Get On’ era material and the lush orchestrations of ‘I Want You.’ Marvin’s ability to serve his soul roots, while adapting to ‘80s technology with “Sexual Healing” and other tracks, is one of the reasons he’s remained a remarkably contemporary figure whereas so many other soul men have been relegated to nostalgia. Of his peers only Ronald Isley has stayed as vital for younger listeners and been as influential to upcoming singers.

The next afternoon Terri drove me down to San Mateo, a town south of San Francisco where Silicon Valley was growing. We drove past Apple’s then offices. Across the street their now sprawling campus was being constructed. Not far down the road from Apple was a very nondescript motel called the Villa, where Marvin was staying.

At his door, I was greeted by a black woman in a bad wig holding a hot plate. She knocked on the bedroom door and announced me. Inside the room Marvin sat next to a bed in a white terry cloth robe, a stocking cap and a facial mask that obscured his features. Two men sat on the other edge of the bed. All three of them had their eyes trained on a fight on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.

So much of the talk in this interview with Marvin was conducted to the side of his head and, to some degree, the rhythms of the fight dictated the interview. Every now and then an “I told you he’d walk into that right” comment would interrupt his thoughts on songwriting or God.

I asked most of the questions on my list, though I didn’t get as much depth in the all the answers as I would have liked. Still I came away thinking this was a man whose own inner dialogs were both his salvation and his curse.

I started by talking about how good he was on the stage the night before. Marvin reputedly didn’t like performing live but it felt like he’d a good time. “Well, he admitted, “I did. But it’s sort of a mixed emotion thing. I’m performing under stress, but it’s okay, because I get a lot of positive reaction from the audience and those who love me. I can exist on that alone. But I can pick up negative responses just as surely.”

“What kind of negative things do you pick up on?”

Marvin said, “I don’t know. I feel. That’s all I can say. I feel and I know my house and my crowds. I’ve been doing this for about twenty-five years, so it comes to a point when you can sense hostility or love. I can also tell you almost how many adoring fans I have in the audience as opposed to critics and people who are there just out of curiosity. I guess I put out what I get back. I’m very honest in my performances. I’m not mechanical at all onstage. So naturally being a performer like that I will have some good shows and some bad shows. I prefer it that way. I work according to how my heart feels.”

You can’t talk with Marvin Gaye and not discuss the sexual in music. From his ‘60s period through “Let’s Get It On” to “I want You” and “Sexual Healing,” few singers have embodied the joy and pain of sensual experiences as he has. Though rather quaint now, a song like “You Sure Love to Ball” from 1973, really pushed the envelope lyrically for commercial R&B and can be seen as part of the journey that brought us R. Kelly and the raw lyrics of 21st century vocalist like the Weeknd and Byson Tiller.

For Marvin, however, rawness was never the ultimate goal. “Oh, I think my approach to sensuality and sexuality is that of a subtle exhibitionist,” he said. “I can’t deal with the raw fact. I’d rather be teased by a woman before I get it. That’s the French way: you make a person think you are going to do something but never do it until you are ready. I kind of borrowed that from the French. I actually won’t be stripping down to shorts or anything like that, though they may think I will. But that’s out of the question.”

After we shared a laugh I followed up by noting that ‘In Our Lifetime’ was deeply grounded in the conflict between love and sex, sex and spirituality, while on ‘Midnight Love’ the songs were much more straightforward. “Marvin,” I asked, “has that conflict been resolved in your mind?”

“No conflicts have been resolved,” he said quickly. “But I think I have taken the personal edge off of it on ‘Midnight Love.’ I tend to write of my personal interest. In this album I tend to generalize about these situations. Perhaps I will go back to writing more personally on the next one.”

“How long does it take you to write?”

“If inspired – seconds, minutes. If it’s contrived – hours, days, months.”

This answer surprised me. Very few (make that zero) artists I had interviewed to that point in my life, and none I would in the future, would admit that anything they released was “contrived.” I had to ask if he thought anything on this new album fit that description.

“A couple of songs,” Marvin replied. “I have to think about it a minute. ‘Midnight Lady’ is one that’ll give you a good example of what I mean. You’re surprised I’m so honest. My honesty has gotten me in trouble in the past, but one can’t be a true artist without it.”

