Stevie and Marvin

I just watched a clip on YouTube that filled in a missing blank in my personal history. And I’m blubbing my eyes out right now.

In 1985 I was asked to perform live at the Grammy Awards with Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and Howard Jones. [Note: there is also a clip of this, but that's NOT what this blog is about. Read on!] The producers wanted us to play a synth medley consisting of one hit from each of us, and ending with the US National Anthem. As the TV show was to be mimed, we were booked to record the backing track the day before the dress rehearsal at Stevie’s studio on Western in Los Angeles, which was a huge and beautiful old movie theater.

This was quite an elaborate process, and it took all day. Towards nightfall Stevie’s manager took myself and Howard aside and told us that Stevie was going to play a practical joke on Herbie, and it was going to be filmed for a TV show called ‘Bloopers.’ Stevie had told Herbie that we’d been recording on a brand new prototype Sony 48-track digital recorder, and that two top Sony executives from Japan were coming to be filmed with us at the session. They showed up, bowing very cheerfully, everybody danced around to our groovy backing track, and the cameraman was getting it all down. But suddenly someone in the control room pressed the wrong button, and the tape went silent. It seemed all 48 tracks had mistakenly gone into ‘erase’ mode, leaving a 5-second silence in our recording.

Of course, everybody but Herbie knew it was all a hoax. They allowed him to suffer for about 5 minutes before telling him the truth. Everybody was delighted with the joke, even Herbie, and around midnight people started to disperse to different parts of the building.

But I was a bit concernced as we had not yet recorded ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, and we were due at the Grammy’s rehearsal in about 10 hours’ time. So I went to look for Stevie in the maze of small rooms scattered around the building. Usually he is pretty easy to find as there’s an entourage of several people with him. But on this occasion he was nowhere to be found.

I eventually tracked Stevie down. He was all alone, in an attic-like room on the top floor of the building filled with old files and papers. He was on his knees, playing a beaten-up upright piano.

I announced my presence, and reminded him we had an anthem to record. He asked if I had any ideas for it. I said, what about a really slow sexy groove on a drum machine, and really spread it out? Stevie thought for a moment, then said ‘uh-uh. Marvin tried that one time man. He sang it that way at an NBA all-star game, and you know what? he never got on TV again until the day he died. Because all the network executives couldn’t handle a black man singing a sexy soul version of the National Anthem.’

Ok, I thought, that wasn’t such a good idea. But the image of Marvin, one of my all time favorite singers, shocking televisionland in his own inimitable style, was too much. So I said ‘wow, that must have sounded pretty great! How did he sing it?’

Stevie’s head stopped moving and for a few seconds he was completely motionless. Then slowly his fingers found the piano keys, and he started to play and sing. He sang the song through to the end. For those two minutes I don’t think my heart beat at all. I couldn’t breathe. I swear if my vital signs had been hooked up to a monitor, it would have been a flatline.

He was simultaneously recalling the song; translating the chords into a gospel style; and playing in his memory banks, if not perhaps the exact licks, then at least the soul and the feeling of Marvin’s vocal performance from two years earlier. His only audience was me, huddled in a corner of this dusty attic. And any single line was one that I (or any almost other singer on the planet) would have given my right eye for.

I’ve told this story a few times over the years. But until tonight, I had never seen Marvin’s actual performance the NBA game. I’d never thought to look for it on YouTube—though now I come to think of it, it’s a natural for someone to put up there. By chance I saw an article today about Marvin, and it included a link to the clip. So, thanks to YouTube, a little piece of history is now complete for me. From the first few seconds I was completely crying my eyes out.

Here it is.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QRvVzaQ6i8A

39 Responses to “Stevie and Marvin”

  1. stevied says:

    Wow!!!

    Thats awesome, Thank you Thomas!

    The crowd there sure seemed to like it!

