After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye (2015)

Distant Lover

The love story started in 1964 when I was eight.

On this May afternoon, approximately six months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy and three months after the arrival of the Beatles to the United States, I was seated in front of the black-and-white television that set atop Mama Ruth’s Magnavox entertainment console. Louis McKay was seated next to me. When American Bandstand came on, we broke into smiles. Louis loved the opening act, Bobby Freeman singing “C’mon and Swim,” an R&B novelty dance tune.

“He’s cute,” said Louis.

“Not as cute as Marvin,” I said, my eyes fixed on the second performer, Marvin Gaye, singing “How Sweet It Is.”

“He can’t dance as good as Bobby,” said Louis.

I didn’t bother to argue. At that moment spoken words no longer mattered. My heart was speaking words that took me by surprise.

I had an instant crush.

“Janis!” Louis yelled. “You look like you’re going crazy! You look like you’ve lost your mind.”

I didn’t hear Louis’s screams. I was lost—lost in my little-girl love. I had a very rich imagination and was convinced that I would meet Marvin Gaye one day. I had all of his 45s and albums. I would study pictures of him. I would sing along, listening to him and Tammi Terrell on my phonograph, while imagining their romance. When I shared my love for Marvin, my friends told me I was crazy. I thought it was a crazy dream, too, but I still held on to it. I went to school with celebrities. I read stories about Elvis and Priscilla, Jerry Lee Lewis and Myra, and I felt like if I ever met Marvin, maybe I could be his girlfriend or wife. After all, my mother told me that she dreamed of my father before she actually met him. I just knew it could happen to me, too.

Dreaming of Marvin was a temporary escape from the foster home where I lived. Later I’d learn that it was, in fact, an unlicensed operation that flew under the radar. Social services had no knowledge of its existence. The woman who ran the place, Ruth Williams, known to the children as Mama Ruth, answered to no one.

Ruth was my primary caretaker from ages fourteen months to fourteen years. Ruth was both my guardian and tormentor. She renamed me Janis Williams, as though she were my biological mother. Because of my light complexion, freckled face, and curly locks, I was Ruth’s golden child.

The rambling two-story house, built in the twenties and situated in central Los Angeles just off Pico Boulevard, housed some twelve children, two of whom were the stepsons of jazz singer Billie Holiday—Craig and Louis McKay. Because my dad was Slim Gaillard, a famous jazz singer himself, I felt a special bond with the McKay boys. In her mink wrap and fabulous wide-brimmed chapeau, Miss Holiday came to the home only once. She was a lady of ultrachic style and mysterious beauty. Slim was equally mysterious. A super-slick hipster who spoke his own brand of bebop lingo—he actually wrote an entire dictionary of a lexicon called Vout—Slim showed up no more than once a year to visit me, the sixteenth of his seventeen children. He always called me sweetheart.

Eight years later, sweet sixteen had come and gone.

I was no longer Janis Williams.

I had been reinvented as Janis Hunter, about to celebrate my seventeenth birthday. Three years had passed since I had left Mama Ruth’s home. Since then, I had done all I could to suppress the long nightmare of sexual abuse.

My mother, Barbara, had taken me in. My mother’s husband, Earl Hunter, had lovingly accepted me as his own child.

Mom was a white woman of Irish and French descent with dark hair and blue eyes. Although her first two husbands had been white, she was attracted to black men like Slim and Earl, hyper-hip characters with street style and extravagant swag. I saw the remote Slim as Father, but Earl—warm, loving, and protective—as Daddy.

Ed Townsend, a music producer, was part of Mom’s circle of hipsters. He was forty-three, close to Mom’s age, but to me he looked sixty-three. He spoke about a hit song he’d written long ago—“For Your Love”—and was not shy about his success in the music business. But none of this talk interested me until I heard Ed speak the two words that caused my heart to flutter:

Marvin Gaye.

“What about Marvin Gaye?” I asked.

“I’m producing his new album,” said Ed.

“Oh, sure,” I said, laughing. “I don’t believe you.”

“Ed’s telling the truth,” said Barbara.

“I still don’t believe him.”

“Would you believe me if I got Marvin Gaye to come over here to meet you and your mom?” he asked.

“Maybe,” said Mom, “you could get him to come sing at the baby’s seventeenth birthday party.”

“I can do that,” said Ed.

I thought about the possibility and wondered whether it would actually happen or if it was just a fantasy too good to come true. Despite my doubts, I told my friends that it was coming true. Marvin Gaye really was coming to serenade me on my birthday. My friends were skeptical, but ultimately they bought into my dream. No matter how improbable, they convinced themselves that Marvin was going to show up.

