After the Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye - Jan Gaye (2015)
Faith was the topic.
Back in the US, Marvin decided to take our kids and me to Kentucky to visit Bishop Simon Peter Rawlings. It was time, he said, to reestablish his ties to his spiritual roots.
I saw how Bishop Rawlings, a patient and compassionate man, acted as a surrogate father to Marvin, who never stopped seeking the paternal approval denied by his own dad.
It was there in Lexington, where Marvin’s father had grown up, that I learned the original name of the Pentecostal church that shaped Marvin’s childhood: The House of God, the Holy Church of the Living God, the Pillar and Ground of the Truth, the House of Prayer for All People.
“It is a combination of Scripture from the Old and New Testaments,” the bishop explained, “a mixture of Isaiah and First Timothy.”
The bishop broke down the history of the small sect—of how in the late forties a disagreement over theological doctrine divided the congregants. Both Rawlings and Father Gay became leaders of the breakaway church. But when Rawlings was named chief apostle, jealousy set in. Father Gay withdrew into dark seclusion. This happened over the course of Marvin’s early life.
The bishop explained a great deal.
“Your father was a gifted rhetorician,” I heard him tell Marvin. “As you yourself saw, he could preach the angels down from heaven. He could also sing like an angel. But he was also deeply in love with the world and its many pleasures. Like so many of us, he found himself locked in a battle between the spirit and the flesh.”
“I understand,” said Marvin. “I’m engaged in that battle myself.”
“We all are, son,” said the bishop.
“Some worse than others.”
“Yet the family you have brought with you—your beautiful woman and two beautiful children—shows me that you’re winning that battle.”
“My father was convinced that on the day I refused to become a preacher myself, I had lost the battle forever.”
“A battle that he himself is convinced he has lost. You see, he did the very thing he warned you not to do. He left the church. But God’s love is not restricted to a physical church. God’s love is something we can never lose.”
“I lost it a long time ago.”
“How can you ever lose God’s love?”
“I’m talking about my father’s love.”
“If you reach out, it’s there.”
“I tried,” said Marvin. “I wanted him to come to London with me, Jan, and the kids.”
This was news to me. I was startled when Marvin said, “I wanted him to see me perform in a great European concert hall. I thought it would give him pleasure and pride. I wanted to see him in the first row, standing and applauding me. Is that an unreasonable request from a son to a father?”
“Not at all,” the bishop assured Marvin. “What did he say?”
“He said no. He said he had no interest in attending one of my concerts.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Sorry that he doesn’t understand that, after all is said and done, you have become a preacher, Marvin. You preached a mighty sermon with What’s Going On.”
“But after that I returned to songs of sin, songs that celebrate and even encourage lust.”
“It sounds to me that you judge your work harshly.”
“No more harshly than my father,” said Marvin.
“Which is harsh indeed,” the bishop stated. “All this judgment coming down …”
“Isn’t that the religion you and Father teach?”
“Your dad gave up teaching a long time ago, but I teach that Jesus said, ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged.’”
“Will you call Father and tell him that?” asked Marvin.
“He doesn’t recognize my authority.”
“Whose authority does he recognize?”
“Only he can answer that question.”
As Bishop Rawlings entertained Marvin’s questions for hours on end, I could feel the strength of Marvin’s sincerity in his search for spiritual answers. He was deeply conflicted. He embraced the all-encompassing love and forgiving heart of Jesus.
“I was born a Christian,” he told me time and time again. “I will always be a Christian. I will always call Jesus my Lord and savior.”
Yet he couldn’t free himself of the pre-Jesus Old Testament judgment.
“I’m caught up in sin,” he confessed when we were walking to a nearby park, the kids in tow. “You know that as well as I do. You see it. You must hate me for my weakness. My weakness must disgust you.”
“We all have our weaknesses,” I said, “but we also have our strengths. Together, Marvin, we’re strong. Look at Nona. Look at Bubby. Look at the amazing lives that have resulted from our love.”
Marvin took us all in his arms and held us tight. He wouldn’t let go. I felt his beating heart. I saw tears streaming down his cheeks.
“Why is Daddy crying?” asked Nona.
“Because Daddy is happy,” said Marvin. “Because Daddy knows that he’s the luckiest man alive.”
At the park, young children and their parents recognized Marvin. They followed him and our family until there were dozens of admirers encircling him.
“Sing for us!” said one of the kids.
“Yes! Yes!” shouted another.
Standing in front of this group of admirers, he closed his eyes, stood in the sunshine, and sang the words that Jesus spoke when he ascended the mount:
Our Father, who art in heaven
Hallowed be thy name
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
In earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors
And lead us not into temptation
But deliver us from evil
For thine is the kingdom
And the power
And the glory
After the song was sung, a little boy of five or six years old, whom Marvin had never seen before, came running up with open arms and embraced him.
