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Iím talking about romantic love. Iím talking about sex. Marvin didnít see sex as just sex. It

was some mystic-type thing to him. . . .  In performing the cherished anthem in the way he

did . . . Marvin was stripping the song . . . . performing it as though it were a seduction song.



Marvin Gaye CDs

What's Going On / Every Great Motown Hit of Marvin Gaye / Let's Get It On / I Want You / Gold

Trouble Man / The Best of Marvin Gaye  / Here, My Dear / The Master: 1961-1984 (Motown, 1995)


Real Thing / What's Going On / Behind the Legend  /  Live in Montreux  /  Live in Belgium

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Marvin Gaye and "The Star Spangled Banner"

By Mtume ya Salaam

Live Performance at the NBA All-Star Game (1983)
video of the performance


This three-way conversation between me, Kalamu, and my sister Kiini (who is also a writer) started when Kiini sent the two of us this link. Itís Thomas Dolby (of ďShe Blinded Me With ScienceĒ fame) talking about how he was reduced to tears when he finally got to witness Marvin Gayeís performance of ďThe Star-Spangled Banner To fully understand what weíre talking about and what weíre reacting to, itís probably best to click the link and read Dolbyís original comments. And, while youíre at it, check out this video of the performance.

Briefly though, back in the mid-Eighties, Dolby got the opportunity to perform ďThe Star-Spangled BannerĒ with Stevie Wonder. As the two artists tried to come up with a new way to perform the National Anthem, Stevie played and sang Marvinís version for Dolby. Dolby was very impressed by both Marvinís arrangement and Stevieís replaying of it, but he was even more effected by Stevieís comment about the aftermath of Marvinís performance: that Marvin never appeared on network television again.

Kiini forwarded Kalamu and me the link, along with these comments:

I donít even really know what to say about it. To me it was a very personal rendition of the song. Itís like he just made it this really intimate internal narrative and the audience was something of a formality (as it seemed to me).

The bombs bursting in air turned into a really hot night way back when. It just felt like a wistful, melancholy, profound reminiscing.

If anyone took issue with it, I would imagine it was b/c it wasnít bombs bursting in air as in dominance and the grand greatness of nationhood. It didnít uphold the blood-thirsty, God-on-our-side patriotism that the song is supposed to unleash.

What do yíall hear in it?

Kalamu responded:

Thanks. I knew about it and dimly recall (probably) hearing it, but checking it out on this clip made it clear to me Ė the mainstream will never ever let us transform America as is into the America that proclaims itself to be . . . Langston Hughes peeped this a long time ago with a poem about ďlet America be America again, an America that never was . . .Ē

Marvin was obviously a master at channeling rich emotions thru the eye of the popular American-idiom needle . . .  There is no version of the national anthem that I know of that even comes close to this one . . .

Given that Marvin Gaye is my all-time favorite singer and given that Iím overly fond of running my mouth, I of course had lots to say on the subject. To whit:

Exactly, Kiini. Your description is excellent. It was almost like Marvin used the lyrics and the public context of the song as raw material for something else he wanted to express, something about sensuality and love. . . . Marvin had an almost mystic belief in the power of love. And of course I donít mean love in the sense that people like Gandhi or Jesus or King meant it in (although Iím sure Marvin wouldíve been for that as well). Iím talking about romantic love. Iím talking about sex. Marvin didnít see sex as just sex. It was some mystic-type thing to him. . . .  In performing the cherished anthem in the way he did Ė the anthem for which weíre supposed to remove our hats, stand, and place our right hand over our heartsóMarvin was stripping the song of its patriotism, its bloodlust, its proto-nationalist fervor. He was performing it as though it were a seduction song.

The other thing is, Marvin is just a cool, bad-ass motherfucker. Even as fucked up as he was by then, he was still a cool, cool cat. And he could sing his ass off. He was just so mellow about it all, you know? So I think people were reacting to that too. He had the sharp suit on and the aviator sunglasses and all. Just clean, you know?

When you think of the best-known performances of the anthem (the ones that come to me right away are Jimi at Woodstock and Whitney Houston at the Superbowl), theyíre fiery. They have that boldness and that obvious, big passion. (Of course, Jimiís passion was directed right back against the war-like themes of the anthem. He was raging against the machine, so to speak, but thatís another story.) The point I wanted to make was Marvin nailed his performance by mellowing it out. His power was in his softness. He wasnít loud. He didnít hold any long notes. He didnít reach up for any high notes. Didnít worry the melody or anything. He was Ė as he always wasó cool.

So anyway, I didnít mean to go on this long. What I basically wanted to say is, I hear a sensual tribute to the power of romantic love. Laugh if you want, but we all do it: we all make love. If all we were doing was trying to prolong the existence of the species, well, you kno . . .. There it is.

And then after I saw Kalamuís response, I got started on the political issues Dolby brought up:

I donít know about the whole, "Theyíre not ready for a black man being sensuous with the National Anthem" thing. You have to remember, during this time, Marvin was very messed up emotionally and with drugs. He was barely recording at all. I donít know that Marvin wouldíve been in the public eye much regardless of what he sang at the NBA game.

Another thing . . . more context. The NBA wasnít what it eventually became with Jordan and Bird and Magic. I donít even know if NBA All-Star games were being broadcast live at that point. I remember being in my early teens and closing my eyes during the evening news because theyíd show the final score of the Finals games but the tape-delayed game didnít actually come on until after the news. Meaning, this probably wasnít a major television event. And one other piece of context. When Iíve read accounts of this performance, the responses have been nothing but congratulatory. Remember, Marvin was performing with the Naval Color Guard band (or something like that). Every quote Iíve ever read from people who were there or who saw it live talked about how great it was. This is the first time Iíve seen any reference to someone having a problem with it.

Last thing. There were only three network channels. So, the questions to ask are: How often did major R&B recording stars get on TV then? How often did Marvin get on TV PRIOR to that performance? How often did ANY one major recording star get on TV?

Itís a great performance that Iíve enjoyed over the years, but I think Stevie Wonder (if he was quoted accurately) and T. Dolby might be blowing things out of proportion with the whole Ďblacklistedí thing. If Marvin and other black performers werenít on TV, it was because of the institutional racism of the entertainment industry. Hell, even MTV wouldnít play black videos until "Billie Jean." What Iím saying is, Marvin not being on TV can be explained quite easily without playing the "that performance was too much for them to handle" card. You have to look at the big picture.

And the last word goes to Kalamu:

Yes, Sherlock, you are absolutely right about the context. My point remains about transforming America. Indeed, I think America is transforming us more than we are transforming it.

As far as I know, the only way to get Marvinís performance of ďThe Star-Spangled BannerĒ is on a compilation called The Master: 1961-1984 (Motown, 1995). Itís a 4-CD set, but you can get used copies for under 25 bucks. Happy Fourth of July, everybody.

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Interview with Marvin Gaye Jr. and Marvin Gaye Sr. 1977

Marvin Gaye Store

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