Tavis: Like so many folk who are old enough to remember, I certainly recall exactly where I was when I heard the tragic news of Marvin Gaye’s death 25 years ago today. The impact the news had on people around the world was even more difficult to accept, I suspect, inside the close-knit Motown family.
Two of those who knew him best during his brilliant career were Otis Williams, founding member of the Temps, and Claudette Robinson, one of the original Miracles and the former wife of another Motown legend, Smokey Robinson. Otis and Claudette, nice to have you both here.
Otis Williams: Thank you for having us.
Tavis: I wish the conversation were a bit different, but I’m glad to see you both.
Williams: Oh, thank you, same here.
Claudette Robinson: Thank you.
Tavis: I don’t need to color this any more than this, Otis, but when I say Marvin Gaye, you think what? What comes to mind?
Williams: Yes. I never will forget some of the memories that I have of Marvin. See, Motown at that time during the ’60s was the place to hang out at. So we’d go up to Motown just to be there.
So one day I’m coming up to Motown and I go into the studio (unintelligible) snake pit, and Marvin was sitting at the keyboards and he was playing some very progressive changes. And I said, “Hey, Marvin, what’s happening?” He said, “Hey, Otis,” with that soft voice – “Hey, man, what’s up?”
And I said, (laughter) “Oh, I’m just up here hanging, see what’s going on.” “Yeah, yeah.” He said, “Come on, Otis, sit down a minute – sit down.” So I sat down, and he said, “I want to see how good your ear is.” And he started playing some very slick chords. And when he would play it I’d find the root and I’d hit it, and he’d say, “Okay, let me try this,” and he’d do another one.
He said, “Yeah, yeah, you got a good ear – you got a good ear, man.” (Laughter) So I always think of those – but he was a genius because when I first heard “What’s Going On,” it laid in the can for a number of months. Mr. Gordy did not want to release it because he wanted Marvin to be the ladies’ man, singing those beautiful ballads.
And Marvin said, “Well, if you don’t release it I’m going on strike.” So when I finally heard it, I’m driving – this is when we still lived in Detroit. So I’m in my car, and the disc jockey put it on. I had to pull my car off and put it on the side of the road. I said, “Oh, that is a heck of a piece of work.” I could not believe that Berry could not hear that, because Berry’s got fantastic ears.
But I guess he just had a set view of how he wanted Marvin to be displayed. But when he came out with “What’s Going On,” that’s when I said, “He’s a genius.” He was a genius.
Tavis: Claudette, you were there before Marvin got to Motown. You were there before anybody got to Motown, so y’all were there first. (Laughter) I want to ask you specifically what you recall about meeting him, seeing him when he first got to Motown. Tell me about this guy that you met when he first arrived.
Robinson: Well, when he first arrived, he actually came over with Harvey Fuqua. And what he did was he had such musical talent, because not only could he sing, but he also could play instruments, and on several of our sessions, the Miracles, he actually played drums. He played drums on “Shop Around,” actually.
So he was so innovative – a man ahead of his time. There’s just no other way to think of him, because he probably could have done any of those songs later, earlier, because he was, as Otis was saying, a musical genius.
So he will be greatly missed, of course, and I’m so sorry that we couldn’t have seen him like now, to be able to celebrate the 50th just as he was there for the 25th.
Tavis: To Claudette’s point about him not being around to be turning 70 tomorrow, to not see the 50th anniversary of Motown, do you have any sense of where you think his music might have gone?
Williams: With a genius like Marvin, the sky’s the limit. He would come up with some of the most innovative kind of feelings, I would believe, if he was still alive, because he was just that kind of spirit, that kind of creative person, that you could not put no tag on him, you could not put him in a peg hole. He didn’t fit anything but being Marvin, and let him express the way he felt and heard music in his head.
Tavis: Let me ask a two-part closing question of both of you – we’ll start with you, Claudette. Do you recall where you were when you heard the news, as I said earlier? Twenty-five years ago, where were you when you heard the news? Take me back to that moment and what do you think, finally, Marvin’s legacy is?
Robinson: When I heard the news that Marvin was dead, I was actually at home and heard it on the television. Now, someone had called me prior to that saying that this had happened, that Marvin had been shot, and of course I didn’t believe it because they’re always saying that someone’s been shot, accident or whatever.
But when I really knew that it was true, there was just a real down feeling in my heart, just knowing, number one, the person that he was, and that this had come to such a tragic end between his father and himself, and I guess that was the thing of thinking – the father, and what really happened to come to that point.
And I believe that even though that has happened, as people began to really know the real Marvin Gaye, they will find what we always knew – that number one, not only just his musical genius, but the man that he truly was. And I think some of that will be erased in terms of any negative feelings that they may have concerning Marvin.
Tavis: Otis, last word – where were you and ultimately, what do you think his legacy is, musically?
Williams: Well, the Four Tops and us, we were on a tour and we had just landed in Sydney, Australia, and I called back home and my wife said, “Well, have you heard the news about Marvin?” I said, “No, we’ve been flying.” And so she said, “Well, he was killed.” And when the Tops and the Temps found that out, it put another kind of chill on the tour that we were doing in Australia.
And here was a legacy, like I was saying, such a genius that he will not be able to show the extension of the real genius that he could have been even today. So he is one of those kinds of artists that is timeless, that’s limitless, that could go on and on if he was still around, so his legacy will continue on for us to really depict how we want to think of Marvin, which will always be, I think, fond and great memories.
Tavis: Couldn’t have said it better myself; that’s why Otis is on the show. (Laughter) Speaking of Otis, the latest release from the Temps is called “Back to Front.” “Back to Front” is the latest release from the Temps – Otis and the group still doing it, so good to have you on, Otis.
Williams: Thank you.
Tavis: And there are some reissues from Motown, of course – you see them on the screen there. There’s that cover for “What’s Going On,” and not only a classic album, but that cover is just cold.
Williams: Yes, it is.
Tavis: You can’t fade that photo of Marvin that they put on the cover of that record. And of course, “I Want You.” Again, what can you say? Otis said it best – his legacy will live forever through his lyrics and through the humanity in the music. Otis, nice to have you here. Claudette, nice to have you along as well.
Williams: Thank you, thank you.
Robinson: It’s my pleasure, thank you. Thank you for having me.
Tavis: Glad to have you both – glad to have you both here.
Williams: Thank you.
Tavis: Up next, the former wife of Marvin Gaye, Janis Gaye, but first, just a small sample of Marvin Gaye’s genius as we continue to look at his life and legacy 25 years after his death. Stay with us.
[Begin retrospective montage of Marvin Gaye film clips.]
[End retrospective montage of Marvin Gaye film clips.]
Tavis: There is – as you see those performances, there’s a new box set, a new disk that’s out now, I should say, featuring some of Marvin’s greatest stuff, a lot of it live. It’s called “Marvin Gaye, the Real Thing – In Performance, 1964-1981.” Sixteen full-length performances, and if you are a Marvin fan, as I am, you might want to add this to your collection. A lot of good stuff – some of the stuff you just saw, of course, comes off of what you see on screen now in this new DVD.