stevie wonder vs. marvin gaye -- 9/07/15

Today's selection -- from Signed, Sealed, and Delivered by Mark Ribowsky. In 1963, thirteen-year-old Stevie Wonder and twenty-four-year old Marvin Gaye were Motown artists and close friends -- both struggling to break out as stars. A Motown revue tour that year proved to be Marvin's "coming out party," as he repeatedly outshone Stevie. But on one ugly night in Detroit, Motown owner Berry Gordy purposefully pitted them against each other and Stevie came out on top:

"[During the tour's Apollo performances], Gordy had told the troupe to play and perform their asses off, and by Christmastime the grimy walls of the Apollo were shaking with some of the wildest Revue shows ever given.

"In the old grainy films made of the final Apollo show, it is clear that this tour was really Marvin Gaye's coming-out party. As if he were plugged in to an electric current, there was almost an audible buzz around him. Wearing a waist-level busboy jacket and skintight pants, as he sang 'Hitchhike' he pulled female audience members onto the stage to bump and grind with him. Screeching 'Yowwww' to punctuate the verses, his confidence swelling, he seemed to float on air ...

"To Stevie's great misfortune, he had to follow Gaye on this excursion, and while no match for the raw animal magnetism Gaye could muster, he had his own supply of voltage. [The tour's emcee] cued him ... saying, 'I'd like to introduce to you an outstanding young man considered to be a genius of our time, and he happens to be thirteen years old. Meet and greet the thirteen-year-old genius himself, ladies and gentlemen, Stevie Wonder!' Entering from stage left on Clarence Paul's arm, modestly clad to match the garb worn by the band -- light jacket, black pants, tie and shoes, and a natty hankie in his jacket pocket -- he was lowered into a chair on which the bongos sat, and as Paul turned to lead the band Murray all but pushed him into the chair. Without a pause, he neatly wedged the bongos between his knees and began tapping on them, emitting a saucy 'yeeeaaah.' Then, duplicating the prologue of the original recording at tile Regal Theater, as if it were still fresh, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I'd like to do for you, from my new recording from my live album. The name of the song is, uh, "Fingertips."' ... [But] there was no encore and no calls for one, just polite applause. ... Clearly, as Stevie had learned, following Marvin Gaye at the Apollo could take much of the air out of any act.

stevie wonder and marvin gaye

"Stevie had his revenge, though, only days later, getting another shot at Gaye once the Revue returned home and the acts were thrown right into an even more rabid proving ground: the annual Motown Christmas show at the Graystone Ballroom. ... During the shows there, the centerpiece of the show was a mano a mano competition between acts of Gordy's choosing, pitted in a two-round 'match' judged solely by Gordy, the old boxer. It became a matter of enormous pride for an act to take home the 'title,' and Gordy only savored the fact that those of his own 'children' picked would work themselves into a frenzy -- even a mutual hatred -- that heightened the competition.

On this night, the chosen warriors were Gaye and Stevie, and the atmosphere inside the Graystone grew more fervid. Stevie, up first, did a torrid version of 'Workout Stevie, Workout.' Gaye countered with 'Hitchhike,' showing that he had given the contest some thought. Trying to one-up Stevie, he whipped out and began blowing into a melodica, an oversized harmonica played like a keyboard, as he danced about the stage. Gauging the crowd reaction, Gordy gave round one to Gaye, forcing Stevie to have to turn it up in round two, leaping into 'Pretty Music' but tacking onto it the incitements of 'Fingertips,' keyed of course by ' Everybody say yeaaaahhh,' and lengthening -- and lengthening -- until the crowd was limp, and the round his.

"Now it was Gaye's turn to sweat. As he proceeded to belt out 'Stubborn Kind of Fellow,' however, a strange vibe began to surface in the house. Instead of getting into the groove, some booed. One person yelled out, 'Marvin, you should be shame o' yourself takin' advantage of a little blind kid!' to cries of 'Yowww!' from the crowd. Gaye pushed on, now met by hissing and more booing. Even the notoriously tough crowds at the Apollo had never treated him like this, Totally thrown, unable to concentrate, he looked toward Gordy for help.

"Still shaken years later, Gordy recalled that 'the smile on [Marvin's] face couldn't hide the pain.' Realizing now that the match had been a terrible mistake -- one that wasn't beneficial -- he climbed onto the stage, halting the show. As recorded music was played over the loudspeakers, the lights were dimmed and the crowd instructed to file out. As it did, many were still booing, now at Gordy, for cutting the festivities short.

"But to Gordy, and Gaye, there was nothing festive about the dark mood that ended the evening, caused by Gaye being put in the unenviable position of competing against a 'little blind kid.' As soon as Gordy left the stage, he found Gaye sitting alone, his head buried in his hands. Despite all the static that existed between the two men, Gordy felt nothing but pity for him now. He put an arm around Gaye's shoulders, saying nothing but already having resolved that there never be a rerun.

'Though I still felt competition bred champions, I could also see that it had a downside,' he wrote of the night. 'And in this particular case of putting a grown man against a little blind boy, I had blundered badly. That was the last Battle of the Stars at the Graystone.'

"Stevie too felt badly about the whole unsettling episode. Catching up with Gaye later that night, he consoled him by saying there was no way in hell that he could have ever beaten him, on that night, on any night."


Mark Ribowsky


Signed, Sealed, and Delivered: The Soulful Journey of Stevie Wonder


John Wiley & Sons, Inc.


Copyright 2010 by Mark Ribowsky


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