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Jan and Marvin Gaye

After The Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye by Jan Gaye, Marvin Gaye’s second wife, and David Ritz is a deeply moving account of a love gone wrong, and a reminder that love is seldom enough on its own. At the age of sixteen, Jan met the then thirty-three year old genius, Marvin during the early stages of his recording of the classic “Let’s Get It On” album. Her beauty, youth and presence ignited Marvin’s creativity and secured Jan’s historic role as soul music’s greatest muse. She has written a page turner that I could not put down.

Throughout the book, Jan takes great care to describe Marvin as a loving but confused patriarch who tried to provide for his wife, his children and his extended family. There are passages where Marvin’s love for his children and for Jan is apparent, and her love for him as well. She also depicts the great artist as vain, shallow, manipulative, cruel and indifferent to the wishes of loved ones – you know; a rock star. According to Jan, Marvin’s insecure doubting of her affection for him and his constant taunting drove her into affairs with both Frankie Beverly and the great Teddy Pendergrass. She also gives honest accounts of real and suspected dalliances that Marvin had with both well known and obscure women.

“After The Dance: My Life With Marvin Gaye is not a sensationalized tell all, instead it is a cautionary tale of how insecurity, dysfunction and cruelty can end the greatest of loves while that love can inspire world class art. Her uncertainty and insecurity made the then young girl submit to sexual fantasies of Marvin’s that she now regrets. Her inexperience led her to forego her education, move in with Marvin and in the name of love, abandon any pursuit of marketable skills while becoming financially dependent on a free spending addict. Jan also reveals how she and her late husband shared a deep spirituality as well as a mutual love of top shelf quality drugs. In the book, she has shared as much about her personal struggle with, and triumph over substances as she has shared about anyone else’s.

Her heartbreaking tale describes how the ill matched couple had very little chance of succeeding from the start; she had been raised in an uncertified foster care home where she’d been dumped by her loving but drug addicted mother and became the victim of sexual abuse. He had been the son of a deeply religious, evangelical cross dressing father who’d beaten Marvin mercilessly for questioning the elder’s fashion sense, and daring to raise the possibility that his gender bending attire may have brought dishonor to the family name. Marvin was also a superstar depressive who had lost his way and was using copious amounts of drugs to numb the pain from the break-up of his first marriage. Jan and Marvin never had a chance.

I spoke with Jan, earlier this year, via telephone. She called for the purpose of nervously reading the book’s first chapter to me, and getting my opinion. She hadn’t turned in her manuscript to her publisher yet, so I felt flattered by the sneak preview. I assured her that what she’d written was great, and it was, but in no way had her excerpt prepared me for the exceptionally intimate, personal and poetic work of depth and beauty that she and Ritz have delivered.

Jan describe how life at the side of a glamorous ’70s sex symbol was like living in the eye of a hurricane. She writes of the unscrupulous promoters, Marvin’s ambivalence about performing, and his stage fright. She writes of Motown pressuring the superstar for bigger and more frequent hits. She writes of Marvin’s loyalty to Motown chieftain, Berry Gordy, and Marvin’s bitter resentment of Gordy’s lack of appreciation for his artistic ambitions. The book insightfully examines the complications caused by Marvin’s marriage to, and ultimate divorce from Gordy’s sister Anna. There are also recollections of delusional managers who could not manage the great but unmanageable talent, and vignettes about accountants and business managers who could not convince Marvin to spend less frequently, save more often or pay his taxes. She has written beautifully about the gorgeous messiness of love in the shadows of stardom while it’s shrouded in the fog addiction.

Recently Jan and her children have been in the news as a result of having won a seven figure judgement against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, in a copyright infringement lawsuit, over the contention that their “Blurred Lines” record of two summer’s back too closely resembled Marvin Gaye’s dance floor classic “Got To Give It Up”. It has been said that the landmark decision will put a chill on musical creativity, and that a business built on sampling the work of others has been rocked at its core. Time will tell.

Of course, for me, the most interesting portions of the book are the ones where Jan describes the creative process that Marvin, the hit maker, went through to come up with the albums; “Here My Dear”; “I Want You”; Let’s Get It On” and the smash single “Got To Give It Up”, and the subtle way that she inspired and guided Marvin to the expression of his best and higher artistic potential.

This book is her love letter to her mentor, partner and former husband who was tragically murdered by the hand of the cross dressing father who vied for control of the Gaye clan with his strong willed son. It is her deeply personal confession of the adoration, confusion and regret that she felt as a result of falling up to her eyeballs in love with one of the most creative figures of the twentieth century. It proves that Marvin’s spirit still speaks to all of us through his music and through this tremendously written work. For soul music fans and those who are interested in black creativity and pop culture it is a must read. Jan Gaye hit this one out of the park.

