SINS OF THE FATHER
Sunday 01 November 1998
IN MAY 1983 the soul singer Marvin Gaye should have been on top of the world. His single "Sexual Healing" had initiated a remarkable comeback for a man considered a commercial has-been. He had just broken Barry Manilow's record by selling out five nights at Radio City on his first tour of America since returning from a two-and-a-half-year exile in Europe, he had a luxury suite at the Waldorf-Astoria and there was a feature on him in the New York Times headlined "Marvin Gaye Is Back And Looking Up".
But something had gone drastically wrong with Marvin Gaye's life. At the age of 44 he was a physical and mental wreck. He was 20lb heavier than he had been as a lithe young Motown star and was sweating his way through his shows every night. The membranes inside his nose were so badly damaged from heavy cocaine use that he couldn't sleep in an air-conditioned room without installing a vaporiser. More disturbingly, his mind was playing tricks on him. Wherever he went he heard voices threatening his life. One night he thought they were coming from the television set so he broke it open and tore out the wiring. Another night he was so convinced that the Devil himself was in his room that he phoned his bodyguard, Gerald White, a 457lb ex-football player, who burst into the suite with a submachine- gun to find Marvin sitting up in bed with his head swathed in a towel and the number 666 stuck to his forehead on pieces of scrawled notepaper.
Gerald had grown accustomed to this level of paranoia. Ever since the tour began the month before, he had listened to Marvin's stories about how he was being stalked - how someone was planning to shoot him, stab him or put poison in his food. Now he had to be supplied with presidential- style protection. Gerald and his brother Andre, who was in charge of the security operation, always stayed in adjacent suites to assure Marvin of safety. Even then they received constant phone calls asking them to check doors and windows or to look under beds and in wardrobes.
Then Marvin became fixated by the idea that his his family might be threatened or that his home might be broken into. He had another bodyguard, Tex Griffin, a former heavyweight boxer from Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to look after his California home. He had already asked Gerald to supply Tex with a .45 automatic. Now Marvin wanted a weapon for his father, who lived with his mother in a $300,000 house in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles. He was concerned that someone might try to attack them or take them hostage while he was away on this four-month tour. Gerald tried to dissuade him. But Marvin wouldn't give up. He wanted a gun, and he wanted it now.
That night an unregistered .38 Smith and Wesson was delivered to Gerald's suite at the Waldorf-Astoria and Tex Griffin was duly summoned. "I gave the gun to Tex and showed him how to pack it in his luggage to avoid detection," says Gerald. "He then took it back to Los Angeles and gave it to Marvin's father. Marvin was happy at last that his father had protection.''
Mr Gay had never owned a gun before. It didn't seem right for a preacher to have a gun, even for a preacher who hadn't preached for 20 years. Still, if it made his son happy he would hold on to it. He put it under his pillow and hoped that he'd never have to use it.
Marvin Gay Snr was born on 1 October 1914 in Jessamine County, Kentucky, the third child of 23-year-old farm labourer George Gay and his wife, Mamie. The family moved to Washington DC and while Marvin Snr was in his mid-teens, Mamie was converted to the House Of God, a new black church which adhered to aspects of Judaism. Marvin Snr was so moved by preaching that he decided to become a preacher himself. The denomination required no special training for its ministers because it believed that the gift was received through an "anointing" of the Holy Spirit.
In Washington Marvin Snr met Alberta Cooper. Shy and poorly educated, she had been raised as a Baptist and had left school to work as a sharecropper. They married and after two years she produced a daughter, Jean, and then, on 2 April 1939, a son, who was named after his father, Marvin Pentz Gay II. Two other childrten were to follow, - Frankie in 1942 and Zeola (better known as Sweetsie) in 1945. Later Alberta confessed that her husband had never wanted Marvin. Perhaps as a reaction to this, she grew exceptionally close to her firts son.
