I’d always heard about this moment, when Marvin Gaye sang the National Anthem at the 1983 NBA All Star Game. Except, I must have heard it wrong, because I always thought he’d sung it at the Superbowl. What I did hear correctly is that it was phenomenal. But I’d never seen it. Or, rather, I’d never heard it until now.
I also didn’t know that it turned out to be the last time we saw Marvin on television. At least that’s what Stevie Wonder told Thomas Dolby in 1985. They were supposed to “perform” a pre-recorded version of “The Star Spangled Banner” at the Grammys that year. Dolby suggested a version similar to Marvin’s, and Stevie told him the story.
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.
And he linked to Marvin’s version.
That was February 1983. According to Wikipedia, Marvin did make it back on television one more time after that, when the Motown 25 special aired in May of the same year. That I do remember seeing.
What’s going on, indeed. By the same time the next year, Marvin was gone.
So maybe Stevie got one detail of the story wrong, or maybe Motown 25 was the one television appearance no executive could stop Marvin from making without people asking why and eventually pointing a finger at them. And I don’t have any trouble believing they’d ban him from television for what he did to that song.
The anthem has always notoriously unsingable. Even Whitney Houston’s famous rendition was pre-recorded and lip-synched later.The tune is from a drinking song (and you’d have to be drunk to sing it right, or at least think you were singing it right) and the lyrics are about some obscure battle from 1812 and rather archaic. (What are “ramparts“, anyway?) It’s a mercy that we only the first of its five verses.
But Marvin. He made it beautiful. Even soulful, bending it into something rhythmic, melodic, and singable in a way it hadn’t been before. You could find yourself humming Marvin’s anthem. And he even made loving. Imagine fashioning a love song from a drinking song about battle. Marvin gave America a hint at the kind of anthem it could still someday deserve, sung in a way America could still someday deserve to have its anthem sung.
I can definitely believe some powerful people would want to keep him off of television for that. After all, people don’t usually appreciate being given something to live up to.