In some neighborhoods in our region — and near many schools — young people face the threat of gun violence on a daily basis.
This week marks the 80th anniversary of legendary rhythm and blues singer Marvin Gaye’s birth–and the 35th anniversary of his murder. He’s remembered for the music he made during his time living in Detroit and Los Angeles, but Washingtonians have always held him close as one of their own, since he was born and raised in D.C. We take a look into the singer’s early life and continuing legacy in Washington, D.C., and discuss his newly released album “You’re the Man,” made up of music that was shelved by Motown Records at a time when he was having conflict with the label in the early ’70s.
Produced by Mark Gunnery
KOJO NNAMDIThat's "I'm Gonna Give you Respect," by Marvin Gaye. It's a big week for Marvin Gaye, one of the most important R & B singers of the 20th Century. This week would mark both what would have been his 80th birthday and the 35th anniversary of his death. He's being honored with a commemorative stamp from the US Postal Service, a new album of previously unreleased material, and a celebration here in Washington, DC. But while Marvin Gaye is best remembered for the music he made while he lived in Detroit and L.A., he got his start here, in his hometown of Washington, DC.
KOJO NNAMDIThat's why we invited his friend, Reverend Dr. Sandra Butler-Truesdale, founder and chair of the DC Legendary Musicians, Inc., co-author of the book "Washington DC Jazz." She's also a former member of the DC Board of Education and has worked in the music industry. That's why we invited Sandra Butler-Truesdale here to talk about Marvin Gaye. So, welcome. Thank you for coming.
REV. SANDRA BUTLER-TRUESDALEThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIGood to see you.
NNAMDIMarvin Gaye was born and raised here in Washington, DC. Where did he grow up, and what were his early years in the District like?
BUTLER-TRUESDALEWell, you know, Marvin lived in several different areas in Washington, DC. He came from Southwest, originally, as far as I know. And then he was in Northeast Washington off of Division Avenue, around in that area where Marvin Gaye Park is. He also, interestingly enough, was in Petworth. And he lived off of Webster Street, in Northwest. And so, he lived in a lot of different places. And, of course, I always have to say, he was a mighty, mighty Clerk. He went to -- however, he did not graduate -- but he went to Cardozo Senior High.
NNAMDIWhich is where you went to school, also, and you actually sang with him in a choir as a teenager. How'd you meet him?
BUTLER-TRUESDALEI met him -- well, we were in 10th grade, and I met him under training with Mr. William Findley, who was our music teacher. And this is -- really, people don't know that Marvin really got his start there, besides the fact that he was in church. And, you know, we all started in church.
NNAMDIHis father was a preacher. Yeah.
BUTLER-TRUESDALEAnd so he did a lot of singing in church, and, of course, again, Mr. Findley, who was our teacher, had so much confidence in Marvin, because he had -- you know he was a boy soprano. And so he could be heard in the auditorium at Cardozo Senior High School on 13th and Clifton...
BUTLER-TRUESDALE...still there -- singing and entertaining. And so that's where I met him, in music class.
NNAMDIBeing a classmate of Marvin Gaye and listening to him sing in high school -- what did you think about him when you were in high school together?
BUTLER-TRUESDALEBecause he was always a gentleman, and, you know, back in that day, you weren't allowed to wear jeans and khakis and, you know, you had to be dressed. And I just remember him always wearing a golf sweater. He always wore one. I think he must've had one in every color. And, of course, you know, he was tall and very good-looking, and so he had lots of ladies peeping and looking at him -- me included. Just that. (laugh)
BUTLER-TRUESDALEBut, again, he was a very calm person. And what I remember about him is I always thought he always knew what he wanted to do. He and H.R. Crawford were two people I knew who knew exactly what they wanted to do, and they followed their path, and they made it.
NNAMDIH.R. Crawford is another former member of the DC Council representing Ward 7. But Marvin was starting to sing with groups when he was at Cardozo High School, wasn't he?
BUTLER-TRUESDALEYes, yes. He sang with several groups. One of the groups that he sang with was The Rainbows. And that was a group that included Don Covay, who was a writer and singer.
