“Mother, mother there are too many of you crying, brother, brother there are far too many of you dying. We got to find a way to bring some loving here today, war is not the answer—Whats’ Going On?”
Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield were far ahead of their times when it came to message music as it related to the plight of America’s down-trodden. The word genius does not do either justice.
Marvin’s masterpiece album “What’s Going On” did more to expose racism and social injustice in America than any march, demonstration or documentary. Curtis Mayfield’s music messages were equally as important.
Oscar Brown Jr., Gil Scott Heron, Curtis and Marvin were the “Original Rappers.”
Their music still speaks volumes today. The social ills of America are front and center and the politicians could care less!
I met Marvin in the early 50s at Mount Airy Baptist Church in NW Washington, D. C. My Great-Grand-Father the Rev. Alfred Johnson Tyler laid the first brick to help build the historical landmark church in 1893. My Great-Uncle the Rev. Earl Tyler and Marvin’s father were friends.
Marvin was singing in his father’s choir and they were the guest choir at the church on that Sunday. When he first saw me his eyes got as big as flying saucers. I knew Marvin’s secret. He was a street corner messenger of Do-Wop. I would often see him singing under the street lights in my NE housing project. This type of street corner harmony was not allowed in the Gaye household.
Marvin’s Do-Wop group was very popular and performed at my alma mater Spingarn High School’s annual Spring Festival talent show. Parkside resident Robert Neal and Lincoln Heights resident Billy Bess were a part of the group.
Marvin and I had a lot in common, he had a church background. He caddied on the weekends at Indian Springs Golf Course in a Maryland suburb and I caddied on the weekends at Burning Tree Golf Course in Potomac, Maryland. He had always wanted to be an athlete and I always wanted to sing. It was wishful thinking by us both.
Our encounter was like “What’s happening man?” He gave the signal by putting his finger over his lips meaning ‘Please don’t say anything about me doing Do-Wop on the street corner.’ I read him loud and clear.
After church we enjoyed Sunday dinner together in the downstairs dining area. We talked sports the entire time.
During our high school days he always wanted to talk ball, but I never ever saw him play pick-up ball on any city playground!
Marvin attended Cardozo High School at that time and I remember asking him why he had not tried out for the team. His response, “My parents won’t sign the permission letter.”
I told him my mother would not sign the same letter either but I forged her signature. He wanted to be an athlete in the worst way.
He was found often working out with the Detroit Lions (NFL), Detroit Pistons (NBA), Detroit Tigers (MLB) and the Kronk boxing gym in his adopted hometown. He would work out on the heavy bag and speed bag and sometimes he would spar with boxing greats Thomas Hearns and Hilmer Kenty. These were some of his favorite hangouts. He was living out his athletic fantasy.
Marvin grew up in northwest section of Washington, DC and I grew up in the northeast section and we were like passing ships in the night after that church encounter.
Several years later my family moved to 58th and Blaine Streets NE, another housing project on East Capitol Street. My next encounter with Marvin would be on those same NE streets.
I was headed out to school one morning and waiting at the bus stop was Marvin, once again the shout-out was “What’s happening man?” I remember saying ‘What are you doing out here man, you are a long ways from home?’ He said ‘I am just staying with some friends for a minute.’
The friend was Peasie Adams. Peasie lived down the street from me and she baby sit me when I was just a puppy in Parkside.
After his tragic death she was the brains behind “Marvin Gaye Day” and building a memorial park in his name.
Marvin said he was on the way to the golf course to see if he could pick up a few dollars. I found that rather strange since this was a school day. Marvin had moved in with Peasie because of some conflict with his father which he never elaborated on. As I was getting off the bus at 24th and Benning Road, his last words to me were “I am thinking about joining the Army and if not I will see you around.”
In the meantime, Marvin had disappeared and I would later discover he had joined the United States Air Force.
I remember Marvin as a quiet and thoughtful brother who loved to laugh, but always seem to have a lot on his mind.
In 1957, I was coming into my own as an all-around athlete at Spingarn High School and I started to smell myself (I began to think I was “all that” and a bag of chips). I played football, basketball and baseball. I drove my coaches and teammates crazy because I had troubled understanding it was about the team and not Harold Bell.
I was not a great athlete as some would claim but I wanted the ball when the game was to be won or lost! I took the risk of making or missing the shot that was my competitor side.
My baseball coach Dr. Leo Hill kicked me off the team my junior year, Coach Dave Brown (savior) locked me in the bus at half-time of a football game during my junior year and basketball coach Dr. William Roundtree said “No Mas” in the middle of the season during my senior year. I was in almost as much conflict as Marvin!
I would steal home with the ball game on the line, take the last shot to win or lose the basketball game and demanded the ball be thrown to me regardless of the double team.
Marvin Gaye had those same characteristics as an artist he took risk that others dared not take in the music industry (Curtis Mayfield was the exception). Motown founder Berry Gordy refused to release “What’s Going On” because he thought it was too radical!
In 1958, I was going to hell in a hurry just as my Brown Middle School Principal William B. Stinson had predicted. One night I was hanging out on the corner of 7th and T Streets at the landmark Howard Theatre when Marvin appeared out of nowhere. I joked that someone had told me he was in jail. His response, “Almost, the U. S. Air Force but I am getting paroled in a few months.”
He wanted to hear about what was happening in my life. I tried to put on a happy face that I was doing well too proud to say “Marvin my life is in shambles.”
After that sighting Marvin and I lost contact with each other for another decade. The next thing I knew his career had taken off (Moonglows) and again we became like ships passing in the night. We would run into each other occasionally while he was in town to perform and see his family. He was much like me a mommy’s boy. He would later tell me his mother was the only thing that really brought him back to DC.