“I love you,” said the child.
“I love you, too,” said Marvin. “I love everyone here. Let today mark a new life of love for everyone!”
The loving new life did not last long.
The divorce proceedings continued to separate Marvin from his money. It was clear to me that Anna’s lawyers were sharper than his. Beyond that, Marvin’s self-sabotage never stopped. The more he needed to conserve his earnings, the more recklessly he spent, and the more he needed to do what he disliked most: tour.
Performing in Dallas, Marvin and I accepted the gracious invitation to stay at the palatial home of soul singer Johnnie Taylor, whose “Disco Lady” was the hottest single in the country. Taylor was on the road but had left behind an ample supply of top-grade weed and cocaine for his guests. It was there where, after the show, Marvin and I met friends of Johnnie’s, a handsome couple eager to get high.
After all four of us consumed copious amounts of stimulants, Marvin took me aside and said, “I think they’re swingers.”
Floating on a cloud miles above the earth, I wasn’t sure.
“I am sure,” said Marvin. “I think they want to take this party to the next phase. I also think they’re quite attractive. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“I haven’t been looking at them in that way.”
“Well, they’ve certainly been looking at you. He definitely wants you. And I suspect she’d love to participate.”
“I don’t know, Marvin.”
“I do. A small intimate orgy is just what the doctor ordered. Just the four of us. Let’s just have a little more of the goodies that brother Johnnie has provided and go with the flow.”
A lot more smoke and coke, and it was apparent that Marvin was right. The couple was ready to rock.
Marvin was the ringleader. I remained hesitant. Marvin insisted. He told me that this would make him exceedingly happy. It would be a new thrill, a beautiful moment of physical freedom filled with boundless pleasures.
The problem was, Marvin didn’t participate. He watched. He egged me on. He closely observed the three of us engaging in a long sexual dance. Yet he himself stood to the side. I don’t know whether it was the coke or the jealousy, but Marvin claimed that he couldn’t perform.
Hours later when the couple left, he told me, “You loved it, didn’t you?”
“Oh, dear, please don’t deny it. You were an animal in heat. You couldn’t get enough. This was your dream come true.”
“Not my dream, Marvin. Yours.”
“After this,” he said, “I’ll never be able to satisfy you again. From now on you’ll require this sort of extravagant stimulation. One man will never be enough for you.”
“If the one man is you, yes, he will be enough.”
“That’s what you say now. But I saw you. And now I’ll never be able to trust you.”
The next night the couple returned looking for more. This time the woman was hoping that Marvin would participate. But Marvin refused to even see them.
“Send them away,” he said. “They bore me. You go off with them if you want to. I can’t stop you. I won’t try.”
“I have no interest in them.”
“You did last night.”
“Why are you using them to torture yourself? What’s the point of this whole fiasco?”
“To watch purity turn to perversity is a fascinating thing,” he said. “You were once my angel. But now you have fallen. And yes, I do admit, it is exciting to watch the fall.”
Other than certain artists like Sylvester, Marvin watched the rise of disco with growing alarm.
“It is too far from the roots of rhythm and blues,” he told me. “Too mechanical. Too calculated. Too much the product of a producer rather than an artist.”
“Isn’t it just dance music with a new name?” I asked.
“Maybe, but when I create music, my purpose is not to get people to dance.”
“What is the purpose?”
“To get people to see below the surface of reality. Disco is surface music.”
“You like Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes’ ‘Don’t Leave Me This Way,’ don’t you?” I asked.
“You like Harold’s singer Teddy Pendergrass. I saw you watching him on Soul Train. You think he’s hot, don’t you?”
“I like the song.”
“Motown had Thelma Houston cover it. They souped it up with even more disco than the original. They say it’s going to be number-one pop. Now they want a disco song outta me.”
“And of course you told them no.”
“I told them what I always tell them—I’m not interested in marketing trends. I’m interested in music that gets down to the soul of the matter.”
“And dance music can never do that?”
“If dancing were my thing, perhaps. But whatever movements I’m able to pull off onstage, I do with a certain self-consciousness.”
We laughed over the fact that neither of us was exactly a world-class dancer.
A couple of days after Marvin’s antidisco rant, I was with him at the Sunset studio. Nona and Bubby were upstairs napping on the waterbed. Marvin was stretched out on a couch in the control room. He loved singing while reclining on an easy chair or sofa.
At one point he wasn’t singing at all. He was listening to a throwaway rhythm track that his engineer, Art Stewart, had decided not to throw away.
“There’s something here, Marv,” said Art. “Listen to it.”
