Red, hot, and blue: Marvin Gaye's soulful anthem at the '83 all-star game marked the rise of a new NBA but proved to be his last hurrah. (Sports).
Los Angeles Magazine, Feb, 2003, by David Davis

 

WHEN MARVIN GAYE walked onto the Forum floor to sing the national anthem at the 1983 NBA all star game, he was in sorry shape. Mirrored aviator sunglasses hid eyes that were red from daily drug use. A lifelong sufferer of stage fright, the former Motown star had tried in vain to get out of the gig. That February afternoon he had arrived so late that Lakers officials were about to replace him with an usher.

But for three minutes, Gaye pulled himself together. As a grooving backbeat echoed around him, he powered and simmered his way through the patriotic warhorse, infusing it with equal parts soul, funk, and gospel. By the time he was through, the capacity crowd of 17,505 was clapping in rhythm and 24 basketball superstars were swaying in place along the foul lines. Gaye's performance was so galvanizing that those who saw it--in person or on television--call it one of the most memorable moments they've experienced.

Twenty years later the rendition has taken on new meaning: It represents a bridge between a straitlaced league struggling to find its identity and a global entertainment powerhouse that embraces hip-hop culture. In a sense, Gaye's anthem foreshadowed the evolution of pro basketball, from Jerry West's dribbling silhouette within the NBA logo to Michael Jordan's soaring Nike "Airman."

The anthem also proved to be the last hurrah for a singer whose genius was surpassed only by his personal torment. A year after he sang at the Forum, Gaye would be dead, shot by his own father.

IN THE LATE 1970S, THE NATIONAL Basketball Association was in the doldrums. There was talk that several teams might fold. CBS aired the championship series on tape delay "Back then the NBA had a negative connotation surrounding it," says broadcaster Dick Stockton. "The perception was that drugs were a problem and that the league was `too black.'"

Nonetheless, Jerry Buss wanted in. A former chemist who had made a fortune investing in real estate, he jumped at the chance to buy the Lakers (along with the Forum and hockeys Kings) in 1979 when Jack Kent Cooke decided to dump his West Coast properties for $67.5 million after a nasty divorce.

Buss, who had earned his doctorate at USC, was determined to inject some college-style hoopla into the pros. He hired the NBA's first cheerleading squad (the Laker Girls) and a pep band, and spent heavily to field an entertaining--and winning--team, led by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Earvin "Magic" Johnson. Thus "Showtime" was born. The Fabulous Forum surpassed Dodger Stadium as the hottest spot in town.

Buss encouraged his director of promotions, Lon Rosen, to recruit celebrity anthem singers. R&B star Jeffrey Osborne became the team's Kate Smith--"the go-to guy for important play-off games," says Rosen--and everyone from actress Molly Ringwald to saxophonist Kenny G made appearances. With many of the music industry's top players--including former MCA president Irving Azoff and producer Lou Adler--sitting courtside, the anthem became a coveted (albeit unpaid) showcase. "Laker games were the schmooze headquarters of all time," says former Elektra Records head Joe Smith.

The '83 all-star game was the first to be held at the Forum since 1972. Lakers executive vice president Jeanie Buss says her father campaigned for the midseason contest, which at the time was a low-key affair run by the host club. "He wanted to put it on in Jerry Buss style," she says. "He wanted to show off his town."

To sing the anthem Rosen selected Lionel Richie, who had just recorded his first solo album, a multimillion seller for Motown. When Rosen phoned the NBA for its consent, however, an official asked, "Who's Lionel Richie?"

Taken aback, Rosen sought recommendations from Johnson and other Lakers. Gaye was among the artists suggested, and Rosen tracked him down at his new label, CBS Records. NBA officials approved the selection, probably assuming they were getting a Motown act.

Born and raised in a Washington, D.C., slum, Gaye had endured an unhappy childhood. According to David Ritz, author of Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye, Gaye's father beat him regularly and disparaged his musical efforts. Gaye (he added the e to his family name) got his start with a doo-wop group called the Moonglows. He then caught on at Motown as a studio drummer. His luscious, elegant voice soon drew the attention of founder Berry Gordy; with songs like "Hitch Hike," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (with Tammi Terrell), and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," Gaye became an international star.

Gordy moved the company to Hollywood in the early 1970s, and Gaye followed soon after. He also expanded his repertoire beyond pure pop. His masterpiece, the 1971 concept album What's Going On, addressed Vietnam, ghetto life, even pollution. (Believing it to be too controversial, Gordy initially refused to release the album.) By the end of the decade Gaye was a generational icon, as relevant as Bob Marley or later, Kurt Cobain.

