Friday, February 26, 2010

I AM the One

Elvis got up slowly from the cream damask chair closest to the color TV set. The television had been pulled out in front of the white baby grand and now sat in the archway that separated the living room from the music room. He turned to face his friends, the so-called “Memphis Mafia,” five of them comfortably lounging in the custom 15-foot sofa.

“So, what did you think of that, boys?” Elvis asked unsurely as he sat back down.

Joe Esposito spoke first. “Oh Elvis, man, you still got it. You’re still the King, boy.”

“TCB, baby, TCB,” Elvis boasted. “Taking Care of Business all the way.”

Sonny went next. “You’re all the way back, boss, all the way.”

Elvis shot him a cold steely look. The room was instantly quiet. “Back? What do you mean ‘I’m back’?”

Sonny got nervous. “Back on top. Number one.”

“Was I gone? You saying I’m some kinda has-been?”

“No, no, no. I mean, wait, wasn’t it supposed to be a comeback special? Isn’t it called a comeback special?” Sonny was sunk, sunk deep, and he knew it.

Suddenly, Elvis burst into laughter, smacking his thigh. “Oh, baby, I had you going.” Elvis looked around to his devoted flock, who were all laughing now, perhaps a bit too loudly. “Had him going, didn’t I?”

“Shit, Elvis.” Sonny laughed weakly, if only to fit in, but he was mighty relieved.

“That boy almost crapped his pants,” yelled Charlie, nearly convulsive and beet red.

Feeling a little remorseful, Elvis backed off. “Sorry, Sonny, sorry. I was just putting you on a little.”

For the next hour, the gang laughed and praised Elvis for what appeared to be a very successful TV special. It was simply called Elvis and it was true to the man, his music and his magnetism. Amazingly, it had been seven years since Elvis Presley had performed music in front of a crowd, but he sounded great and looked like a teenage god, clad head to toe in black leather or resplendent in white and burgundy suits. He told everyone he was scared to death to get out before a live audience.

The doorbell rang and Charlie leapt from the couch to answer. Soon he returned with a stack of telegrams in his hand.

“Telegram for Elvis Presley,” Charlie did his best impersonation of a telegraph messenger boy, but it was closer to the Phillip Morris bellhop.

“Read ‘em to me,” ordered Elvis. He had hoped for a reaction to the show and, based on the pile of paper Charlie dumped on the coffee table, he’d gotten it.

“This here one is from Johnny Cash. It says, “Dear Elvis, How come you look younger now than when we started out at Sun Records and I look like a broken down tractor? You’re the greatest. Love from Johnny and June.”

“Hey, here’s one from England,” said Joe. “It says, “You were wonderful, marvelous. We’re planning our own television production and we learned a lot from you, just like in the old days. All our love, Mick and Keith.”

Elvis was puzzled. “Who the hell are Mick and Keith?”

The boys looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads.

Sonny held up a telegram. “It’s from Bob Dylan. He says, “Great show. You brought me through the mirror. Bob.”

“Now what’s that supposed to mean? That guy is nutty,” Joe laughed as he spoke.

“Wait a minute, son. Bob Dylan is a great songwriter. It’s gotta mean something,” said Elvis in Dylan’s defense.

The phone rang in the background. Joe had a telegram in hand. “Hey, Elvis, this is from John Lennon.”

“Really? Read that, nice and loud.”

Joe cleared his throat dramatically. “You’re still the biggest. Come to England – Paul and I would love to produce an album for you, if we aren’t too nervous in the presence of The King! Love , John.”

Elvis got quiet, serious. That’s back on top, working with The Beatles. He did like them, said so publicly during the show. What would give him more credibility with the young kids then to work with The Beatles? He couldn’t turn that offer down.

“Son, it’s the Colonel on the phone. He wants to talk to you.” Vernon held the receiver out for Elvis.

“Well, I want to talk to him, too!” Elvis dashed to the phone.

“Elvis, my boy, what a success! My phone has been ringing off the hook with offers,” harrumphed the faux-Colonel, Tom Parker. “In fact, I’m still here at my MGM office. They want you, Elvis!”

“Uh, yeah, we’ve gotten a bunch of telegrams here at Graceland. I want to talk to you about one, it’s from-”

“Listen to me first. We have a huge offer from Las Vegas, huge. There’s big money there and they want you badly.”

Elvis balked. “Vegas? Pardon my language, Colonel, but are you outta your mind? Las Vegas is for Dean Martin and Perry Como. I’m the King of Rock and Roll. Always was. Vegas?”

“It’s a lot of money, Elvis, a lot of money,” The Colonel replied, speaking the only language he knew. “I told you this TV special would work.”