  2. Craver says:

    I never knew that about Marvin Gaye. Roseanne can massacre the national anthem and get a talk show; yet, a true American icon performs and never again returns to television until his father murders him. My first reaction to reading this was disgust; the second was embarrassment. I wonder how Stevie felt about ‘performing’ it in on American television. Thanks for posting this, especially during Black History Month.

    By the way… I remember that “TV’s Bloopers & Practical Jokes” episode. I taped it because you were on it (not because I was a huge ‘Bloopers’ fan). I think you were wearing a white hat.

  3. dean says:

    Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said it was the first time he felt American. It still brings tears to my eyes as well.

  4. kshandra says:

    Oh wow, oh wow, oh wow. I’d never seen that clip of Marvin before, either…it gave me chills.

    And as Craver mentions above, I remember that episode of “TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes” as well. I was already a fan of the show; for you and Howard Jones to show up was some damned tasty icing on that particular cake. As I recall it, the setup was that the prototype recorder was supposed to have been rigged with some sort of Braille-esque controls so Stevie could operate it himself. It amuses and pleases me to think that now, 20 years later, the reaction to someone suggesting that kind of mod to a machine would be “Well, why not?”

    Though I’m not quite as amused by that as I am by the memory of you and Howard and ALL THAT HAIR. :D

  5. culo1 says:

    Great story & a nice link to go with it…
    Marvin was just the original, originator as the boys in the band ABC so eloquently put it.
    Thanks for the memories…..
    Sj

  6. Elaine says:

    WOW. Marvin could sing. I never even knew that this existed. Thank you for sharing that awesome story with us. Stevie sounds like a great human being, too.

  7. Airwaves says:

    Thank you, Thomas. I had no idea MG never appeared on TV again after that performance all because of the way he chose to perform the anthem. Pardon me while I boggle at that…

    Folks, go out and buy a copy of MG’s “What’s Going On” if you don’t have it already, and hear one of the greatest albums of all time.

  8. duglmac says:

    I’m speechless. That is fantastic.

  9. d.owen says:

    cool stuff mr d,and an amazing memory for you to cherish.what a voice that geezer had!!!cheers,david

  10. Gregory says:

    T-Dol, although this board mainly sports praise (and why wouldn’t it?), and I’m often cheeky, I’m wondering if you could do a quick follow-up to consider a sincere question that’s been nagging me for years:

    Why do so many white British musicians play at being black American musicians?

    Stones and Zep perhaps most famously (and lucratively), Annie Lennox, Gordon Sumner, Steve Winwood, Alison Moyet, Peter Gabriel, Phil Collins, Martin Fry, Dusty Springfield (of course), or an honourary Brit like Nick Cave, or even erstwhile hitsters like Rick Astley (always figured there was a large African American soul man with a mic hiding behind that curtain!) — and I ask kindly as I feel your go at it is awesome, in your songs fitting this stylistic mold (or mould).

    Obviously white Americans have been “borrowing” the music of black Americans for just as long if not longer (“Sweet Little Sixteen” becomes “Surfin’ USA,” to name one; anything Chili Pepper to name another), but what’s the draw, from your angle?

    Sorry, everyone, if this note gets misread; I love Stevie and Marvin, too (among the first singles I ever bought were theirs).

  11. bassjase says:

    Just absolutely awsome!
    No other words can describe it. Actually bought a lump to my throat.

  12. BeechwoodAve says:

    wow… THANK YOU for linking this to us. What a truly rare performance and a reminder of just what it SHOULD mean to be an American: diverse, multi-dimensional, inclusive (have my doubts about the realization of that these days). Gaye was a unique talent who’s voice seems to rise above any distinctions of race or style. You just enjoy hearing the sound.

    Your story about you and stevie wonder is also quite moving. Thanks for giving us a peek behind the curtain. The Grammy show was such an over-the-top spectacle… it’s nice to read something genuinely special behind it all.

    Beech

  13. merujo says:

    I always thought it was sad that most people my age (or younger) only knew Marvin Gaye for “Sexual Healing” and his tragic death. This was lovely. Really, really lovely. Thank you for sharing this story. This is why I love blogging done well.

