By the Dawn's Early Light
MARVIN GIVES VOICE TO THE ANTHEM (AND THE TIGERS WIN)
Fifty years ago – to be precise, on Sunday, October 6, 1968 – Marvin Gaye sang “The Star Spangled Banner.”
That’s not his spellbinding turn at the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles, which has helped to burnish his legacy and deepen the sense of loss felt since his death. Rather, it’s his performance at the fourth game of the ’68 World Series, which was held at the motor city’s Tiger Stadium and pitched the Detroit Tigers against the St. Louis Cardinals. (The Tigers went on to win the series.)
Yet a comparison of the two occasions is fascinating. In 1968, a clean-shaven Marvin, wearing a standard-issue Motown suit and tie, stands ramrod-straight in front of the mike, hands clasped together. To his left is wife Anna, also standing, glamorously adorned in what looks like a fur-trimmed coat and hat. Seen in the crowd as Marvin sings is Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey, whom the Supremes had endorsed three months earlier. The afternoon is grey and rain-filled.
Marvin delivers the national anthem faithfully, with little colour or animation. At times, it’s even hard to identify the voice. Immediately behind him, the musicians play anonymously as, of course, they should. “I was very disappointed that Gaye didn’t do his own thing,” said singer José Feliciano a couple of weeks later. “Gaye chose to follow the old, safe path. He had a wonderful opportunity to say something for his people.”
Fifteen years later, we see a bearded Marvin, once again sporting a suit and tie, but by his choice, not Hitsville diktat (and, besides, he had left Motown by then). He is wearing sunglasses. Above an insistent drum rhythm, the star is confident, commanding, mesmerising. He almost seems to be living the lyric, as if on a battlefield, witnessing the carnage. It’s hard to accept that this Marvin, this Prince of Motown, ever suffered from stage fright, and when his voice climbs the register, the crowd cheers. The afternoon, and the Inglewood Forum, is ablaze with light and admiration.
He took the opportunity to say something for his people.
Jose Feliciano? Well, “the blind Puerto Rican soul-folk singer” (as the Detroit Free Press described him at the time) has a place in this tale: the day after Marvin’s performance, on October 7, 1968, he also sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at Tiger Stadium, to open Game 5. And he sparked a controversy. Feliciano’s interpretation seems personal, almost improvised and rather idiosyncratic; he accompanied himself on guitar, straying slightly from the traditional melody. In 1968, this was not your parents’ national anthem.
RESPECT OR DISRESPECT?
Letters poured into the newspapers. “Is nothing sacred anymore? One would think,” ran a typical complaint, “that after the negative reaction occasioned by the somewhat offbeat rendition at the start of the Democratic National Convention, the powers-that-be would have learned a valuable lesson.” (That referred to the rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in August in Chicago by Aretha Franklin.) Wrote another observer of Feliciano’s performance: “I have never heard anything so disgraceful or disrespectful.”
Others felt differently, including one man who was at both Game 4 and Game 5 – on the field. “I know one thing,” said Bill Freehan of the Detroit Tigers. “He made Marvin Gaye, who sang the anthem Sunday, sound like a square.”
Looking back, there’s something else. The Tigers’ victory in the World Series was seen as a welcome, if momentary, relief from racial tension in the city. A similar effect occurred the previous month, when the team qualified. “For one brief, shining moment after Detroit won the American League pennant,” declared a report in the Free Press, “blacks and whites mingled in color-blind joy, thousands strong, on the streets of downtown Detroit.”
There was, an academic told the newspaper, “a happy release” of a sense of anger among the city’s black population. “Temporarily, you had a truce. It’s a good feeling while it lasts; it’s just like church. The thing is, they don’t take it home. But it feels awfully good while people are doing it; and it proves human beings have the capacity for love.” (As borne witness by many a Motown record.)