South Washington DC, where the young Gays grew up, was a black ghetto, disdvantaged but not torn apart by street violence or gang warfare as later ghettos in the city would be. Although strict discipline was common, Marvin's father was exceptional for the inflexibility of his rules and the savagery of his punishments. The laws that governed the House of God also governed the House of Gay. Movies and television were banned and a curfew enforced. Mr Gay's beatings could be vicious and he used a leather belt. In later life Marvin believed that his father delighted in giving these beatings. "We were a strange family," admits Marvin's brother Frankie. "We were very much sheltered from the neighbourhood and I know they looked on us as being very strange."
Until Marvin Jnr moved to William Randall Junior High, he was unaware of any music other than black gospel. The first recorded music he liked was by white singers such as Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Perry Como. In 1952 he entered and won a talent competition with a rendition of "Cry" by the white singer Johnny Ray.
Even when making his first records for Motown in the early Sixties (under the name Marvin Gaye rather than Gay, because he was "tired of being called "Mr Faggot'") his taste was for the music of his teenage years. But the music he loved was no longer making the charts. Compromises were required and it was only when taking on the influences of R & B and jazz that he had commercial success, finally breaking through as a major artist in January 1971 with "What's Going On".
To Marvin Snr, anything except gospel was "boogie-woogie" music, and not appropriate for a member of the House of God. For him, Marvin's gift should be used exclusively to glorify God, not to celebrate carnal desires. His disappointment may have been compounded by his having "prophesied" his son's gift. "I think his father may have given him what we call 'a word of prophecy' back when he was a child," says Polly Solomon, whose father was also an elder at the Washington church. "He mentioned more than once that Mar-vin was going to make the family rich. There were times in the church when people used to prophesy. Not every week, but once in a while."
In fact, Mr Gay had been lax about his own piety since the mid-Fifties, when he was passed over for the job of Chief Apostle. Although still called Bishop Gay, his attendance at the House of God dwindled. His clothes became increasingly feminine. He would wear colourful silk blouses and straight- hair wigs, and even his wife's nylon stockings. People in the neighbourhood questioned his sexuality. But according to his niece, Gloria Herring, "He loved beautiful women. They were always referred to as 'sisters' or 'companions' and came from the church, but actually they were sleeping with him." Mr Gay also began to drink.
When Marvin's career took off, part of his father delighted in the reflected glory, and he certainly enjoyed the trappings of celebrity that came his way, but his overriding feeling was of contempt. He hated his son's Devil's music, his sex with loose white women and his constant sniffing. Yet the idea that he had been handpicked by God never left Marvin Jnr, even in the closing stages of his life, when he embarked on his last tour. Indeed, when filled with thoughts of doom, he would hark back to the idea that he had been chosen for a mission.
In January 1983 his father returned from a trip away and the two men faced each other for the first time since 1979. Things had not improved. Marvin was disgusted that his father hadn't been around for his mother and that he hadn't shared with her the proceeds on the sale of their Wash- ington home. His father disapproved of "Sexual Healing". By now Marvin was freebasing cocaine and his paranoia had increased.
Marvin's deterioration was known only to his family, friends and business associates. To the watching world he was a storming success. He was chosen to sing the national anthem at the opening of the NBA All-Star game at the Forum in Inglewood, California, on 13 February 1983 and just over a week later, at the Shrine Auditorium, he picked up two Grammys.
The tour was dogged by problems from the start. In the month before rehearsals Marvin checked into a San Francisco hotel and sent Gorgeous George, his valet, out to buy him a tape deck and copies of all his albums. "He told me he couldn't remember all the lyrics," says George, "so every morning of every day I would put Marvin's stuff on the ghetto-blaster and let him relearn them." On 13 April, Marvin was summonsed to appear in court on 7 July because of his failure to maintain his payments to his ex-wife, Jan. Marvin's single "Joy" hadn't even made a chart entry. Ticket sales were sluggish. In addition, threats were made, which filtered back to Marvin and made him fear for his life. He imagined a hired assassin shooting him as he performed, and became convinced that he was being supplied with cocaine cut with a poison. His two bodyguards, Andre and Gerald White, were flown in from Tampa, Florida, to lead a security team. The pair terrified potential interlopers. One unfortunate cocaine dealer who found his way to Marvin's hotel suite was made by Andre to consume his own merchandise on the spot. He lost consciousness and had to be taken to hospital.