  14. TMDR says:

    Thanks for all your feedback.

    Gregory, I’m not sure if your post was meant as an observation or as a complaint. In the early days of jazz/pop/rock, before the civil rights movement (and good sense!) kicked in, many black artists were ripped off, exploited, not given due credit etc. But nowadays that’s not true, and black artists and businessmen rightly rule the music business, because they make the world’s most popular music. In music, politics and pro sports, it’s moments like Marvin’s NBA performance that will be remembered as milestones on the road to setting things to rights.

    I can’t imagine you’re making a statement about art or culture. The last few decades have been all about breaking down those barriers. Everybody has influences, even the innovators. So what if Cream and the Stones and Christina Aguilera drew from black influences? Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley, Prince and Afrika Bambaata all owed their early success to white rock. It’s no better/worse for a young white musician to be influenced by Marvin Gaye, than for a young black musician to be influenced by Marvin Gaye. If you think there’s any inherent requirement that ‘birds of a feather flock together’, then you’re just perpetuating the BS.

    What I will agree with Gregory on is that we Brits have a real aptitude for subsuming and recycling other cultures’ music. Whether it be music from Africa, Jamaica, the Delta, a castle in Bavaria, a New York punk club, or a warehouse in Chicago. We add a little twist then re-export it to the world, and often the world laps it up and thinks it’s original! That skill is *not* to be confused with true innovation, yet it’s a skill nonetheless. It has led to some classic bands and brilliant records. But there’s little new under the Sun.

  15. BeechwoodAve says:

    Well said, Thomas. I will add this…

    The idea of innovation in music is something that gets confused with the idea of quality much of the time. This is a problem that has plagued the ‘art’ music world in the past century as well. The idea that what is new is inherently better than what is old is complete rubbish. That one shows one’s influences is not bad, as long as what you build on top of that influence is your own and is quality. That artists take what they’ve learned and filter it through the prism of their own experience and interests is a given. None of us exist in a vacuum and art has a history as much as anything else. History passes us the torch and we move forward from that point.
    Mozart didn’t invent the Classical style, he learned from his predecessors. He DID, however, create truly original work within that style… he made it his own.

    We don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time out, we just have to decide in what direction to roll that wheel.

    Beech

  16. BWJones says:

    Wonderland! I don’t have any experiences with Stevie as beautiful as yours, but aside from Stevie’s wonderful personality I have some geeky, technical memories of Wonderland after visiting Stevie’s studio back in 1988 where I saw glass audio reels and some of the first D to A CD players that played through tubes! Nowdays, that hardware is a little blase, but back in 1988, that was heady stuff! Oh and can’t forget the mobile studio truck with fiber optics in the ceiling, representing stars. That was totally awesome. :-)

  17. Gregory says:

    Hiya. And thanks! No backpeddling here, nor complaint nor even much of an observation (not a new one for decades, anyway), but it really was intended as a question — to someone from Blighty who knows how to lay down the funk (utterly not an indigenous British product). What’s weird to me is that the trend has been so overwhelmingly huge, and I was asking what draws a public school boy funkward, rather than, say, toward a career in Gamelan orchestration. Thanks again for the observations, and cheers…yo.

  18. Gregory says:

    P.S. (Previous note was tapped on the quick.) Thanks also for your diplomacy and expansive sensibility. The musical back-and-forth makes for a fun and compelling topic (and it’s always amusing to use Sting’s real name — the guy whom Elvis Costello — also a stage-name — claimed shot to fame via “that fake Jamaican accent” — which becomes doubly amusing upon consideration of “Watching the Detectives.”)

    Notably, as someone from the middle of things on this land-mass, I always listened to Dolby records and thought, regardless of genre, “this fellow means it.”

    Here’s to openness (pardon the modicum of snark), and for allowing a bit of dialogue here, and for (once again) encouraging good taste in rare soul nuggets.