Elvis rolled his eyes. “You told me? You wanted me to wear a Santa suit and sing Christmas songs. For cryin’ out loud, you were against this from the start. I had to put my foot down to get it right, get it my way. You were rooting for us to be wrong, just to tell us ‘I told you so’.”

“I’m telling you, Elvis, Vegas is the way to go and-”

“Listen to me Colonel, for once just listen and stop flappin’ your gums. Leave Vegas to some sleazy lounge singer. The Beatles want to work with me in England and I’m going.”

Panicked quiet on the other end. “Now, Elvis, we’ve talked about going abroad. It’s a bad idea, and I would strongly advise you against it.”

“To hell with your advice, sir.” Elvis hung up the phone.

“Can you believe the Colonel wants me to sing in Las Vegas like some 50 year old crooner? Not me, baby, not now.”

Everyone nodded in agreement.

“To hell with that. Someone get me John Lennon on the phone. Time for me to take care of business. Boys, pack your bags, we’re going to England.”

The story goes that Steve Binder, producer/director of the ’68 Comeback Special, made a 33 year old Elvis Presley walk down Sunset Strip, where he was not recognized by any of the youth passing by. Having his irrelevance clearly pointed out, Elvis was willing to go all out to reclaim his former stature. Col. Tom Parker, Elvis’ manager/Svengali, was opposed to the proposed plan and insisted on a more traditional Christmas-themed show. The Comeback Special aired on NBC on December 3, 1968, and was the number one Nielsen rated show of the entire year, viewed by 18 million households. Elvis never toured outside the US, in any country that required a passport, as the Dutch-born Parker was not a US citizen and feared both a denial of a passport and deportation. Elvis premiered at The International Hotel in Las Vegas on July 31, 1969.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Make Me Wanna Holler

Heading downtown to Motown headquarters behind the wheel of his white Rolls, Marvin was deep in his mind. Used to be, everyone helped everyone. If I had to play drums for Smokey, I’d play drums. The Supremes would sing backup if that’s what it took. What were they called then? Now, it was all corporate, with Berry spending most of his time out in Hollywood, doing business, becoming a big shot, right. Even right here in Detroit, the sweet old Hitsville USA house had been replaced by a ten-story office building. No soul man, no soul. Adjusting his white-rimmed cap, Marvin rubbed his head as if pushing his brain to remember. The Primettes, yeah, The Primettes, that’s what they were called back then.

It was Friday, and Berry Gordy was flying in for the day to attend the Quality Control meeting. Marvin had been holed up, doing his thing on his own, making music, and the business side had heard it through the grapevine that it didn’t sound like Motown. Marvin certainly hadn’t gone about it the “Motown way,” checking each move with the higher-ups. He wasn’t playing that game anymore, no way. Still, it was up to these people, on this day, to decide, thumbs up or thumbs down on his record. He was always a good worker, did whatever he was told. He laughed to himself, usually did what he was told. Don’t I get to do my thing, my way, after all these years? He wondered whether that history counted for much anymore.

Marvin pulled his car up to the curb in front of the Woodward Ave. entrance, pushed through the heavy doors and, after being buzzed in by the receptionist in the interior lobby, headed to the elevator. He decided to keep his waist-length leather coat on. It made him feel protected.

On the way up, he thought about whether to fight or not. He believed in this record, believed in it more than anything he had ever done. This was really Marvin Gaye, singing what was important to him. Look at Sly Stone. He puts out whatever he wants to. Isaac Hayes? That man can’t sing to save his mama, but he’s allowed to be an individual. And I can’t? After all I’ve done. I’m a fighter though – I can whup Smokin’ Joe Frazier with this music!

Marvin was overjoyed to see Berry pacing outside the meeting room. They couldn’t be more different than they were right then. Berry was nattily dressed in his Los Angeles outfit, white sport coat, white pants, white shoes, silk shirt, sporting his dark sunglasses indoors. Marvin was right out of the ghetto, rough beard, Lions jersey, sweatpants and sneakers. Marvin hoped to catch BG alone before they got down to business. It would be different inside, all executive protocol.

“Hey, BG, what’s happening, brother? How’s L.A.?” Marvin greeted Berry with a soul handshake and a warm embrace. “I’m glad to see you before we go in.”

He was received with a slight coolness.

“Marvin, you know I don’t have a lot of time for this. I have to get back to L.A. this afternoon. When are you going to move out there?”

“Detroit is my home, my people. California, you can have it. What are we supposed to do, follow you out there like puppy dogs?”

“OK, OK. I hear you. What about this record? I gotta tell you, man, because we’re friends, I don’t like it, but we’ll let Quality Control make that decision.”