When the tour hit Radio City Music Hall in New York there was a backstage confrontation with the controversial activist and preacher Al Sharpton, and the White brothers were called in to sort it out. "Sharpton's group felt that black promoters weren't getting what they deserved," says Andre. "I had to explain that we had gotten the money for these days and we were going to play them. They got a little ... I guess you could say 'disappointed', and started threatening. I had to let them know that we had ways of sorting that out."
Andre White was becoming concerned at Marvin's cocaine consumption. When they reached Baltimore, Andre made an arrangement with the civil-rights leader Dick Gregory, now a leading nutritional expert, to collect Marvin and have him detoxified on a farm in Massachusetts during a short break between dates. But Marvin stubbornly refused to leave his hotel room.
As the tour progressed he became more and more paranoid, convinced that there was a killer lurking in the wings. He had his brother Frankie join the tour as well as his old friend from Los Angeles, Dave Simmons, who had to stand at the side of the stage watching for potential assassins. His sister Sweetsie had to bring him his water on stage to prevent anyone poisoning him. He even had a Baptist preacher, Dave Futch, to offer him spiritual consolation and lead a prayer time before each show.
In Merrillville, Indiana, he was confronted by members of El Rukns, the notorious Chicago street gang whose leader, Jeff Fort, was jailed four years later for conspiring to commit explosions in America on behalf of the Libyans. El Rukns had connections both with the Black Muslim movement and with organised crime. They challenged Marvin over his use of a white promoter for the tour. In Detroit, Marvin was convinced that Jan's stepfather, Earl Hunter, had ordered a Mafia hit because of the way he had treated Jan. When he played the Joe Louis Arena he had his security team doubled and also alerted the local police department, who sent along 75 officers.
"He was getting in worse shape physically every night and it became harder and harder to carry on," says Dave Simmons. "Then there were the constant stories that someone was trying to kill him. It was like a mad B-movie. He would stay in his room all the time, take the elevator up to different floors and leave by back stairways. Whenever we came back at night we'd have to drive round the hotel several times before going in."
Unbelievably, Jan came along for part of the tour, apparently unable to pull herself away from the impending destruction despite having just forced Marvin to pay part of his back alimony under threat of a court appearance. They began sharing drugs together again. One day Jan collapsed with severe palpitations because of the drugs she was taking. In a hotel room in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, she began arguing with Marvin about a member of the band that he was accusing her of fancying. "Marvin was sitting there cleaning his nose out because it was so wrecked with cocaine," says Jan. "In the middle of this argument he took the pot of hot water he was using and threw it over me. Gerald White then physically picked me up and put me outside the hotel. I had no airline ticket, no money, no nothing. I never saw Marvin alive again."
Marvin claimed that he felt so sick after the incident that the next two dates, in Tallahassee and Memphis, were cancelled while he checked into a private hospital in Sunrise, Florida, suffering from "exhaustion and dehydration". The tour drew to a close in California during August, at the Universal Amphitheatre, and Marvin retreated to his parents' home on Gramercy Place, still fearing that he was being stalked. He took an upstairs room between the bedrooms of his mother and father. Just as his father stayed in his room and drank vodka, Marvin stayed in his room and snorted cocaine. Frankie and his wife stayed in the guest-house.
Marvin never specified who he thought wanted to take his life. Some thought that he might have good reason to worry - that he'd defaulted on payments to drug dealers, that he'd upset people in the record industry, that he'd cheated with men's wives and girlfriends. "It wasn't a delusion," argues Gordon Banks, who'd played guitar on the final tour. "There were management companies after him. People wanted to make money out of him and when he said no to them, they got mad."