"His goal was to make people feel, because he believed in the healing power of music," says longtime friend Cecil Jenkins. "He always said the world needs to know that we need to get together."

For all his success, Gaye lived a troubled existence. According to Ritz, the singer was a pothead and later a cocaine addict. Both of his marriages ended in divorce. And though he and his mother were close, he never reconciled with his father.

By 1981, Gaye had broken with Gordy and Motown. Plagued by tax and marital problems, he fled to Europe. After CBS producer Larkin Arnold helped him to resolve his legal affairs, he recorded Midnight Love, which featured "Sexual Healing" (cowritten by Ritz). Released in October 1982, the single topped Billboard's soul chart for four months. That fall Gaye returned to L.A., in part because his mother was ill.

THE SINGING of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at sporting events became common after World War II. Performers were expected to present it only one way: with big sound, keeping to the notes. Gaye had done the anthem at Super Bowl V in 1971 and at the Earnie Shavers--Larry Holmes title fight eight years later. He had also been asked to sing it before game four of the 1968 World Series in Detroit. Broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who selected the singers, recalls that the Tigers' front office asked him to speak to Gaye. "They were worried about Marvin because of his Motown connection," he says, noting that race riots had nearly destroyed the city in 1967. "They told me to go to him and ask him to sing it a little more traditional than he might ordinarily He complied to that and sang it very straight."

The next day pop singer Jose Feliciano strolled out to center field with an acoustic guitar and a guide dog named Trudy What followed was a revolution in A-flat: Feliciano's folksy rendering is considered to be the first alternative anthem ever sung. The Francis Scott Key classic would never be the same.

For the all-star game, Gaye was determined to stylize the anthem in his own way He was eager to sing in front of the NBA's best. He knew many of the players, and he loved to shoot hoops--at his Calabasas home or in the parking lot behind his recording studio in Hollywood. "That was his release," says confidant Dave Simmons, who also served as his bodyguard. "He was not a great player by any stretch, but we'd go for hours every day You know how it is: All athletes want to be singers, and all singers want to be athletes."

However, Gaye's fear of performing pulled him in another direction. Biographer Ritz says that he asked crooner Luther Vandross to substitute for him, but he was turned down.

So Gaye called his brother-in-law, Gordon Banks, with whom he had previously collaborated. The day before the game they worked furiously, using a drum machine and guitar to mix a background tape that Banks polished in his closet studio. The result was a languid, reggae-inspired rhythm similar to that of "Sexual Healing."

"Marvin told me that he was thinking about Mahalia Jackson and how she would do it," says Ritz. "He was grooving on the gospel aspect and how he was able to juxtapose patriotism with spiritualism and sexuality with spirituality."

The crew interrupted the taping session so that Gaye could rehearse at the Forum. According to Rosen, it was a disaster. Gaye arrived hours late and unveiled a four-and-a-half-minute version that neither rocked nor rolled. "I'm thinking, That's not the anthem I learned in grade school," says Rosen, who is now a television producer. "I didn't know what to do."

His main concern was the song's length. He tried to explain that since CBS was broadcasting live, Gaye could take only two minutes. The singer kept spinning away, refusing to speak to Rosen. Philadelphia 76ers forward Julius Erring, who had just finished practice, played peacemaker, and Gaye finally agreed to return at II the next morning for a run-through.

By noon on game day--February 13--he had yet to show up. "That was typical," says his oldest son, Marvin III. "People learned not to rush my dad. He wasn't going on until he was ready."

Frantic, Rosen secured his usual backup, a Forum usher, and told her to be ready At 12:25 p.m., five minutes before CBS was to go on the air, he spotted Gaye making his way down the arena's steep steps, dressed in a dark double-breasted suit and accompanied by a small entourage.

The singer said nothing as he handed over a cassette.

"Is it two minutes?" Rosen asked.

Gaye nodded, and a relieved Rosen had the tape rushed to the arena's audio engineer. Lakers public address announcer Lawrence Tanter signaled the engineer to start the music, and CBS's Stockton introduced Gaye to the crowd.

As Gaye strolled onto the court, Banks's funkified mix began to beat softly "I thought, Man, they brought the wrong cassette," says Tanter, who was also a jazz station DJ. "I thought, He's going to start singing `Sexual Healing' instead of the anthem."

"When the drum track started," says Joe Smith, "Julius Erving and I made eye contact and shook our heads. It was like, what is this?"