  19. MondoJohnnyQ says:

    I think I get it. I mean K-Fed borrows elements from Synth music for his rap…wait

  20. mizmusic says:

    A few unanswerable (rhetorical) questions, typed with great
    sadness {re: Marvin Gaye’s beautiful, uplifting version of “The
    Star-Spangled Banner”}:

    –> Why are innovators so often punished, or exiled, or called
    ‘crazy’? If a person is ‘ahead of their time’ god help them.
    Innovators often die unappreciated and penniless–musicians,
    painters [Vincent van Gogh being a prime example], inventors.
    Then, once they’ve ‘passed on’, everybody says, ‘Oh, he [she] was such a genius.’ I’d like to ask these people, “Well, why didn’t
    you realize that while he [she] was still alive?!??” Suddenly the
    artist’s work is greatly valued because she or he died. It’s sickening.

    –> Why are so many people, like network executives, so afraid
    of change?

    –> “What’s Going On?”

    Thank you for sharing the Marvin Gaye footage, Thomas. His
    version of the National Anthem was so beautiful, and smooth,
    and loving, and perfect, that I’m all emotionally torn-up now.
    I don’t even know if I’m making sense.

    I have tears in my eyes, too…

    That whole f***ing situation, Marvin having been punished
    because he DARED to put his beautiful, loving heart and soul
    into the National Anthem, and just every horribly unjust situation
    like that, just rips a caring person’s guts right out.

    I say, let’s appreciate the gifted ones while they’re still among
    us–Thomas, this means *you*. Thank you for sharing all of that
    wonderful music with us, even though ‘way back when’ you
    had no way of knowing who ‘we’ were. You just had faith that
    somewhere out there, there were people who ‘got it’, and there
    were, and there still are, and we’re right here for you. Always.

    Yours in utmost sincerity and appreciation,
    Kara

  21. Yikes says:

    On the topic of British Funk -
    Years ago, graphic designer Milton Glaser talked about inspiration vs. plagiarism when artists create new work by building upon the work of previous artists. Using his own “I (heart) N Y logo” as an example of an original idea, he said that plagiarism was where another artist takes elements of the original, but wishes you didn’t know the original existed.
    Example: The bumper sticker “I (heart) my (line drawing of a poodle)” feels like a ripoff, and fails to capture the design essence (letters and simple symbols in quadrants) on the original I (heart) N Y.

    Inspiration, in contrast, actually relies on your knowledge of the original in order to interpret the inspired piece. Example: “I (spade) my (picture of cat)” is funny because it depends on your prior knowledge of both the original “I (heart) NY” AND the rip-off poodle bumper stickers in order to get the joke. With inspiration, you build on history, respect the essence of the original, and make it your own.

    This helps explain the difference in authenticity between (for example) Led Zeppelin’s cover of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” vs. Pat Boone’s cover “Tutti Frutti”. One respects the original and encourages you to dig deeper, but the other hopes you never hear the original lest it shames the poor copycat imitation.

  22. MondoJohnnyQ says:

    I don’t think I make it clear often enough how touching these candid stories are Mr. D. I want you to know that even though I literally cannot stop myself from making corny sardonic wordplay at any and all things presented to me, these writings truly find there way into my heart. Thanks for sharing this stuff. It makes your music sound better to me.

    funny thing that

  23. bassnote says:

    That performance was simply stunning. Thank you Mr. Dolby for psosting it, and telling your story.

    Mark

  24. neeznoodle says:

    You have once again opened your heart to us. I say it often, but thank you.

    As a side note, I want to share with you the influence you have in my household. My young daughters (ages 4 and 6) are currently playing together making up silly songs. I just heard one of them singing, “I’m Thomas Dolby, Dolby, Dolby. I’m Thomas Dolby because I have no hair!”

    Rochelle

  25. neeznoodle says:

    I should add the daughter who is singing about you is the one who met you at The House of Blues and presented you with a drawing of Spyro the Dragon.

