New book reveals tumultuous marriage to Marvin Gaye

Susan Whitall
The Detroit News

Jan Gaye is either the luckiest woman in the world, having married Motown heartthrob Marvin Gaye, or she's a woman who's led a very challenging life.

Actually, after you read Gaye's memoir "After the Dance: My Life with Marvin Gaye" (Harper Collins), written with David Ritz, it's clear that both things are true. The highs of her life were very high, and the lows almost as extreme.

She paints a vivid picture of herself as a pretty, adventurous teenager, meeting and then quickly moving in with the handsome, older Motown superstar against the backdrop of the drug-fueled, sexually free music scene of the 1970s. Marvin was entranced, and almost obsessed with her, but that turned into paranoia later. He would push her into compromising situations, then rush to check to see if she'd betrayed him. She was 17, and he was 34, the same 17-year age difference between Marvin and his older wife, Anna Gordy Gaye.

But as honest as she is about her wilder antics, it pains her that the tabloid press has ignored the more romantic parts of the book. A London Daily Mail story dwelled upon a crude, physical advance Ryan O'Neal made to her at a party. It made her wonder if writing the book was a mistake.

"Is this what's going to happen? Will it be picked apart and the most salacious things talked about?" asked Jan Gaye, 59. "Is the word love going to be mentioned? Because Marvin was the love of my life. That doesn't mean I won't have another love in my life (and in fact, she is involved with someone). But from (age) 17 to 28, regardless of all the fights that we had, the lies that we told and things that we did, there was always an element of love."

She is speaking by phone from her Rhode Island home, where she lives near her grown children with Marvin —Nona Gaye and Frankie Gaye, and her grandson, 17-year-old son Nolan Pentz Gaye. The book, she says, was written for herself and for Marvin's fans.

"It was definitely not a pity party in writing it, and I don't think I demonized (Marvin) in any way. I simply told the truth about him and told the truth about myself."

That truth includes the fact that Jan had affairs with two of Marvin's soulful competitors, Teddy Pendergrass and Frankie Beverly, and that she and Marvin were both deeply into drugs.

How did drugs affect their relationship and Marvin's eventual decline? He was living with his parents in 1984 when he and his eccentric father, with whom he'd had a very combative relationship, had a fight which ended in the elder Gaye shooting him to death.

"It made us all paranoid," Jan said. "If you get a group of people together doing blow, they think they hear something or they see something, and he was no different than any of us.

"I think a lot of us who survived those years had a different way of looking at life, looking at it through a coke spoon or smoking too much weed,although I am a big advocate of legalizing marijuana today and always will be."

Jan grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of Barbara Hunter and Slim Gaillard. Her mother was a much-married white woman who loved jazz and the music scene; her father was a black jazz singer and musician Janis rarely saw. Gaillard told her he was born in Cuba, but she discovered that he was born in Alabama and spent some years in Detroit.

As a 17-year-old, she was hanging out with her fun-loving mother at Ed Townsend's recording studio in Los Angeles one night in 1973 when they were introduced to the famous Marvin Gaye, who was recording his "Let's Get it On" album. He was quiet and reserved, but Gaye signaled his intense interest in the pretty teenager. They were together from then on, although they didn't marry until 1977 (they divorced in 1981, although their relationship continued until 1983).

Once their affair was under way, it was a scandal within the tight-knit Motown community in L.A. that Marvin, still married to the boss's sister, Anna Gordy, was carrying on so blatantly with a teenager.

Marvin had been married to Anna since 1963 and they'd adopted a son, Marvin III. Despite the 17-year age difference — he was only 24 when they wed — it had been an intense bond for some years, but Marvin was feeling restless. Meeting Jan resolved that restlessness.

Their affair was extremely sensual — she now says they were both addicted to sex — and his music at the time, particularly the album "I Want You," was clearly inspired by Jan.

Once Marvin insisted that Jan accompany him to his first wife's house, to drop off his son. She sat in the passenger seat of his car as Anna came out and looked her over. "Now that you've shown 'it' to me," Anna said to Marvin, "don't ever bring 'it' back here."

But the two women had a more cordial meeting years later. Jan came to Anna's house to be filmed for a documentary about Marvin. She was hesitant about going, but "she was very gracious," Jan said. She asked if she could speak to Anna privately, and the older woman assented.