Whatever the reality of the threat, there seemed no way out. The normal means of dulling his fears - drugs, alcohol, sex, fame, wealth - had only served to deepen his sense of doom. He began to talk of suicide, although he also said suicide was an unforgivable sin. "He felt that everyone was using him," says Andre White. "He felt that a lot of people loved him only for what he could do for them or for what they could get out of him. During the tour he had told me that he didn't feel people loved him for what he was and that his mother was the only person who really loved him. He always longed for the love of his father, but he never got it."
On 13 August, Jan, who was by now caring for the children out of her welfare payments, called him to talk about his continued failure to keep up his payments. He reacted angrily, threatening to punish her physically and telling her that he planned to donate all his property to charity so that she would never get any of it. On 23 August he was summonsed to appear in court on 19 September because he now owed $9,900 in child support, $30,000 in spousal support and $2,500 in attorney's fees. He didn't show up. He was summonsed again for a court appearance on 19 December. Again he didn't show.
His mother, still a devout Christian, would read the Bible to him in an attempt to revive his spirit. She got together with Shelton West, minister of the local House of God congregation, and prayed and fasted with her son for three days and three nights. "We prayed that he would be healed of that suicidal mind," says Est. "He felt condemned because he had diverted from God. He would even tell us never to do what he did, never to go the way he had gone."
Relations with his father worsened. They hadn't lived together in the same house since 1957, and the old resentments had been joined by new ones. The father believed he was being usurped by his son and, as far as he was concerned, that went against the natural order of things. Didn't even the Scriptures say that the father should be the head of the house? He suspected his wife of having affairs simply because she was affectionate towards Mar-vin's friends, and also because for the past 10 years he had been drinking more and more. For five years his family had regarded it as a problem.
"Marvin Snr was jealous because Marvin was the resource through which the family lived," says Shelton West. "This kept them arguing back and forth and there came a period when they were doing this and Marvin knew that he could anger his father. He knew exactly what to say and he knew when to say it. I remember once or twice Marvin Snr showed me his gun that he kept under his pillow and sometimes I even became afraid to go over there because he would be so upset at Marvin and he'd say, 'I'm gonna kill him. I'm gonna kill him.' I would try to talk him down but he was a hard person to calm."
Marvin asked Andre, to whom he referred as Dre, to record their meetings and phone calls. "He liked me to tape our conversations," says Andre. "He would sometimes say things and then later claim that he had never said them and so we started recording everything as a kind of protection." Their final taped conversation, which Andre would play back many times in the coming years, lasted for three hours. In the middle of it came this telling exchange.
Andre: Marvin, I hope you know your dad is not kidding when he says, "I brought you here and I'll take you out of here?"
Marvin: Right. He does say that. Right.
Andre: Marvin. (Pause) Marvin, what's wrong?
Marvin: He means it too.
Andre: Man, you've come too far to start any shit with your daddy. Come on, man.
Marvin: Dre, why do you have to make so much sense all of the time? (Laughter)
Andre: It's the truth, and you know it.
Marvin: You know, the other night he did something that he has never done.
Marvin: I was asleep and I felt someone rubbing my back. At first, I thought it was mother because I told her I was having backaches, but I detected the rub was too strong and I turned and looked and my daddy said, ''That will make you feel better.'' Then he turned and walked away. He had never done anything like that.
Andre: Man, your daddy loves you! Why can't you see that?
Marvin: Dre, I know, but -
Andre: But nothing! You want to die and you're too chicken to kill yourself. But if you keep f****** with your daddy - he's told you what he'll do.
Marvin: I guess you're right.
The arguments and threats made life worse for Marvin. It was as if nothing in his life had changed. On the verge of his 45th birthday, he was unfulfilled and suffering under his intolerant father. He spent his days sitting around in his bathrobe worrying that someone could shoot him from a vehicle going down the nearby Santa Monica Freeway. He bought surveillance equipment that would enable him to detect unusual sounds outside the house. Dave Simmons met Frankie and the two of them decided that the only way to rescue Marvin from himself was to take him forcibly, on Sunday 1 April, to an addiction unit where he could clean himself up. It was not to happen.