Gaye sang the first words in a plaintive whisper, and as he wrapped his voice around "see," he was greeted by a waiting-to-exhale holler from several spectators. "I usually said the Lord's Prayer during the anthem," says Denver Nuggets forward Alex English, "to get myself focused for each game. I saved it for later when I heard what Marvin was singing."

The audience response seemed to embolden Gaye, as if he could now trust in what he'd devised. Warming to the task, allowing the music to fill the long pauses he inserted between each line, he transformed the anthem into a sultry personal plea that was at once irreverent and sacred. Tanter and Rosen both recall hearing scattered boos, but these were soon drowned out.

"He did the `Banner' at a tempo that was so soulful it was overwhelming," says Lou Adler. "Every once in a while he'd do something vocally and they'd just scream and burst into emotional applause. It was very churchlike."

Gaye punctuated "the rockets' red glare" with clenched fists and bended knees, and as he swept toward the conclusion the crowd joined in, clapping with the beat. He ended with an exhilarated "Whoa!" then blew kisses to the audience and bowed to each all-star team. The ovation was thunderous. "That's when I first understood how special my dad really was," says son Marvin, then 17. "It was bone-chilling how everybody was screaming."

"It was so different that it reminded me of Jimi Hendrix's anthem at Woodstock," says Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. "Marvin changed the whole template, and that broadened people's minds. It illuminated the concept `We're black and we're Americans. We can have a different interpretation [of the anthem], and that's okay.'"

"The whole thing about Marvin was that he played alternately the good boy and bad boy," Ritz says. "He rebelled against authority: You couldn't tell him what to do. But then he'd show up and perform--and perform magically."

The game became an afterthought, even though it featured eight members of the NBA's "50 Greatest Players" team. The East led 69-64 at halftime, before Erving took control. Delighting the crowd with a monstrous dunk over San Antonio Spurs center Artis Gilmore, "Dr. J" won MVP honors in the 132-123 victory It was an omen of glory to come: That spring, Erving's 76ers would defeat the Lakers in the finals.

After tip-off, Rosen retreated to his office. He was certain of only one thing: He would be fired. He fielded dozens of irate phone calls and received a tongue-lashing from NBA commissioner Larry O'Brien, but he kept his job. In the weeks that followed he filled player requests for bootleg tapes. "I still have mine," says Jeanie Buss. "I listen to it whenever I want to remember that incredible vibe."

O'Brien retired the next year, replaced by marketing whiz David Stern. Under him, the all-star weekend has become a corporate-friendly extravaganza that includes slam-dunk and three-point contests and superstar concerts. The league now orchestrates everything: When the event comes to the Staples Center next year, neither the Lakers nor the Clippers will have any say in who sings the anthem.

In the late 1980s and early '90s, the NBA morphed into an entertainment juggernaut, its image inextricably linked to youth culture, especially hip-hop. Kids flash their Air Jordan sneakers. Snoop Dogg wears his favorite team jerseys in music videos. L'il Bow Wow stars in the basketball comedy Like Mike.

"Marvin's anthem was an indication that the NBA was prepared to embrace the popular culture of America, with African Americans at the center of it," says USC professor Todd Boyd, author of The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop. "As Stern brought his marketing skills to bear, the NBA went from being mildly popular in the early 1980s to becoming the worldwide commodity it is today--an identifiable American brand as visible as Starbucks and McDonald's."

WITH HIS ANTHEM IN the news and "Sexual Healing" selling well, Gaye seemed to be making a comeback. Less than two weeks after the game he won his first two Grammys. In March, at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium, he reunited with Gordy and sang "What's Going On" for Motown's 25th-anniversary television special (best remembered for Michael Jackson's moonwalk during "Billie Jean").

That summer Gaye's live performances became increasingly erratic. He would end each concert singing "Sexual Healing" while dressed in a bathrobe. Then he would remove the robe, have his pants pulled down by a backup singer, and stand onstage naked except for his briefs.

Gaye fell into a deep depression. Through the winter and spring he crashed at the West Adams home he'd bought for his parents. He refused entreaties to return to the studio and spiraled into a cocaine-induced haze.

On April 1, 1984, an argument with his father turned violent. Gaye beat up Marvin senior. Humiliated, the elder Gay retrieved a .38 revolver, went to his son's room, and shot him twice in the chest. He died at a local hospital.

Marvin Gaye would have turned 45 the following day At the Lakers' next home game, Rosen played his now-famous anthem in tribute.

You can hear Marvin Gaye's all-star game national anthem on NBA at 50: A Musical Celebration and The Master 1961-1984, a four-disc compilation of his work._LA203

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