  26. mizmusic says:

    Thomas, I need to thank you for expanding my musical horizons,
    and causing me to remember just how much I loved every
    Marvin Gaye song I ever heard on the radio. I never had the
    emotional courage to buy any of his music, though, until today.
    I was kind of emotionally frozen until I rediscovered your music about a year ago. Your emotional courage has inspired me.

    Yours with feeling,
    Kara

  27. diegopaul says:

    u know.. ive been reading ur blogs, being a great fan of your work, but this time, i had to post something, as i had a similar experience last weekend…

    so ive been extraordinarily fortunate to have caught the attention of Nile Rodgers, who’s not only become my label, but a good friend and colleage. i do have 2 say that early on, it was a bit crazy for me, being a great fan of his work as well… definitely overwhelming… but in the past year and a half that we’ve been recording my bands album and working on a few other projects, its become more “normal” for me, at least to some degree

    so this past weekend, on a trip to NYC we briefly spoke and decided we should have a slumber party, so i spent the night at his place and dabbled a bit with Reason and such. his setup was in his bedroom, though he has a full studio on the other side of his house.. his laptop and mbox2 pro was where we chilled… so in showing him some matrix sequencer and dr rex stuff, he wanted to jam out an idea and add some beats and layers around it.. so i very plainly said “hey, just grab a guitar and we’ll drop a quick track into PT and go from there”

    so he did.. just simply grabbed the guitar closest to him and plugged into this mbox2 and started to play 2 a click

    it was at this moment that i realized what was going on in my life.. here i am, sitting in nile’s bedroom, on his laptop.. and thats cool enough right there.. recording HIM.. jamming on his legendary Hitmaker guitar… same guitar he’s recorded everything from.. everything.. well. yea. u know what im talking about.

    he jammed for about 10 minutes or so.. after which, we threw together some beats and textures and such… something pretty simple but with all the nile funkiness u could imagine

    now, as for u, thomas, its rather amazing that with the years u have been creating amazing and inspiring music.. the simple things still get u emotional.. and thats fantastic

    peace and all that jazz,
    D

  28. SomeYoungTopGun says:

    The one that always gets me is Ray Charles singing “America The Beautiful.” Brings a tear to me eye every time. The Stevie Wonder story is astonishing. I once tutored a young blind fellow in audio production (and you haven’t lived until you see a blind person whipping around Pro Tools like he invented it–all with no video monitor connected to the computer!) He has perfect pitch and could jump right in with anything or anyone, musically speaking. In my old studio layout, you could literally walk in any direction and run into a synthesizer. He would come over for his lesson, and I would play my latest compositions for him, and he would walk up to a synth and start playing along like he wrote the thing. In some cases, he had even memorized certain parameters on synths and would tweak the timbre to work better. If I struggled with transcription or arrangment, I’d spend 10 seconds describing my problem, and he would just play the solution, with no fumbling or rehearsal whatsoever. Truly astonishing.

    One other thought–the Sony 3348 was probably the basis for this goof, and it actually did have a frightening aspect that still raises my hair and clenches my butt. It was capable of playing back old 3324 tapes (also a half-inch format, but with 24 tracks instead of 48.) AND you could overdub anywhere from 1 to 24 new tracks onto an old 3324 tape. But here’s the scary part–two tracks fit in the space of one, and the machine would look ahead and “lift” the digital data from the one track, hold it in a buffer, and then lay it back down, side-by-side, with the new material, turning one track into two. Any little glitch, much less a catastrophic power failure, would cause you to lose part of the precious “legacy” track when executing one of these “overdubs.” I don’t think it ever caused much trouble in reality, but in my mind, it’s one of those “shudder-to-think” prospects. And possibly the source for someone’s idea for a cruel hoax at the expense of Herbie!

  29. thoughtbubble says:

    Hi Thomas, I just found this blog entry, as somebody linked to it from the comments on Youtube. I’m thrilled that this clip has found it’s way to you. Your story was touching and insightful, thanks for the glimpse behind the scenes.
    It’s the only file I’ve ever uploaded, and even though I’m not American, even as a jaded video editor, I found it to be one of the most beautiful performances I’ve ever encountered. It’s become the very definition of Bittersweet for me. And I get a thrill out of seeing it land in the right hands.
    All the best.