Mom decorated the cake and placed seventeen candles on top. At least twenty of my schoolmates came, including my close friends Destiny, Michelle, and Karen. To build up the excitement, we put on Marvin’s records—What’s Going On and Trouble Man. Months earlier, looking at the cover photo of Trouble Man, Destiny and I decided he was hands down the sexiest creature alive. Now that gorgeous creature would soon be walking through the door. We talked, we danced, but mainly we waited for the arrival of the superstar that all of us had heard on the radio and seen on television.

An hour passed. Then two. Then three.

Finally, I had to face facts: he wasn’t coming. Some of my friends taunted me, saying, “I knew he’d never show.” Others were sympathetic. Either way, I was humiliated. I felt like a fool. I never wanted to hear the name Marvin Gaye again.

But when I heard the name a week later, my heart changed my mind. My heart went wild. This time Marvin wasn’t coming to me; I was going to him. Ed Townsend was taking me and Mom to the studio where Marvin was recording. I was going to get to meet the man who had danced through my dreams ever since I was eight, convincing me that, were we ever to meet, we would find each other irresistible.

Now fate was arranging that meeting.

Now fate was moving me in Marvin’s direction.

Now fate was upon me—pressuring me to select an outfit that would seal a deal that had long lived in my imagination.

The outfit had to be perfect. The outfit had to be irresistible. I couldn’t stop laughing to myself. It was all too good to be believed.

I chose a blue-and-ecru gingham shirt that tied at the waist. Being top-heavy, I chose a black leotard to wear underneath so I could unbutton the shirt and reveal the full form of my breasts. I chose skintight bell-bottom jeans and blue suede platforms. The only thing missing was a coat.

Mom, who lived an uninhibited life, had invited one of her more eccentric friends to stay with us. This was Pearline, a classy booster with taste. I especially loved her gray leather coat trimmed in fox with an oversize fox collar. To my starstruck eyes, this was the most fabulous fashion item the world had ever seen.

“Please, Pearline,” I pleaded. “Can I wear it, just for this one evening?”

“You can,” she said with a broad smile and easy laugh. “You better, girl.”

I put my hair in braids, foolishly thinking that they’d make me look older.

The leather, the fox collar, the gold hoop earrings, the platforms—everything was snug, tight, and right. I put on minimal makeup, lip gloss, and blush.

“You need the right perfume,” said Pearline, handing me a bottle of fragrance. Its heady musk of jasmine dew excited my skin. My neck tingled. The scent was outrageously sensuous.

Mom and I drove to the studio. Mom wanted to meet Marvin as much as I did. At forty-four, Mom was still a desirable woman with an alluring hippie-bohemian style.

But I had my youth. I had Pearline’s fox-trimmed leather coat. I could not be outdone, not even by my captivating mother.

We arrived at MoWest, Motown’s recording studio in West Hollywood, two women looking to reach a star. My curiosity had become an obsession. I had to know whether this Marvin Gaye character was real.

I heard his voice before I saw his face. His voice filled the studio. His voice filled my head and invaded my heart. Not a single voice, but many voices—the Marvin Gaye signature self-styled harmonies, Marvin singing in falsetto, moaning low and soaring high, Marvin shadowing himself, echoing sounds—sweet lush sounds—emanating from his darkest, deepest soul.

The sounds washed over me, sheets of silk and satin, notes soft as cashmere, come-hither strands spirit-filled and seductive, floating sounds that carried the promise of romance, the promise that all pain would vanish as long as the sound of his voice, effortless and ethereal, continued to call us into his world: a world of lightness, ease, and pleasure without end.

I had entered his world—a lush space that felt safe and soft and beautiful. It was a world apart, a world of pure sound. It felt like a world of pure love. It was also a world filled with the fragrance of pot.

Ed Townsend, in charge of the control booth, took over. He indicated that Mom and I should sit on a couch in front of the engineer at the sound board. Marvin was on the other side of the glass, singing into a microphone. His face matched his song. His face expressed a gentleness that carried the same promise as the song: that life, lifted into melody and framed by harmony, never has to be harsh. His sound eased all pain. There was distant pain in his voice, but pain transformed into beauty. His face was beautiful. The shape of his head appeared noble—his smiling eyes, the slight flare of his nostrils, the contour of his lips. His outfit—a faded army-green shirt, faded denim jeans snug at the crotch, a red wool skullcap, dusty work boots—was the essence of cool. He stood tall, regal, relaxed.

I thought of his image on the covers of his albums that I had studied for so long—What’s Going On and Trouble Man. In those images he appeared distant. Here he was present.