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The period immediately following Love Twins (the duets project that featured Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross), was marked by a return to innovation and excellence by Gaye. His rich output of stellar 70’s recordings continued with the release of the first of two live sets through Motown. Then in 1976, my favorite studio project of Gaye’s career, I Want You, dropped. It was a jazzy, groovy, funky concept record that described the arc of a relationship between a man and a woman. The record occupied the unexplored territory between jazz and soul and was a collaborative effort between the writer and rare groove specialist Leon Ware, Gaye, and Soul City resident, co-producer Ed Townsend. It featured the rich, intricate, multi-layered background vocal arrangements that distinguished much of Ware’s work.

The iconic Ernie Barnes album artwork is the most widely viewed cover of Marvin’s career. It captures the heat of the moment at the Sugar Shack, a colorfully imagined club that depicts the rhythmic swaying of black bodies putting it down hard to the beat of a band fronted by Big Daddy Rucker, underneath a sign that promised, fried fish dinners, and a future appearance by Marvin Gaye. The portrait is a tribute to the long forgotten “chitlin circuit.” The Norman Lear hit sitcom “Good Times” featured the picture in its opening sequence for the length of its entire run.

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ESTHER ROLLE & JOHN AMOS STARS OF THE RUNAWAY HIT “GOOD TIMES”

To observe the twentieth anniversary of Marvin’s death, Professor Michael Eric Dyson wrote Mercy, Mercy, Me: The Art, Love and Demons of Marvin Gaye, an insightful look into the artist’s life and music. Over a Sunday brunch at the Beverly Hills Four Seasons, Dyson and I spoke at length about the book. We talked about my impressions of I Want You and specifically about my thoughts regarding the most interesting track on the album, “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again:” “With the opening, with the congas and the strings; it’s like the sun is rising. It’s a very cinematic approach to the whole thing. It shows a thing Quincy Jones called ‘ear candy.’ The voicings and the arrangements convey not only mood but time, place and image. He’s talking about ‘dreamed of you this morning.’ It’s crazy. The other thing about Marvin and the song is, no matter what he was doing, how many risks he would take, he was a radical traditionalist and always held onto his doo-wop upbringing. Those background harmonies … no matter how increasingly percussive he got, how funky, the background vocals were always steeped in that tradition.”

The song and the album proved to be widely influential, and was a tribute to Janis Hunter Gaye, Marvin’s then-mistress and eventual second wife. As the song fades, he wails without inhibition that he wants to give her “some head.” I can imagine that a young Prince listened to I Want You both backwards and forwards before he released his Warner Brothers debut For You two short years later. D’Angelo interpolates one of the background vocal lines from “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again” on both his cameo on Meth’s” Break Ups To Make Up,” and his duet with Raphael Saadiq, “Be Here.” Maxwell’s Urban Hang Suite references the I Want You record by enlisting the talents of guitarist Wah Wah Watson and Ware, two of the key elements to the success of, I Want You.

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After I Want You, Marvin released a double album that contained three sides of live recording and one side of a single studio session that became the biggest selling single of his career, “Got To Give It Up.” Marvin was reportedly less than thrilled with the emergence of the disco market and set out to make a dance record that would prove how easy it was to record one. He overshot the mark. At the time of it’s release, “Got To Give It Up” was the biggest selling record in Motown’s history.

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The triumphant high that Marvin must have felt as a result of having released “Got To Give It Up” didn’t last long. His marriage to Motown founder Berry Gordy’s sister ended, the IRS was after him for back taxes, and he was in the grips of drug addiction. The presiding judge in his divorce proceeding decreed that the profits from his next album would be awarded to his ex-wife. In response to the judge’s wishes, he recorded the dark, brooding masterpiece “Here My Dear.” The record was about the breakup of his marriage, and contained the biting, “When Did You Stop Loving Me When Did I Stop Loving You,” “Anger,” and the ironic “Anna’s Song.”

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Marvin began recording material for one more album that he felt was never finished. Gordy seized the tapes, mixed, mastered, and released the project against Marvin’s wishes. The damage was irreparable, and Marvin would never record for Motown again. He would end the 70’s on a down note and leave the country to live in Ostend, Belgium only to re-emerge and come back again with the release of “Sexual Healing,” the Grammy-winning Best R&B Male Vocal of ’82. It was the only Grammy he would ever win in his lifetime.

The music that Marvin Gaye left us with serves to remind that one can be both spiritual and sensual, sophisticated and accessible, erotic and romantic, opposed to restrictive authority and aligned with power. He was celebrated in his lifetime but not quite appreciated for his true genius. He was without a doubt one of the most creative figures that soul music has ever produced. I have begun a movement to have a US stamp named in his honor. I’ve posted a link on the blog roll to the right that you can click on to, and join the cause. I hope you will. It’s about time he received some recognition as a national resource.

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Shouts to Leon Ware, Michael Eric Dyson, Candi Bond-McKeever, Larkin Arnold, Philip Johnson RIP Cedric Stuart Harrison and Ed Townsend

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