"On the Sunday I got up and began getting dressed," says Simmons. "I was getting ready to leave when the phone rang. It was Irene, Frankie's wife, and she was saying, 'Frankie needs you. Get over right away. Father has just shot Marvin.'"
It was 12.20pm. Marvin had been lying on his bed dressed in a maroon bathrobe talking to his mother when his father appeared in the doorway. He wanted to discuss a misplaced insurance policy with her and was shouting at her to help him find it. This particular argument had started the previous evening. Marvin invited him in to talk about it but he said he'd rather wait and walked back to his room and sat down at his desk. Marvin got up and followed him and a fight broke out between the two men. "You can't talk to my mother that way," he allegedly said. The father would later claim that he was pulled off his chair and then punched and kicked by Marvin while on the ground. Police photographs taken four days later showed severe bruising to his back and forearms.
In his statement to the police the father said that Marvin then left the room but came back soon after shouting, "Motherf*****! You want some more?" before punching and kicking him again. Marvin returned to his room and sat back down on the bed.
The father then appeared in the doorway with the .38 calibre hand gun which Marvin had asked Gerald White to provide for him. He took aim and shot Marvin in the right chest, slightly above the nipple. The bullet perforated his lung, heart, diaphragm, liver, stomach and left kidney. As Marvin slid off the bed and slumped forward in a sitting position his father moved closer and fired another bullet at point blank range; it went into his left shoulder and exited from his back.
Valuable time was lost while Irene sought to retrieve the gun from Mr Gay. She confronted him, but he seemed confused and couldn't say where it was. She eventually found it beneath his pillow and threw it out on the front lawn. Reassured that it was now safe to go in, the paramedics found Marvin was still alive but only able to groan as Frankie cradled his head and tried to comfort him. He left the house on a stretcher and was taken to the California Hospital at South Hope Street, where they worked for five minutes in the emergency room to restore his heartbeat before declaring him dead at 1.01pm.
Detectives Parks and McCahn were the first to inform Mr Gay that his son was dead and that he was being charged with homicide. "What shocked me," says McCahn, "was that he seemed more concerned about what was going to happen to him than the fact that his son was dead.''
Astonishingly, a week later, he gave an interview to a journalist from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. He complained that none of his family had visited him in his cell at the Los Angeles County Men's jail and that he was cold without his bathrobe. Asked about the shooting, he admitted that he had done it but said that it had been done in self-defence and that he had thought the gun was loaded only with pellets. Asked if he had ever loved Marvin, he at first hesitated and then said, "Let's say that I didn't dislike him."
Alberta Gay apparently believed Marvin effectively killed himself. "She told me that Marvin intentionally infuriated his father," says Shelton West. "She said, 'That made me know that he wanted his daddy to kill him.' To me his father didn't kill him. Marvin committed suicide.''
His funeral took place four days later at the Hall of Liberty Chapel in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park, by which time between 8,000 and 10,000 fans had filed past his open casket. Stevie Wonder sang a specially written song. At the funeral Alberta Gay turned to Gerald White and said, "That's one gun I wish you had never given to my son."
After plea-bargaining, the charge against Mr Gay was reduced from first- degree murder to voluntary manslaughter on grounds of provocation. He was given a six-year suspended sentence and five years' probation. Mr and Mrs Gay never lived together again. She filed for a dissolution of the marriage on 25 June on the grounds that he had murdered her son, and died of cancer three years later. After his five-year probation period at the Inglewood Retirement Home, Mr Gay moved to a home in Long Beach, where he died two weeks ago. In the intervening 18 years he never once mentioned his son, Marvin Gaye, or the events of Sunday, 1 April 1984.
'Trouble Man' by Steve Turner is published by Michael Joseph at pounds 9.99
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