Songwriting, and the life journey that inspires it, was the huge theme of our conversation and led to a few unexpected places. I noted that since ‘What’s Goin’ On’ he’d moved away from directly addressing politics in his lyrics, though he did mention Bob Marley, albeit subtly, on the song “Third World Girl.”

“I’m surprised you picked up on that,” he replied. “I’m not about to capitalize on a man’s death. I tried to refer to him indirectly out of respect. Thank you.”

I pressed him, saying “The times seem to call for the kind of commentary you provided on ‘What’s Goin’ On.”

“It seems to me that I have to do some soul searching to see what I have to say,” he said evenly. “You can something[3] . Or you can say something profound. It calls for fasting, feeling, praying, lots of prayer, and maybe I can come up with a more spiritual social statement to give people more food for thought.”

“I take it this process hasn’t been going on within you for quite some time.”

“I have been apathetic because I know the end is near. Sometimes I feel like going off and taking a vacation and enjoying the last ten or fifteen years and forgetting about my message, which I feel is in a form of being a true messenger of God.”

“What about doing what Al Green did and turn your back on the whole thing?”

This reference to his soul singing peer (and rival) Green, who had dramatically renounced secular music to become a full-time minister, stirred Marvin’s passions and made his answers more emphatic. “That’s his role,” he said of Green. “My role is not necessarily his. That doesn’t make me the Devil. It’s just that my role is different, you see. If he wants to turn to God and become without sin and have his reputation be that, then that is what it should be. I am not concerned with what my role should be. I am only concerned with completing my mission here on earth. My mission is what it is and I think I’m presenting myself in a proper way.”

“What is your mission?”

“My mission is to tell the world and the people about the upcoming holocaust and to find all of those of higher consciousness who can be saved. The rest can be left alone.”

“Yet your new album deals purely with romance.”

“For legitimacy I need worldwide exposure. This is a chance for the world to recognize Marvin Gaye so that ultimately I can get my message across. If it’s through romance, etc. then that’s what it is. I have to deal with God.”

Using his songwriting as a window, we moved into talking about his relationship with Motown. Marvin had a legendarily tense relationship with Motown, due to his marriage to (and divorce from) owner Berry Gordy’s sister Anna and his own stubbornness – stubbornness that lead to ‘What’s Going On’ and a string of introspective releases in the late ‘70s. In 1979 Marvin put out a single called “Ego Trippin’ Out” that was to be the lead single for an album titled ‘Love Man,’ but that record was pulled from the market and that album was never released. Instead they’d released ‘In Our Lifetime,’ the album that I’d interviewed Marvin about for Record World.

Marvin explained, “That was a single written about myself at a time when I was trying to get a handle on my ego, which was always at the forefront. I’m very self-centered and I feel like I’m it. When one is that ill, one has to deal with their ego. They ever really gave me a chance to complete it and when I did complete it, for some reason, they didn’t put it on the album. The album didn’t come out the way I had done it. It’s like taking a Leonardo da Vinci and submitting it to your agent and your agent has another artist paint a different smile or something on top of it. I view people tampering with my art in the same context.”

I thought one of the all-time weirdest collections was his 1977  ‘Live in London’ album, which was three sides of live material (which was not very different from his 1974  album recorded in Oakland) and the side-long funky disco jam “Got to Give It Up.” It seemed to me that the ‘Live’ material was just filler to get people to pay LP prices for a 12-inch single. Decades later the record would be the centerpiece of a trial accusing Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams of copyright infringement with 2013 hit “Blurred Lines”

Marvin didn’t seem to find “Got To Give It Up” very important. “The reason I did that was that it was the closest I was going to get to disco,” he said, “despite what some forces wished. I thought it was ridiculous and I refused to get into that madness. That was as close as I was coming. I just said I was going to ride out that crazy disco number.”

Because Marvin would emerge as a significant singer-songwriter in the ‘70s I was curious how much input did he have on his “production line” 1960’s Motown hits. “In those days I probably wrote seventy-five to ninety percent of every song my name was on,” he recalled. “As a writer in those days I was very generous and I gave a lot. If someone contributed a word or a chord I’d give them twenty-five percent of a song.”

