WASHINGTON – Many music fans may not know that one of Marvin Gaye's most popular singles,“What's Going On,” would not have made it off the cutting room floor if it had been up to the man in charge of Motown.
“Berry Gordy hated it,‘It's terrible. You're a sex symbol,what are you speaking about politics for?'” said Michael Eric Dyson,the author of a new book about the late singer. “Marvin was stubborn,held out for six months and said,‘If you don't release it,I'm not making any more music.'”
This is just one of the revelations Dyson discussed at a book signing Friday for his new biography of Gaye,“Mercy,Mercy Me,” which he said is the first biography of the singer written by an African American to reach the mainstream.
“I wanted to remind people who were here when Marvin Gaye was alive of his genius and how extraordinary he was,” Dyson said. “I wanted to tell people who weren't here when he was alive … why his genius exists and how it's manifest. And then I want to deal with his art,his passion,his love and the demons that plagued him.”
Dyson interviewed many people close to Gaye,including Motown singer Martha Reeves,composer Leon Ware,sound engineer Art Stewart and Obie Benson,a member of the Four Tops.
A professor at the University of Pennsylvania,Dyson said he wants to use the Gaye story to examine the social and political issues of black America.
Dyson said Gaye was beaten by his father for 13 years and raped at age 15. Later, Gaye opened the Motown sound to songs about politics and social unrest,which differed from the love music the company had produced to crossover to white audiences.
Motown was already having an effect on the social scene,Dyson said. Motown put out the Martin Luther King Jr. speech he “warmed up” in Detroit before his famous presentation of nearly the same speech in Washington.
“Motown was literally the engine driving it in terms of cultural acceptance,” Dyson said. “A bunch of folk who were doing musical and sports related stuff were ambassadors,whether they wanted to be or not,for the larger acceptance of African-American life. If you like Jackie Robinson,you might like the Negro who was in your neighborhood.”
Motown was founded five years after the Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case. Dyson said that it is no mistake Motown rose at about the same time as the civil rights movement.
Michael Link,29, a graphic designer at the Politics & Prose bookstore where the speech took place,introduced Dyson.
“He is one of the few people writing now who can take popular culture,contemporary and historical,and set it against the backdrop of social issues in a way that is both engaging and really informative,” Link said.
Link said he is worried that American culture loves to oversimplify people like King and Gaye,both figures Dyson has written about. Dyson is the author of “Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur,” “I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King,Jr.,” and “Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X.”
“He takes people and then rescues them from that historical social graveyard and he sets them into basically where they actually existed to begin with,” Link said. “He almost reintroduces people that we may have lost back into our culture.”
Dyson said that the younger generation can appreciate the legacy of Marvin Gaye as much as his generation by reading books and listening to CDs. He said sometimes young people listen more “attentively and intensely” than those who lived during Gaye's time.
“I'm a teacher,and one of the things that I'm interested in is looking at how children can learn from Marvin Gaye and others who they are not being taught about in school,” said Fara Wolfson,34,of Baltimore. “So that is something I actually want to e-mail Mr. Dyson about and hear his perspective on.”
Robyn Smith,34,of Elkridge,Md.,a fellow writer who heard about the book signing on a radio program,disagreed.
“I think most people live in the present,and they don't have any appreciation of the history of where we come from,even if it is just 20 years ago,” said Smith. “I'm always talking to old people to find out what people went through,but most people don't. They think I'm crazy.”