BUTLER-TRUESDALEAnd so he sang with that group and several others. And one of his -- the greatest partner that he had was a good friend called Reese Palmer. Reese Palmer has gone with the ancestors now. But Reese and Marvin were so close, you know, in friendship, but they were both great singers. And I believe John Berry was a member of that group. He is still on the planet, and I don't think he's still performing, but he's still around.
NNAMDIYou mentioned Don Covay, who recorded "Your Love is Like a See Saw" before Aretha Franklin did, and gave it to her, then. He wrote "Chain of Fools" for Aretha Franklin.
NNAMDIYou can also look him up. Another musical legend that lived in DC at that time was Bo Diddley. In fact, Marvin Gaye knew him and recorded in his home as, I think, Billy Stewart also did. What did you think about Bo Diddley at the time?
BUTLER-TRUESDALEWell, you know, DC natives, you know how we are.
NNAMDIAw, we cool.
BUTLER-TRUESDALE(laugh) But we thought he was a bama, and there you go.
NNAMDIYeah, too cool for school.
BUTLER-TRUESDALEYeah. (laugh) But I admired Bo Diddley, because he was a brilliant musician. Not only that, he was the first person that I knew of that designed his own guitar. And the young people, the Jewels, King Raymond, Green, who was also a part of the Clovers here, they all went to...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Greg Gaskins.
BUTLER-TRUESDALEGreg Gaskins, who played 14 years with the Manhattans and Elvis Presley. So, they all went to Bo Diddley's house to rehearse, because he had what then was all the technology -- of course, it's ancient now, but he had everything...
NNAMDI(overlapping) He had the equipment.
BUTLER-TRUESDALEAnd he was a mentor to these young people, because, you know, Bo was much older than we are.
NNAMDIOf course. Marvin Gaye got his start singing in vocal groups like the Moonglows. What was the music scene like in Washington when he first started singing, and what kind of venues would he have been performing in?
BUTLER-TRUESDALEOh, my God. Kojo, it's almost indescribable. We're getting ready to do a great archives on the 14th Street corridor, because, you know, there was The Spa, and there were several venues...
NNAMDI(overlapping) 14th and T.
BUTLER-TRUESDALE...all the way up from 14th and T, all the way up to 14th and Park Road. There were different venues for musicians and performers, you know, to perform in. All those venues are practically gone now. And, of course, there was the Club Caverns and the Republic Gardens, which is on 14th Street. And all of those places were there, and Bo Diddley, Jimmy Smooth and the Hit Time Band, and all those guys, there was plenty work. They may not have gotten paid a whole lot.
NNAMDIAnd Jimmy Smooth is still around, of course, and you should know that Sandra Butler-Truesdale was one of the driving forces behind the revival of the Howard Theater, a project that she's still involved in, in many ways. But joining us now by phone is Justin Tinsley. He's a sports and culture reporter for The Undefeated. Justin, thank you for joining us.
JUSTIN TINSLEYThank you for having me.
NNAMDIJustin, Marvin Gaye left high school early to join the military, and how did his short time in the Air Force influence his music, especially on probably his biggest hit, 1971's "What's Going On"?
TINSLEYWell, again, like you said, Marvin did not graduate high school. He enlisted in the military shortly after that, because he was trying to figure out what the next steps of his life would be. And he did not remain in the military for much long -- for long. Excuse me, that's what I was trying to say. It was just he didn’t' necessarily get along with the regimentation of it, the strictness of it. Not saying that he was a problem there. It just didn't align with what he felt his calling in life was, which was obviously music. But it did give him an appreciation for, you know, the individuals who are in the military, what they have to experience.
TINSLEYNow, of course, "What's Going On" came out in 1971, and a large element of the song is Vietnam, which was going on at the time of this release. And his brother had recently come back from Vietnam, and his brother told him the stories, like, the stuff that you didn't see on TV about how a lot of young men felt hopeless and helpless over there. And so that would drive -- those stories and those narratives and those testimonials would drive Marvin to tears, and eventually drive him to the studio to record "What's Going On," which, you know, put it up there with "Let's Get It On," "The Sexual Healing." It's arguably the biggest record of his career, and one of the most important pieces of music released in the 20th Century.