I felt myself in the presence of a prince, impossibly handsome yet familiar and down-home funky.

As Marvin continued to sing, I stood. Before I removed Pearline’s fabulous coat, I wanted Marvin to see it. Even more, I wanted him to see my body. When I caught his glance, I went to the restroom and unbraided my hair.

“Why did you do that?” asked my mom when I returned.

“The braids were too tight,” I said. “They were irritating my scalp.”

In truth, though, I thought my black wavy hair, dramatically cascading down my shoulders, would draw even more attention.

At the first break in singing, Marvin came to the control booth and headed in my direction. Ed came running to make the introduction.

“This is my girl Janis,” Ed told Marvin. “The birthday girl.”

Marvin spoke in a whisper-quiet voice that mirrored his music. His enunciation was perfect. His voice was so soft that I had to lean in to listen. His breath smelled like pot mixed with apples, fresh and sweet.

“Sorry I missed your party,” he said. “I’m afraid I got caught up working late. Please accept my apologies.”

“No problem,” I managed to say. I was touched by his gentlemanly manners. I was touched by everything about him.

I was also afraid that, by calling me “his girl,” Ed had given Marvin the impression that I was his daughter. But before I had a chance to set the record straight, Marvin had moved on to greet Mom. I could see that she was as excited to meet him as I was. I shot Mom a quick glance that said, Don’t even think about it!

Marvin lit a joint and passed it around. The pot was strong, the high powerful. Mom and I had smoked pot together before. Having grown up in the drug culture of her and her friends, weed was nothing new. But this was Marvin Gaye weed, another essential element of his sensuous aura. The high went with the music, the music went with Marvin, and the intoxication was complete.

That night Mom and I were not alone among the guests. He had invited another mother-daughter team to watch him sing. The other mother, like mine, was also attractive. In fact, she wore a full-length gold-sequined gown. Her daughter, like me, was dressed provocatively. It was evident that, just as both Mom and I were deeply drawn to Marvin’s seductive grace, so were our rivals.

What I didn’t know—and would only later learn—was that Marvin reveled in rivalry. Berry Gordy, the founder of Motown, had taught him the art of pitting artist against artist, producer against producer, and woman against woman.

The gold-gown lady was all over Marvin, practically pawing him as she raved about her super-talented daughter, an aspiring singer.

All the while I sat back, noticing Marvin noticing me. We exchanged glances, not words. I saw that Gold Gown was coming on too strong. Gold Gown was wearing him out. I sensed that Marvin wanted to talk to me, but I also knew that silence was my friend. I knew to be cool.

Gold Gown was not reading Marvin right. He was too polite to say so, but he didn’t want to be assaulted. He liked quiet. He liked shy. I heard that in his music. I heard that in his speech. Gentleness was the key. Grace was his style. He lived for subtlety. His way was nuanced, not aggressive. Aggression turned him off. Desperately, I wanted to turn him on.

If, as a child watching American Bandstand, I had fantasized about him looking at me, I now knew that fantasy was suddenly real. We exchanged a dozen glances. The glances said it all.

When his last song was sung and the session over, I could not leave without approaching him. Gathering up every ounce of courage, I softly tapped his shoulder and whispered, “May I just tell you one little thing, privately?”

“Of course.”

Marvin and I walked away from the others.

“What is it?” he asked, scratching his beard and beginning to smile.

“I don’t mean to bother you and I don’t know if this makes a difference, Marvin, but I just wanted you to know that Ed is not really my father.”

“Hmm, I see,” he said as he stroked his beard. “That’s interesting. I’m glad you told me that. And I’m also glad to have met you. I hope we meet again.”

He took my hand in his. I felt the touch of his skin. I longed to kiss his lips as he told me good-bye. I longed to ask him if I could stay to hear more of his heavenly harmonies. I didn’t want to leave his world, this cocoon of sweet, seductive sound.

In the car home, I yelled. I screamed. I bounced up and down. I shouted that I had met Marvin Gaye, the most gorgeous man in the world! Marvin Gaye had looked at me, spoken to me, given me his hand!

“Stop yelling!” said Mom. “Stop screaming! Stop jumping up and down!”

“I can’t! I have to know if he’s going to call me! I have to know if I’m ever going to see him again!”

“I have no idea.”

“Tell me it’s possible.”

“Anything is possible, but not everything is right.”

“What could be wrong?”

“He’s much older, he’s married. Ed says he has a seven-year-old son.”

None of those words registered with me. I was convinced that on this night of nights my world had turned upside down. I had met the love of my life.