"We sat down on the couch and I apologized to her. I said, 'If there was anything I did to hurt you and I imagine there would be, I just want you to know that I'm sorry and that was never my intention. I fell in love, and we were in love with the same man and I am sorry. She said, 'You never did anything to hurt me.' I don't know if she meant that, but that was her response, 'You never hurt me.' I was crying when I was talking to her. We finished up the interview that we were doing and that was the last time I saw her."

What touched Jan was, as she looked around Anna's house, seeing all the memorabilia and photographs of Marvin, she saw a photo of her daughter (and Marvin's) Nona hanging on the wall.

"I just found a certain place in my heart for her having my daughter's picture hanging in her home, after all that had gone on throughout the years. She was a gracious lady at that point. In the beginning, any woman who was going through what she went through, having her husband with a younger woman, would have probably reacted the same way to me."

Most fans of Marvin Gaye's won't be surprised by some of the inner conflicts he struggled with, which Jan writes about in "After the Dance," but she had a unique perspective, as someone who lived with him for most of the 1970s and into part of the '80s.

Despite his talent, Marvin suffered from a crippling self-doubt and intense stage fright. When he and Jan encountered Hollywood stars at parties who expressed their fandom, he always seemed a bit surprised.

A common theme in the book is Marvin booking a tour and then doing anything to get out of doing it. But once on stage, he rarely disappointed.

"I think he knew he was talented, but he was shy," Jan said. "It was a part of his personality,and the other part would be his stage fright and maybe a part of it was he didn't think he deserved it, the attention. He knew he was a good-ooking man, he knew he was gorgeous, but so did everyone else."

She's seen "Motown: The Musical" — in its Broadway incarnation, and she parses her words carefully in talking about the actor who portrayed her ex-husband.

"The gentleman who played Marvin had an interesting take, and I respect him as an actor for taking on the role. But I think this is why there hasn't been a movie done; it's pretty hard to put somebody on a screen or stage and have them be Marvin Gaye."

If there was a movie done, and it's a big if, her choice to play Marvin once was Denzel Washington, but now it would be Maxwell, who she feels is handsome and sexy enough, and can sound like him.

Detroiters will be interested to read that Marvin was reluctant to leave Detroit for L.A. in the early '70s when Motown moved there. He told Jan that he could never have written his masterpiece, "What's Going On," in Hollywood.

"Those songs carried the feel of hardcore, urban Detroit," she wrote. "He had great affection for the Motor City."

The sincerest form of flattery

In early March, after a year of legal wrangling, the Gaye estate — Jan Gaye's children, Nona and Frankie Gaye, and stepson Marvin Gaye — won a $7.3 judgment lawsuit against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams when a Los Angeles jury decided that their song, "Blurred Lines," infringed upon Marvin Gaye's 1977 hit "Got to Give it Up."

The battle over that song was particularly personal for Jan, because she was in the studio from start to finish as "Got to Give it Up" was written and recorded, and she sang background on the song, along with Marvin's brother, Frankie.

"I was a little off-key, and he didn't want to say anything — it was before Autotune," Jan recalled with a laugh. "I had never seen him work like that on any song. It was improvisational, like a jam session that went on for days, and he would add this and that to the pot, we'll put in some (guitarist) Johnny McGhee, some (saxophonist) Fernando Harkness — add this, add that. Out of Marvin's entire catalog, I can't think of any other song that's similar to 'Got to Give it Up' in any way. It's the ultimate party song and always will be."

Last week, as part of a settlement, producer Mark Ronson and singer Bruno Mars agreed to credit the writers of the Gap Band's 1979 song "Oops Upside Your Head" as co-writers of their hit "Uptown Funk," and it was widely reported that the producers were probably more generous in settling in light of the Gaye/"Blurred Lines" decision.

"That blew my mind," Jan Gaye said. "I have so much respect for Mark Ronson and what he did, the utmost respect for Sam Smith and what he did with Tom Petty (giving Petty a credit on "Stay with Me," because of similarities to "I Won't Back Down").

"It's a different situation, but the Ronson thing, I just think he's super cool. I'm happy for the guys in the Gap Band, now to have 11 writers on one song — I think that's pretty unusual., but it didn't matter to Mark Ronson. I think he did what he felt was the right thing to do.

As for Williams and Thicke, and that $7.3 million they haven't paid the Gayes: "I just read recently they're filing an appeal or have already filed it, so it's dragging along.

Gaye said. "We're fine. We know what we know, and a jury knew what they knew."