NNAMDIJustin, last week, "You're the Man," a new collection of previously unreleased Marvin Gaye music came out. What are your impressions of this record?
TINSLEYI think it's a beautiful, beautiful record, and I wrote about it, and I said it's a beautiful, but painful listen, because it's a testament and it's an example and it's a relic of what he possibly could've become or continued to do. And you see somebody with like that type of potential and that type of, like, impact in their eyes. And, you know, of course, music's been dealing with the tragedy this week with the recent passing of Nipsey Hussle, the young rapper from Los Angeles. And you see the potential he had, what he was doing in his neighborhood and how important the community that surrounded him was to him as a man, as an artist, as an entrepreneur.
TINSLEYAnd you kind of see the same things in Marvin. Like, "You're the Man" was supposed to come out in 1972. It was supposed to be the follow-up to "What's Going On," and it was going to be another socially conscious, concept-type of album. And he spoke a lot about issues that were going on in America in 1972. He had very strong critiques of President Richard Nixon. He didn't like bussing discrimination. He talked about the communities, you know, of people of color and, you know, the injustices that were involved there, whether it be through law enforcement, whether it be through economics.
TINSLEYBut he also talked about the beauty that was, like, love, black love. And you kind of wonder, like, if Motown would've allowed him to release this in 1972, where could his career have gone, because by 1973, we get...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Why did Motown want him to release it then?
TINSLEYYou know, Motown, at that point -- for one, Marvin had to sneak to record "What's Going On," because Barry Gordy wasn't initially sold on the concept of the idea. He didn't like the song at first. You know, Motown was more so like a factory of, like, love songs and top 40 hits, which they did better than anybody else. I'm not belittling that, by any stretch of the imagination. But in terms of taking risks with music in terms of the topics that you cover, "What's Going On" was that first one. And so I don't think Barry Gordy was initially sold on that concept. Then he was, like, all right, he got a massive hit with one of them. He had a big hit with the album, as well, and "What's Going On." Now let's get back to, like, what we were doing before.
TINSLEYBut a lot of these things plagued Marvin. A lot of these things kept him up at night. And, of course, I say in the piece, and I truly believe that Marvin Gaye is the most -- he was the most haunted artist that I can think of. He was complex. Yeah, you know, a lot of thoughts going through his head at all times. And I think we saw that threw his music and with the way, you know, unfortunately, his life ended.
NNAMDI(overlapping) And you talk about the way Tupac Shakur said Marvin Gaye spoke to him. Marvin Gaye...
TINSLEYOh, yeah. Absolutely.
NNAMDI...made him feel and realize what being black is.
TINSLEYYes. From a hip-hop perspective, I do believe that Tupac Shakur is like Marvin Gaye's neophyte. He said in his 1993 song "Keep Ya Head Up," which is one of the greatest rap records to ever come out. He said, I remember Marvin Gaye used to sing to me. He had me feeling like black was the thing to be, and suddenly the ghetto didn't seem so tough. And though we had it rough, we always had enough.
TINSLEYThere was a source of pride that came in Marvin's music, like he made you proud to be a fan. He made you proud of the issues that he addressed in his music, whether it's "What's Going On" or whether it's "Let's Get It On," because he was a complex person. I think we all are, in a sense. So, there was an immense amount of pride that came with listening to his music, and I think he had that same sense of pride.
NNAMDI(overlapping) As we said, "You're the Man" was originally set to be released in 1972. It didn't see the light of day until now, but let's hear a little bit of "You're the Man."
NNAMDIJustin, that album was released, but that cut, both Sandra and I have heard before. How come?
TINSLEYYeah. Well, there have been a couple of different songs that have been on, you know, the internet, maybe like some miscellaneous tapes over the years. Like the song "I Wanna Go Home for Christmas." That song's been out for a while, but that song he sang from the perspective of a Vietnam soldier who literally just wants to come home for Christmas.
NNAMDI(overlapping) And I think we have a clip of that song, too, so -- and not a whole lot of time, so let's hear a sample of "I Wanna Come Home for Christmas."
NNAMDIJustin, you wrote that that song, hearing it among other Gaye songs of the same period, gives it even more depth, heartbreak, misery and resonance. What did you mean by that?
