THE recently uncovered live version of Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On" recorded at the Kennedy Center on May 1, 1972, is part of a two-CD deluxe edition released on the 30th anniversary of that seminal album.
The concert tapes, which sat in Motown's vault for almost three decades, prove a fascinating document of the prodigal son triumphantly, albeit reluctantly, coming home exactly one year after the release of "What's Going On," hailed then and now as a masterwork.
Gaye always had mixed feelings about Washington. He was both proud of and ambivalent about his roots, particularly the perpetually troubled relationship with his minister father. Once Gaye left for Detroit in 1960, he seldom returned. Even when he was to be honored with Marvin Gaye Day on May 1, 1972, the celebration's promoter, Dewey Hughes, called on Marvin's mother to use her influence in making sure he'd show up.
There was even more pressure because the celebration would be capped with a concert at the recently opened Kennedy Center, in what would be Gaye's first public performance since his beloved duet partner, Tammi Terrell, collapsed in his arms in 1967. Gaye told biographer David Ritz: "I grieved for years, and the fact that deep down inside I hated performing with somewhat of a passion made it even easier for me to stop. And after taking time off, I developed a real fear of performing, and it was even more difficult to come back."
Marvin Gaye Day started with a motorcade that took him to his old high school, Cardozo, where Gaye performed "What's Going On" with the school band. Later, Gaye attended a ceremony at the District Building, where he did "What's Going On" with the Howard University band.
That was followed by a congressional reception at the Rayburn Office Building (no "What's Going On" this time) and a late departure to the Kennedy Center.
Gaye's backing came from 10 Motown studio musicians -- including most of the Funk Brothers and the Andantes, Motown's studio harmony trio -- and a 20-piece string and brass section made up of local musicians under the leadership of Maurice King. David Van DePitte adapted his original arrangements for the album, though there wasn't much time for rehearsal. "It's not nearly as polished as later live shows would be because of those circumstances," says Ben Edmonds, author of the upcoming "What's Going On: Marvin Gaye and the Last Days of Motown."
"And that's what makes it so different," says Universal's Harry Weinger, who oversaw the deluxe edition, pointing out that Gaye wouldn't actually embark on a concert tour until 1974. "To hear and realize Marvin hadn't been on stage in four years -- you don't know what's going to come out of his mouth. He's sitting there playing the piano and he starts singing his old hits, but in the groove of 'Distant Lover' and 'Trouble Man.' We were just floored."
Gaye was obviously nervous: After the '60s medley, he performs the entire second side of "What's Going On" first. And, sadly, there is no live recording of "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)." "The tape engineer allowed the tape to run out," Weinger says.
Which may be okay, because Jack Ashford ended up playing Bill Moore's famous sax solo -- on kazoo!
"Bill Moore wasn't here, and the part he played was so important to the session that I just remembered it," says former Funk Brother Ashford. "I reached in my bag and started blowing my kazoo. It shocked everybody because it wasn't planned or rehearsed that way. Marvin looked up and he was in shock . . . but I could tell it was a pleasant shock from the expression on his face."
Luckily, there was tape running when Gaye made his encore speech to the crowd.
"I want to thank you for being here at my attempt to return to a live performance," Gaye says sweetly. "We hoped to perform the album exactly as you can hear it in your home . . . but I'm a perfectionist and I wasn't completely happy with the way things sounded, so if there's anything that you'd like to hear again, we'll try to do it."
At which point Gaye reprised "Inner City Blues" and "What's Going On."
The next day, Washington Post critic Tom Zito wrote that "an almost exclusively black audience rose in a tumultuous and spontaneous display of appreciation for a man responsible for radically changing the style of soul music, adding to it equal amounts of instrumental sophistication and social consciousness."