It hurt Marvin that BG didn’t like his new music. “Music ain’t cars, BG. You gotta let go of that Quality Control ‘product’ mentality.” Marvin pointed with both index fingers to his temples. “These songs, they came from God, not from some assembly line. They’re works of beauty, not Buicks.”

Berry shook his head. “Marvin, Marvin. Why are you always giving me such a hard time? Does Michael give me a hard time? No he doesn’t. And that boy is churning out the hits.”

“Michael? Michael Jackson? He’s a boy, BG, a kid. I’m a 32-year old grownup man. I don’t need any Quality Control telling me what’s good or what’s bad. Michael Jackson – he’s 10 years old.”

“He’s 12, actually, but he’s no kid. That boy is like an old man. He knows what he wants, and he’s straight as an arrow. Just wants to sing and dance. Nothing fancy, nothing weird. Not high all day, smoking jays and thinking he’s some kind of messenger from the Lord.”

“You don’t dig Divine guidance? Fine, I’m focused on sincerity, baby, love. I’m looking for a message of positivity for my audience. So, what about the record? You gonna let it out?”

“Marvin, you know it’s up to a vote, not up to me. If it was up to me, no. You have a nice image going. You make hit songs, you’re a sex symbol, and you should stick to that.”

“Did you listen to it, I mean, really dig it?” Marvin’s tone was subtly changing from feistiness to supplication.

“Yeah, I did, it grooves, for sure, but what are you so angry about. All this protesting about the ecology, Vietnam, the ghetto. What’s that one called?”

“Inner City Blues.”

“Yeah, who’s going buy a record about that, man? No one, that’s who.”

“Anna, this morning, before I left, she was like, ‘Baby-that’s it!’ Loved it”

“Don’t you throw my sister at me, Marvin. Ever since you married her she’s been hands off on these decisions. And with you stoned all day, and fucking around all the time, don’t play ‘My wife loves my record’ with me. Come on, let’s go in. They’re waiting.”

Even though he had been spending his time in California, Quality Control was Berry Gordy’s to run. There were only three rules, all set up by the big man himself – no producer could vote for his own record, anyone over five minutes late was locked out, and Berry alone could overrule a majority vote. It was an honest meeting, everyone expected to speak their minds.

Berry led off the discussion. “Alright people. Let’s talk about What’s Going On. Marvin, you’ve always been a challenge, wouldn’t go to our charm school, fought the producers, yelled at the sales department, but this, this I just don’t get.”

Marvin quietly answered. “It’s a protest album, a Spiritual album. This world has lost its way.”

“What are you protesting about?”

“I’m not happy with the world, BG. I’m angry and, through the power of the Lord, these songs were created.”

Berry shook his head. This was a business meeting, not a prayer meeting. It was time for others to chime in and comments began.

Voices sprung from around the table.

One said - “This mix is too confusing. I don’t understand the vocals. It’s just Marvin on top of Marvin on top of Marvin. The songs are too long and they have no form at all. It’s just not done.”

Another said – “This is a ghetto thing, too narrow for a big audience. You think white people are going to buy this?”

Another – “It’s crazy, trash, worst record I’ve ever heard. They won’t play this on the radio and you know it.”

Yet another – “Marvin, who the hell do you think you are? What, you’re your own producer now, your own Quality Control? That’s NOT how we do things at Motown. You should know better.”

One more – “It’s too political. Stick to what works, brother.”

Berry had heard enough. It was clear where this was heading. “Is everyone ready to vote?”

Marvin sat, subdued, eyes closed and hands together, his fingers touching at the points. Was he praying? His cockiness was gone for the moment, the fight taken out of him by the onslaught of negativity.

“How many think it’s a hit?” The key question was asked, and hung heavily over the room.

No hands were raised.

“How many think it’s not a hit?”

All hands went up. That was that.

“Sorry Marvin, looks like we won’t be releasing this one.”

Marvin stood up, and looked straight at Berry, his back turned to all the corporate decision makers.

“Same old bullshit. I have three years left on my contract, BG. You know where to find me. And I’ll tell you something else. I won’t make any music for you anymore.”

Berry Gordy, founder and head of Motown, as well as Marvin Gaye’s brother-in-law, wouldn’t release the single “What’s Going On” for six months, insisting Marvin stick with his sexy, crooner image. Marvin wouldn’t record until Gordy finally relented in January 1971. The record went to #1 on the R & B charts and #2 on the Pop charts. Despite being wrong on the song, Berry Gordy was still hesitant to release the LP. Marvin threatened to stop recording if his music wasn’t released. Gordy gave in on the full album as well and when it hit in May 1971, What’s Going On caused a sensation, spawning three Top Ten singles and becoming the biggest selling album in Motown’s history up to that time.