In L.A.'s Other Marvin Case, It's Gaye Vs. Anna Gordy, with Brother Berry in the Middle
Used to say I was a gorgeous hunk of man/That didn’t help me, baby, when you was on the stand…If you ever loved me with all your heart/You’d never take a million dollars to part.
Even Marvin Gaye admits that those autobiographical lyrics about his domestic trauma will qualify his latest double album, Here, My Dear, as “one of the most bizarre works of all time.” An exercise in conceptual art by one of rhythm and blues’ most formative and formidable talents, Here, My Dear is not only a gold smash, but also the musical equivalent of Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage and TV’s documentary on the Loud family. It is a painful 71-minute chronicle of Marvin’s 14-year union with first wife Anna Gordy Gaye (whose brother is Motown mogul Berry Gordy) as well as of their acrimonious divorce.
The album evolved from a cause celebrity to match Hollywood’s other Marvin case. In 1976 Gaye was ordered by a judge to make good on his back alimony and child-support payments by a unique method. Specifically, he was told to record an album from which $600,000 was to be turned over as a final divorce settlement to Anna, the mother of his 13-year-old son, Marvin III. Then late last year Gaye confused matters by declaring bankruptcy. Ironically, however, Marvin’s artistic revenge may backfire. Anna is now said to be considering a $5 million invasion-of-privacy suit against Gaye. “I think he did it deliberately for the joy of seeing how hurt I could become,” she says. Marvin just rejoins insouciantly, “Does this album invade her privacy? I’ll have to give it another listen.” Then he adds: “But all’s fair in love and war.”
The bottom line, lyricizes Marvin, 40, is that his ex-wife, 17 years his senior, is making him pay for leaving her for a woman 17 years his junior. In 1977 he married Janice Hunter after living with her for four years and fathering two children. Anna’s indecision about bringing suit could be based as much on reluctance to sue indirectly brother Berry’s record company as on her feeling, as a producer of two groups herself, that “it’s very important for an artist to be able to express himself.” Indeed, she intends to write a roman a clef on the subject. Presumably she has given up hope of a reconciliation, though she still uses her married name and notes plaintively: “Once you love a person, you always will.”
Gaye, typically, makes no apologies about his bankruptcy. “I’m not really concerned with what people think,” he says. “It’s my life.” Besides, the divorce and remarriage were not his only financial problems. “There are some legitimate creditors,” he says, “but 80 percent are embezzlers, I have a heart, and people take advantage of me.”
If nothing else, the shocks of the past year have forced Gaye to reappraise a self-destructive career history. For years he refused to appear on TV (“I don’t like the lights”) and would erratically pull no-shows at concerts. “I don’t feel comfortable onstage at all,” he confesses. “There is an ego trip involved that I’m not built for.” Stunned by the death of singing partner Tammi Terrell, who died in 1970 of a brain tumor three years after collapsing in his arms onstage, he stopped live performances altogether for four years. “I didn’t handle it very well,” he says of that difficult time. “I do believe the fact that I was married to Berry Gordy’s sister saved me from getting my contract ripped up several times. Let’s face it, I’m a little strange by most standards. I truly feel I’m an artist and I don’t give any quarter nor do I ask any.” This summer, however, Gaye is embarking on a tour. “I gotta take the responsibility to show up every night. I may as well make the people who promote me happy and assured that I am not the unstable flake they think I am.”
The problem was not his upbringing. The son of a an Apostolic preacher from Washington, D.C., Marvin started performing at 3 in church. After high school he entered the Air Force for two years. Discharged, Gaye joined a touring soul group, the Moonglows. He then started composing for the first time and decided to go solo, moving to Detroit, where “I bummed around a little bit and I got discovered.” Berry Gordy caught his mellifluous tenor in a club and signed him a year later. In 1961 Gaye married Anna, whom he’d been living with for three years. “I guess I have this thing about living common-law before I get married,” he cracks.
Gaye’s 1962 breakthrough hit, Stubborn Kind of Fellow, was followed by a string of Motown-orchestrated records that reads like an all-time R&B Top 40: Pride and Joy, How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You, and I Heard It Through the Grapevine. He sang duets with Mary Wells, but it was with Terrell in 1967 that he really scaled the heights of two-part harmony in Ain’t No Mountain High Enough. (Gaye now blasts as “unfounded and untrue” rumors that he and Terrell were a romantic duo as well. “I loved Tammi, but we were not lovers.”) Marvin followed with What’s Going On, Motown’s first “concept” album—an impassioned personal statement against the Vietnam war, pollution and other ills of U.S. society.
Then, in 1973, at the time he recorded the avowedly lusty Let’s Get It On, he met Janice and “fell in love with her.” Now they and their two children, Nona Aisha (“Pie”), 4, and Frankie (“Bug”), 3, live on a five-acre estate in the San Fernando Valley. Marvin’s bankruptcy allows for housekeepers and horses as well as a ranch in Northern California. “Jan,” reports Marvin, “paints, has a magnificent singing voice and is an excellent cook.”
The solidity of home is just part of his comeback plan. Nominated eight times for a Grammy, Marvin has never won “because I don’t play ball with this industry, but now I plan to,” he says. He was a presenter on the American Music Awards recently (“Dick Clark apparently wants to help me clean up my image”) and is talking about a TV special with Natalie Cole. Teaming with other female artists is a possibility. He has already done an LP with Diana Ross. (“It wasn’t particularly fun, but she was about to have a baby, and it was stressful for her.”) Recently he met with Jon Peters chez Streisand to “kick around recording an album with Barbra.” It fell through when she and Neil Diamond started bringing each other flowers, but Marvin is hopeful. (“I admire her very much.”)
He is also toying with the idea of jumping on the disco bandwagon—a phenomenon he helped create—but insists that most of his motives are not monetary. “Someday,” Marvin proclaims, “I really feel that I’m going to do something so magnificent musically that the whole world will be affected.”