The track had a quirky, funky feel to it, a snare offset by a cowbell, a low-tech quality that added to the seductive groove abetted by Bugsy Wilcox, Marvin’s drummer. The groove was sparse and loose. In its imperfection it sounded absolutely perfect for a spontaneous Marvin Gaye vocal.
I watched as Marvin started singing over the track. He did so in his falsetto. This was his gentlest voice, the one that expressed the most longing. As I had noted before, I saw that Marvin’s writing process did not entail a pencil and pad. Nothing was written down. Like a jazz musician, he wordlessly scatted over the track. He kept scatting until the scats took the shape of actual words. Eventually, he strung enough words together to make a story.
I heard this story as a reaction to our recent antidisco discussion. He sang about a man who has been afraid of dancing his entire life, a wallflower who lacks the courage to strut his stuff. But the force of this infectious groove is too much to resist. The wallflower has to get out there. He has to get down. He’s got to give it up.
“Got to Give It Up” became the name of the jam, an under-the-radar, denial-of-disco song perfectly suited for the overblown disco era.
“Is this your story?” I asked Marvin after he improvised the lyrics.
“Well, kind of, sort of,” he admitted.
The song was all about Marvin’s insecurity. I was moved by how freely he exposed his vulnerability. He wasn’t afraid to say, “I’m shy, I’m fragile, I’m afraid of making a fool of myself, I need to sing this song to get over my fear.”
“Can I sing on this? Pleeeease …” I begged.
His honesty gave me the courage to honestly express my own need.
“I was about to do the backgrounds myself,” said Marvin.
“Can’t I sing just one part?” I urged just as Marvin’s brother Frankie happened to show up.
“Can I get in on it too?” asked Frankie.
“Everyone wants to get in on the act,” Marvin said with a smile.
“You know that’s true!” Frankie and I shouted in unison.
“It’s just two lines,” I said, “‘Keep on dancing’ and ‘Got to give it up.’”
“Okay, dear,” Marvin finally relented.
I covered him with kisses.
Frankie and I sang the backgrounds.
“Not bad,” said Marvin. “Y’all can sing.”
“We’ve been telling you that,” I said, laughing.
“We’re gonna have to do this more often,” Marvin added.
“Can’t wait till the next time,” said Frankie.
For all the enthusiasm, for all the genuine camaraderie, for all the sweet harmony in that moment, the next time never happened.
Neither Frankie nor I ever sang on a Marvin Gaye song again.
Before the final mix, “Got to Give It Up” kept evolving. Whoever happened to walk into the studio heard the jam and spontaneously added to it. Frankie Beverly, for instance, put on a percussive feel with a bottle and a spoon. Don Cornelius strolled through and ended up on the track. My sister Cass spoke the line, “I heard that.” I asked Marvin if Johnny McGhee, guitarist for LTD, could add a guitar part—and Marvin agreed. It all worked. It all contributed to the song’s bubbling funk. Even before its release, we put it on an endless loop and played it everywhere we went.
The single took off like a rocket. Everyone loved dancing to a story about the painfully timid man who allows positive vibrations to overwhelm his fears and force him to the dance floor. In 1977, a dizzy disco year when Leo Sayer’s “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” dominated the clubs, “Got to Give It Up” hit No. 1 and became an anthem of its own.
I had to laugh when I heard a Motown executive tell Marvin, “You have a disco hit.”
“The hell I do,” said Marvin. “This is just a lonely little song about a lonely little guy trying to overcome his loneliness.”
“Call it whatever you want,” said the suit. “All I know is that it’s going number-one pop.”
Despite his protests about the crassness of the disco era, Marvin was happy to be back on top.
“Got to Give It Up” became the final track—the only studio cut—on the double album culled from his show in England. As a result, Live at the London Palladium sold two million copies.
I wasn’t surprised when Motown urged Marvin to do an all-disco album.
“Never,” he said.
“At least consider making music suitable for dancing,” said the suit.
“The music I’m considering making,” said Marvin, “could not be more unsuitable for dancing.”
“Then what’s its appeal?” the executive wanted to know.
“It appeals to my sense of irony, my sense of poetry, my sense of justice, and, perhaps most importantly, my sense of humor.”
“When will you start recording? When can we hear something?”
“It may be a month, it may be a year, it may be a decade. There’s no way of knowing when the spirit will move me.”
“You need to move quickly,” said Marvin’s accountant, “if you don’t want to lose everything you own. The IRS is coming down hard on you. And so is Anna. You’re on the brink of bankruptcy.”
“A true artist transforms discord into beauty,” Marvin responded. “In the hands of an artist, adversity is a gift. Adversity provides the conflicts that birth creativity.”