Which raised the question of how to define the contributions of the Motown session players aka the Funk Brothers? I’d already interviewed many of the Motown session players, including bassist James Jamerson, who all claimed they should have been given songwriting and production credits. Marvin said, “Jamerson was a genius. The little group that they had there was the Motown sound and half the credit for the productions should go to the musicians, who were not only great musicians, but great producers and arrangers as well. They didn’t get enough credit. I don’t feel that’s very good. It’s unfortunate.”

“Why did that happen?”

“Because they didn’t make it happen. You give your input out of love and expect nothing or you give it and sign a contract. If you want something say something. You say ‘I’m not giving it up until I sign something and get something for it.’”

“Do you look back on those days at Motown?”

“I rarely deal in the past. I think it’s a waste of time and emotion. One should be concerned with the now and not even the future. What’s important is if I get the next breath or not. It’s now that’s important.”

Before I left I wanted to hear his thoughts on perhaps the most memorable performance of his career – the national anthem at the 1983 National Basketball Association All-Star game in Los Angeles. In some ways that stellar interpretation laid the groundwork for his comeback, since its electronic, yet soulful musical arrangement, perfectly complemented his velvety tenor in a way similar to “Sexual Healing.”

“It’s difficult to deal with the national anthem because of its structure. It was written for an operatic type of voice. A soul singer isn’t exactly comfortable singing it nor is any other ethnic person really. So I think in a country full of ethnic nationalities we should sing it in accordance with what is most comfortable. I can’t sing it white and say I am totally white. I have to sing it so it moves me. Since I am a soul singer I must sing it with soul. Those who are afraid of the sound can’t sing it my way and I can’t see singing it their way. If I’m categorized as a soul singer, I’m going to sing it like one.”

“How about calling yourself a pop-soul singer?”

This cracked Marvin up. “I don’t know what that is. Unless they say that we’re going to let you make it halfway, that you’re going to come up here where ‘the big boys,’ the white boys are, so you can be half soul. You see pop artists are the ones who make the money, but soul artists are not supposed to make a lot of money. They are exploitable. Pop means making money. Soul means exploit.”

“Some say Lionel Richie sold his soul to make money.”

“Well,” Marvin said, “I don’t know. I have a lot of respect for Lionel. But if he did I hope he got a good deal.”

This Musician magazine interview (and a Village Voice article it later inspired after Marvin’s death) are two of my proudest pieces of journalism. But both almost didn’t happen.

Once I arrived back at Terri’s place after talking with Marvin I was anxious to play the tape. But when I rewound the cassette it jammed in my tape recorder. Using a pen point and, I believe, a fork I spent much of the evening slowly unspooling the precious tape. I was in a panic, literally praying that it wasn’t so damaged as to be unplayable. Back home in Brooklyn I transcribed the fragile cassette, fearful I’d wasted Marvin’s time. Thankfully I got it all. The flight out, the migraine, the show, the interview and the near tape disaster made for an introduction to the Bay Area I have never forgotten.

The next time I saw Marvin Gaye perform was memorable too, but horribly so. As his Sexual Healing tour traveled across America it wasn’t getting glowing reviews, about the show or his condition. The drugs, family tensions, and other demons that had chased him out of America had returned. Erratic shows. Late to the stage. Cocaine u  se. These were the words I heard over the phone at my Billboard desk.

The Radio City Show I saw in late ’83 was nowhere as inspired as what I’d seen in San Mateo that spring. He was unsteady on stage and there was no joy in his performance. His voice was weathered, particularly his angelic falsetto. The show ended awkwardly. Many in the audience were grumbling as they exited the theater. When I think of Marvin Gaye now I do my best not to dwell on that Radio City show.

Instead my thoughts return to that magical night at the Circle Star Theater, my interviews with him and his brief, beautiful history of black music poem [5] at the Motown 25 broadcast. Michael Jackson’s “moonwalk” is the most celebrated performance from that NBC special, but Marvin talking and singing at the piano was haunting. And so is my memory of Marvin in that facial mask.

[To read the entire interview with Marvin Gaye purchase The Nelson George Mixtape, a collection of interviews, essay and old articles, which is available only via www.pacificpacific.pub for $28.]