  30. funkydolby says:

    Amazing clip, amazing story Thomas.

    “Why do so many white British musicians play at being black American musicians?”

    To Gregory’s point, I’ve thought of this, but in a different way. I always looked at it like the British bands, if anything, showed MORE respect for the American blues heritage than American bands ever did. Maybe American bands take that heritage for granted.

    Listen to The Beatle’s Kansas City and that heavy 12-bar influence in all their early stuff. Jimmy Page could’ve been Howlin Wolf the way he played. Early Stones had that groove too.

    To Thomas’ point about ‘twisting’ things, I’d agree. Look at what the Police did. Prior to them, the only name you’d think of when it came to reggae was Marley as they morphed early ska with rock and reggae.

    As for funk, well, that’s in the soul no matter where you’re born or what your color. Sorry, but Chili Peppers for me play AT being funky, but I’m not feelin’ it when I listen. Stevie Ray though played like he was born in the Delta in 1920. Mark King from Level 42 lays grooves down as funky as James Jamerson ever did.

    Look at Thomas. (Hence my username.) That’s for all the critics who had lumped Thomas in with the New Wave movement and bands like Flock of Seagulls, Gary Newman, etc.

    Their reasoning being if it had a synth, then how could it have soul? If they listened closer though, they’d realize the real groove that was there. (I’d have to put the bass line from Hyperactive up against anything, not to mention the mood of the entire Flat Earth.)

    The other thing I notivced about British music from the 60s and 70s was that it seemed to have more of a melancholy feel to it than American music. Yes, Tull, Floyd, etc. I’d always wondered if the English generation that had grown up during WWII under siege from German bombing had more of an apocalyptical sense of the world, and maybe that influenced their music?

    Sorry, I turned this into a rant. I’m out. Returning this thread back to Marvin and Thomas. It’s their thread.

  31. fishfish says:

    From the comments on the youtube page for the synth medley:

    “that ambitious dude with long hair and a 303 really gave me a good laugh!”

  32. Arafel says:

    This is difficult to write, with both the welling tears in my eyes and the question of how could Marvin’s rendition not be appreciated, all overwhelming me. Your blob, perhaps the first I have ever read was filled with such candor and detail that I could not help but watch the associated YouTube file, and I am gratefull for it. Thank you for sharing such a personal memory. and in the process transforming this day from the droll to the inspirational.

  33. Todd Mintz says:

    Hello Thomas,

    I followed a link from Oregonlive.com to your blog. I was 100 feet from Marvin when he sang the anthem and I wrote a story about it which you can read on my personal website: http://www.toddmintz.com. I think you and I are very much in agreement about Marvin’s Anthem…it was an intensely emotional and very spirtual experience.

  34. johnson says:

    That was a spectacular version of the Anthem… Marvin-gone too soon.
    On a side note. Has anyone been able to find video of Carl lewis completley cratering on his version of the Anthem ?? What a video that would be!

  35. mock5 says:

    my heart is in a thousand pieces all around me. what an amazing privilege for those present.

  36. CavMom says:

    A big thanks to Mr Todd Mintz for sending me the link to your post.

    I stumbled onto the YouTube video last week and was blown away.

    It is very interesting reading the stories that surround the piece. The response from those in attendance should have given an indication as to the reception his rendition would have received.

    Too bad the network executives decided for all of us that the song was not worth replaying over and over again.

    It was quite simply the most soul felt version ever performed. I could feel every note!

  37. toneii says:

    I don’t know that the network executives conspired to keep Marvin Gaye off TV until the day he died. That seems a little far fetched

    Marvin had problems that kept him down later in his career

  38. precinct says:

    Feature story on WNYC with Bruce Hornsby, who was there that day, talking about it. http://www.wnyc.org/shows/soundcheck/episodes/2008/02/13/segments/93523