Just last month, the Detroit Free Press carried another article relating to that time, when journalist Bill McGraw remembered when he and a friend worked at a small landscaping firm in the city. During the summer of ’68, the two teenagers helped to install underground lawn sprinklers at Berry Gordy’s Boston Boulevard mansion. Working with them were young, off-duty Detroit firefighters and a group of “stoners” in their twenties and thirties, all supervised by Gordy’s father, Pops. McGraw recalled:
“Mr. Gordy didn’t bother Tom or me, but we listened daily as the adults complained about his bossiness. They found themselves in the unusual position – for white people in that era – of working for a wealthy black man and taking orders from his 80-year-old father. They used every racial slur in the book when Gordy Sr. wasn’t around.
“It got worse. Tom and I walked into the estate’s 4,000-square-foot pool house one day and came upon a couple of firefighters urinating into the shimmering water. We were appalled. We were Motown fans, though we later behaved badly, in a teenage way, taking a couple of Motown 45s as souvenirs from the pool house phonograph.
“We couldn’t wait to show our friends, but the records sat on the dashboard of Tom’s car as we drove across town, and by the time we arrived, they had started to melt in the sun.”
UNITY AND DIVISION
As for the Tigers’ American League victory, McGraw recalled the tumultuous celebrations, and his friends’ prediction for how the team would perform in the World Series (“Tigers in four!”). “I heard at least one person shout out to the Tigers’ homegrown star: ‘Willie Horton, unite our city.’”
When researching the 1967 riots and rebellion for Motown: The Sound of Young America, I learned of Horton’s efforts to calm the troubled neighbourhood around 12th Street, the epicentre of the catastrophe. When Detroit congressman John Conyers went into his district and spoke to protesters from the roof of his car, he was pelted with stones. Horton, wearing his baseball uniform, had a similar experience.
The authorities also called on the principal of Motown Records to intervene. To Gordon Prince, the company’s promotion manager at the time, Berry Gordy revealed that he was asked to take to nearby streets – Motown’s headquarters on West Grand Boulevard were close to 12th – to talk to residents and try to calm the atmosphere. “They had asked Berry to get out in the middle of it all, on top of a car with a megaphone,” Prince told me. “He just said, “No!’”
Gordy would have appreciated the colour-blind ebullience of Detroit when the Tigers trumped the Cardinals on October 10, to take the series. He may even have been at the stadium when his brother-in-law sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” four days earlier. He was certainly in the audience (with Diana Ross) at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas on September 28, 1979, when Marvin again delivered the national anthem.
That time, it was the preface to a match between boxers Larry Holmes and Earnie Shavers. Once more, Marvin was dressed in suit and tie, but with an unruly collar and a flamboyant handkerchief in his breast pocket. His vocalising seemed slow, but bolder than at Tiger Stadium; his accompaniment was a piano, not a band. And when the performance was over, a TV sports commentator’s voice can be heard: “That man can sing.”
“The Star-Spangled Banner” has been performed by other Motown artists over the years, including the Temptations (opening an NBA All-Star Game with an acapella version in 1984) and Stevie Wonder. He has sung the anthem and, at other times, just played its melody on a harmonica; once, he did so with a string quintet in back.
Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the healing qualities of “The Star-Spangled Banner” have become compromised, with a number of American athletes “taking a knee” in protest against racism. Wonder has protested, too. “Tonight, I’m taking a knee for America,” he said during his set at the Global Citizens Festival in New York last year. “But not just one knee, I’m taking both knees in prayer for our planet, our future, our leaders of the world, and our globe. Amen.”
Is the world as vexed in 2018 as it was when Marvin stepped into Tiger Stadium to sing, fifty years ago? You decide.
Music notes: as linked above, video footage of Marvin singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 1968, 1979 and 1983 is available on YouTube. You might even want to view a performance from 1974 – no suit that year – and also the combination of Nona Gaye singing the anthem (or parts of it) with video of her father’s performance playing alongside her. The audio of Marvin’s ’83 anthem first surfaced on vinyl in A Musical Testament 1964-1984, followed on CD as part of The Marvin Gaye Collection and The Master 1961-1984. Today, the track is easily found on digital streaming services.