TINSLEYWhen you hear that song, you hear the other songs and the issues that he's tackling. And you really get a clear indication of where his mind was in 1972. It's just sad that he wasn't allowed to express that by releasing the album. So, in a nutshell, that's what I meant by that.
NNAMDIThis week marks not just the 80th anniversary of Marvin's birth. It's also the 35th anniversary of his early death. For our listeners who did not know, how did Marvin Gaye die?
TINSLEYHe was killed by his father in his Los Angeles home on April 1st, 1984, which was literally a day before which would've been his, I believe, 45th birthday.
BUTLER-TRUESDALESandra Butler-Truesdale, how did people in Washington take the news of Marvin Gaye's death -- as if I don't know, but do tell us.
BUTLER-TRUESDALEIt really was devastating. I don't know that I -- the feeling that I had because of the closeness -- you know, you never forget relationships and people who are positive in your life. And so when that happened, it was almost like my real brother had passed away. I got that feeling again when Michael Jackson passed away. A sadness that -- and every year, you know, Saleem Hylton has a tribute to Marvin right here, if you've seen...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Yeah, I was hoping Saleem would call. But go ahead, tell us about his tribute.
BUTLER-TRUESDALEAnd that tribute that he does, he used to do it at the Lincoln Theater, he does it once a year, where we talk about and listen to Marvin Gaye music, and almost like what we're doing today on this show. But back to those feelings, the interesting thing about that is I still have those feelings. Listening to the drop of that music from 1972 brings that same feeling back.
BUTLER-TRUESDALEThere's another one that people don't recognize, and it's Marvin Gay sings Nat King Cole. And when you hear -- his voice is different. It's almost like a Billie Stewart thing, because I don't know many people that can imitate Marvin Gaye.
NNAMDINo, not at all. Saleem Hylton started doing that when he was managing the Ibex back in the day, and he's continued it unto this day. Saleem, next time, call. Let's have a conversation. I haven't seen you for a long time. Sandra, we're running out of time, but do you think Marvin Gaye gets enough credit for shaping music here in Washington, DC?
BUTLER-TRUESDALEI really don't. That's one of the reasons that I do DC Legendary Musicians, Inc., and also the reason that I wrote this book -- co-authored this book, rather.
NNAMDI"Washington, DC, Jazz" it's called.
BUTLER-TRUESDALE"Washington, DC, Jazz." And it's because people don't know the great histories. They don't know the Skip Pitts and the Greg Gaskins and all these people that -- Dave Akers -- that went with -- what was his name? Anyway, his name went out of my mind right at that time. But then many...
NNAMDIThat happens to me all the time.
BUTLER-TRUESDALE(laugh) ...many great, great musicians that come out of DC. And, unfortunately, they are picked by the performers, you know, and they take them away. And then when they get done with them, there's Woody Woodson and all these people who are great.
NNAMDIAnd people don't associate them with Washington, but that's why the Reverend Dr. Sandra Butler-Truesdale is here as founder and chair of DC Legendary Musicians, Inc., to keep us remembering who started here, who contributed to the music here, and many who still contribute to the music here. Justin Tinsley, thank you so much for joining us.
TINSLEYThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIJustin is a sports and culture reporter for the Undefeated. Reverend Dr. Sandra Butler-Truesdale is founder and chair of the DC Legendary Musicians, Inc. She's also co-author of the book "Washington, DC, Jazz." She's also a former member of the DC Board of Education and worked in the music industry. Still working to make sure the Howard Theater continues to live and thrive. Thank you so much for joining us. It's so good to see you.
BUTLER-TRUESDALEWell, thank you so much. Thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAlways a pleasure. Always a pleasure.
BUTLER-TRUESDALEAnd you know I'm an old Union girl, so...
NNAMDIOh, yeah. Yeah. (laugh) Our show on Marvin Gaye was produced by Mark Gunnery, and our conversation on toxic high school culture was produced by Cydney Grannan. For more on how students in Montgomery County are organizing, head to our website, kojoshow.org. On today's show page, you can find a link to producer Margaret Barthel's story on how student activists are leading the push for school redistricting.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow: can you afford to raise your family in Washington? We look at the growing cost of childcare and a number of other challenges local families are facing. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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