In February 1983, Marvin Gaye was apparently at the top of his game, enjoying his miraculous comeback and selling a lot of Midnight Love albums.
But he also had a lot of money worries courtesy of his divorce with Jan Hunter. And then Father moved back to the family home on Gramercy Place, Los Angeles, after a spell in Washington DC. Marvin’s short spell as ‘head of the household’ was over.
So he found himself spending a lot of time at the Olympia Boulevard apartment of his younger sister Zoela (AKA Sweetsie), and it was there on the evening of 12 February that he worked with MD Gordon Banks on a new arrangement of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ to perform before the next day’s NBA All-Star game at The Forum in Inglewood.
Accompanied by just a minimal drum-machine groove and a few keyboard pads, Marvin’s spellbinding performance was one of the greatest moments of his last five years. (Intriguingly, he also changed the words slightly, singing: ‘O say, does thy star-spangled banner’). Reportedly he loved performing for some of America’s greatest athletes, and it’s pretty clear that they loved it too.
Postscript: Ten days later, on 23 February 1983, Marvin won the only two Grammy Awards of his career: Best Male R’n’B Vocal and Best R’n’B Instrumental Performance, both for ‘Sexual Healing’.
Marvin Gaye: ‘I wasn’t going to peddle myself like I was some new kid on the block. I didn’t want to hear about any rejections, so I went about it differently. I decided what I wanted – to be with the biggest and best record company in the world – and I made it happen. No matter what, I couldn’t come up with another art album. After all, CBS was digging me out of a hole, paying off the IRS, Anna (Gordy, his ex-wife), the feds, the whole works. I felt like an old vet, a seasoned ballplayer who’d been traded to another team that still had faith in him. I owed CBS something – at least a couple of grand slams…’
His comeback album Midnight Love, released in October 1982, was a certified hit, with decent sales, good PR and an attendant single ‘Sexual Healing’ that was building up quite a Grammy buzz.
But there were plenty of other problems brewing: in his rather paranoid state, Marvin believed that pretenders to his throne like Teddy Pendergrass, Frankie Beverly (whom Marvin had mentored early in his career), Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson were cashing in on his style and sound. The latter had even taken to wearing aviator shades and ‘military’ garb.
Elsewhere, Marvin’s relationship with his father had hit a new low. Bitter and resentful, he considered physically ejecting Father from the family home but decided instead to stay away completely.
The other problem was cashflow. Marvin was spending so much money on ‘extras’ that he had been forced to give up his houses in Bel Air and Palm Springs. Despite all this, in the first few months of 1983, Marvin reminded the music world of his luminous genius and, against all the odds, provided a few career high-points.
Broke and entering an introspective period, he found himself spending quite a lot of time at his sister Sweetsie’s pad. It was there, on Saturday 12th February 1983, that he got together with chief musical collaborator Gordon Banks to cook up a version of the national anthem that he would sing the next day before the National Basketball Association’s All-Star Game.
Despite the last-minute planning, there was no margin for error: Marvin’s performance would be broadcast live on national TV. He not only pulled it off – he smashed it out of the park. Only Marvin could have come up something so singular. His huge respect for the athletes ensured that he raised his game accordingly.
Funky, spiritual, heartfelt and yet controversial, it was a triumphant reading of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, and one of the highlights of his career.
Less than two weeks later, on February 23rd, there was another personal milestone for Marvin when he was awarded his first Grammy awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.
That the Best Male Vocal and Best Instrumental Performance awards were ‘only’ in the R’n’B category scarcely mattered. He had moved out from behind his Grammy nemesis Lou Rawls’ shadow and finally gained the acceptance of his peers, something that was extremely important to him. His speeches were heartfelt and touching.
His performance of ‘Sexual Healing’ was not an unqualified success (it was 10 or 15 BPMs too slow and Marvin seemed slightly uncomfortable), but it’s still essential and moving stuff.
Another very happy moment happened a few months later when Marvin appeared with Gladys Knight and the Pips on another TV special. According to David Ritz’s classic book ‘Divided Soul‘, Marvin and Gladys argued backstage about whose version of ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ to do. He finally deferred to her, but still turned in another joyous and brilliant performance.
Then, on 25th March 1983, the Pasadena Civic Auditorium hosted the ‘Motown 25’ anniversary concert, most famous for Michael Jackson’s spellbinding reading of ‘Billie Jean’. Marvin once again defied expectations and provided one of the highlights of the evening.
Though looking somewhat haggard, his blues/gospel piano playing and philosophical pronouncements on the value and history of black music were nothing less than captivating. His subsequent performance of ‘What’s Going On’ was perhaps perfunctory in comparison, but still essential viewing.
Tougher, tragic times were to come over the next year, but for a few months in early 1983, Marvin was seeing a lot of his professional dreams come true. No one could take that away from him.
In which freelance writer Malcolm Wyatt jealously guards his own corner of web hyperspace, featuring interviews, reviews and rants involving big names from across the world of music, comedy, literature, film, TV, the arts, and sport.