Marvin kept a low profile when he was in town but he never let success change him. He stayed close to family.
He would always say to me, “Harold we have got to get together the next time I am in town.” We would exchange numbers but we never called each other. I would always hear after the fact he was in town, but I never took it personal that he didn’t call.
It always looked to me he went out of his way to say “I have not forgotten.” There were also the “he said, she said” rumors about him and his father having major problems.
In 1971, I had done my college tour and was playing semi-pro football and had received a Presidential Appointment. I used my White House contacts to open a Half-Way House for juvenile delinquents on Bolling Air Force Base, the first of its kind in the nation. Around that time Marvin had released “What’s Going On.”
I was so proud of the brother I called the Motown office in Detroit and left a message congratulating him. The song hit close to home it reminded me of our early struggles and little had changed. It was still an uphill battle.
In 1972, Marvin came home to perform at the Kennedy Center. Petey Green, the legendary radio and television personality and I managed to work our way backstage to say hello. The first thing he said when saw me was “Now you are a politician, I am looking for you in the NFL and you show up at the White House. I still love you anyway.” We laughed and hugged and he moved on to the next group of well wishers.
I remember going to Detroit in August 1980 to cover and watch Thomas Hearns knockout Pipino Cuevas to win his first title. My first call was to an old friend Wayne Davis. Wayne worked as an undercover agent for the FBI and hailed from Newark, New Jersey. We met on the streets of DC when I was working as a “Gang Buster” for the Roving Leader Program for the DC Recreation Department.
We became fast friends and stayed in touch even after his job moved him from one city to another. His brotherly advice and wisdom helped me out of some tight spots on the mean streets of DC. If one public official had heeded my advice “The Bitch would have never set him up.”
Wayne’s final destination was Detroit, Michigan, where he became the first black to be named Director of the FBI Field Office. When I got to the hotel he picked me up and took me on a tour of the FBI Office. This was a brother who kept it real and never forgot who he was and where he came from.
I called Marvin and invited him to join us on the tour but when I told him we were going to tour the FBI Building and who Wayne was he begged off and said laughingly “They might keep me. I will see you guys tonight.”
It would be in Las Vegas in September 1979 Marvin would surprise me at a weigh-in for Sugar Ray Leonard. The fighter Ray was facing was undefeated Andy Price. He was owned and managed by Marvin.
Marvin was riding high and talking shit that his fighter was going to knock Ray out. He even said, “Harold after Andy knocks out Sugar Ray you can come and work for me.” We laughed he was in such good spirits. He loved being in this element. After the ceremonial weigh-in we made plans to meet for breakfast after the fight and hang out for a minute together.
With all of his success Marvin was still a loner there was no entourage or groupies following him around. The night of the fight Marvin was scheduled to sing the National Anthem. That would be his highlight for evening. Sugar Ray knocked Price out in the first round. Marvin was stunned and so was the crowd in attendance. I figured Ray would beat Price but I never expected a first round knockout.
Marvin’s next move surprised me further. He found me at the press conference and said “Don’t forget we are having breakfast in the morning.” I could see he was hurting and embarrassed by his fighter’s performance but he wanted me to know breakfast was still on. Marvin was still for real and had a heart of gold.
We had breakfast the next morning in one of Caesar’s Palace’s restaurants at 10:00 am. It would be close to lunch time when we finished talking about DC and how far we both had come from the East Capitol street projects.
We laughed about him hearing me on radio one Saturday evening as he was headed out of town and how proud it made him feel. He again brought up seeing me on television at the White House with President Nixon. He said “I could not believe my eyes.”
It was then I told him I was seriously thinking about running for the DC City Council seat in Ward 7 where we once lived. Marvin’s response was “If you feel it, do it and if I can help just call me. We need our own people in office.” He said, ‘Harold I have traveled the world but there is nothing like home and family.’
I reminded Marvin in Vegas about the Detroit trip and my conversation with him, he said “Harold I don’t even remember talking to you and I thought I attended the fight. I was probably in my other world.”
There were two things we never discussed, his drug problem or his strange relationship with his father. The topics were never broached, I didn’t do drugs and I had no relationship with my father. Case closed.
After breakfast he took me to a Diana Ross concert with him later that evening. We met in the hotel lobby for the first show and Marvin had an usher take me to a seat right in front of the stage. He disappeared after giving me his numbers where I could reach him if I needed him.
I thought he had left the theatre until midway through her show Diana said “I want to introduce my baby who has joined us this evening.” I was looking for her to introduce one of her children, when she said ‘The one of a kind Marvin Gaye.’ Marvin was standing in the back of the theatre in a corner by himself when the spotlight found him. He received a standing ovation.
Once I got back to DC I called to thank him for his hospitality he had shown me in Las Vegas. He said ‘It was about time my brother, I also enjoyed the quiet time we spend talking about our hometown. By the way I am getting out of boxing, this shit is too hard’ we both laughed. That was the last time I spoke with him.
I will never forget where I was when I heard that Marvin’s father had shot and killed him in Los Angeles. I was driving on Southern Avenue in southeast Washington, DC listening to WHUR Radio. There was a news flash that said “Marvin Gaye shot and killed in Los Angeles.”
I was on the way to Southeast Community Hospital. My brother Earl a 16 year veteran of the DC Police Metropolitan Department had been involved in a head on collision on the way to work a week earlier and the prognosis was he was not expected to live.
Now I am getting more bad news that Marvin was dead. I pulled off to the side of the road and cried for several minutes until an ambulance siren brought me back to reality. Marvin’s father had made himself, the judge, the jury and the executioner.
“Brother, brother, brother, everybody thinks we are wrong, but who are they to judge us simply because we wear our hair long. What’s going on?”