Ailing but Never Out, a Troubled Marvin Gaye Finds Out What the Doctor Ordered: Sexual Healing

updated 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/24/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Motown legend Marvin Gaye is feeling loose and breezy as he sits in the West Los Angeles home of his manager, Marilyn Freeman, regaling old friends with tales of his days as a boxing promoter. Blow by blow he recounts how in 1979 he lost a fast $10,000 when his fighter, Andy Price, was KO'd by Sugar Ray Leonard in the first round of a fight in Las Vegas. Immediately after, Gaye had to enter the ring himself to sing The Star-Spangled Banner. "That-man-has-a-beau-ti-ful-voice," Gaye says, artfully mimicking Cosell at ringside. "How can he get up and sing like that after seeing his young boxer decimated, thrashed, pummeled..." By this time everybody in the room is convulsed with laughter. And Marvin Gaye is loving it.

After five hitless years on the record business ropes, the long-reigning champion of soul has regained his form. Gaye's current single, Sexual Healing, is America's hottest pop culture turn-on since Olivia Newton-John suggested she wanted to get Physical. So far his steamy hit has topped one and a half million in sales, hit No. 5 on the pop charts, and boosted sales of Gaye's Midnight Love LP to more than 1.5 million. Healing has also rekindled a sex symbol image first ignited by sizzlers such as Let's Get It On. "It's a little ridiculous," scoffs Gaye, "I'm 43, balding and getting fat."

Actually, Gaye has aged gracefully. His face has no wrinkles, his voice is still bright, and he has the build of a college halfback. His smile is warm and charismatic. Only his dark, dark eyes betray the incredible turmoil in his recent life.

"I am schizophrenic," he admits. Always given to dramatic mood swings, Gaye became known in recent years for canceling interviews, ducking out of halls where crowds were waiting, and refusing to sing Motown-mandated tunes. He remembers record company execs chiding him, "How do you expect to be a star when you act like that?"

On the more positive side, Gaye likes to cite a recurring "pleasant nightmare" he had as a child: "I saw myself performing on a flat stage, and around it as far as I could see was a sea of people. Multitudes. I was singing to all of them and at the end, facetious as it sounds, I was proclaimed the World's Greatest Singer."

Gaye's enduring faith in that fate was certainly tested by what he now refers to as his "seven-year shit period" that started around 1975. His ordeal included two messy divorces, bankruptcy, over $4 million in debts, back alimony payments and unpaid taxes, an attempted suicide, a custody battle and a career dive.

Gaye points to his upbringing as the third of five children of a Pentecostal preacher (now retired) in Washington, D.C. as the root of his stubborn personality. "My father was a very strict disciplinarian whom I rebelled against," he says. "We don't communicate like before." When he was honorably discharged from the Air Force, his papers stated, as he once recalled: "Gaye cannot adjust to regimentation and authority."

He started singing in Washington, D.C. and ended up as the solo male star of Berry Gordy Jr.'s Motown label, as well as Gordy's brother-in-law. Marvin admits, "I had a measure of power that other artists didn't enjoy, and I probably abused the hell out of it." The expense money pipeline, for one thing, flowed a lot more freely for him than it did for the label's other artists. His protective shield disappeared in 1976 when Anna Gordy, 17 years his senior, filed for divorce, and the judge ordered Gaye to give her $600,000 of royalties from his next LP. The result was Here, My Dear, a brilliantly bitter 71-minute concept album that recounted the nitty-gritty details of the breakup.

He then married Janis Hunter, 17 years younger than he, and together they had two children. But while he and Anna were still settling their divorce, Janis filed for one. In the meantime Gaye entered bankruptcy even before the IRS informed him he owed over $2 million in back taxes.

During a public, oceanside dispute with Janis over child custody, Gaye claims he was "beaten and knocked unconscious" by a California police officer. Shortly afterward he took off for Hawaii, where he invited Janis to visit. Reconciliation? As Gaye tells it, "We fought. I nearly killed her. I had a knife about an inch from her heart."

In the months that followed in Hawaii Gaye went through one of his "crazy" periods, living out of a van on Maui, eating bananas and pineapples. He tried to kill himself at one point by ingesting more than an ounce of pure cocaine in less than an hour. "I was scared," he says. "I called my mama and just said, 'Pray for me, Mama, because I think I'm going to die.' "

He recovered enough to arrange for a friend to abduct his and Janis' son, Frankie, then 4, to Hawaii. "My wife went nearly crazy," he says. "I let her suffer for a week before I told her I had him."

With debts and criminal charges awaiting him in Los Angeles, an offer to tour Europe in 1980 came as a welcome escape. Living in London with Frankie ("It was very, very traumatic for him"), Gaye says he was readily accepted by British society. "I went to Buckingham Palace," he says, "and got caught up in the aristocratic high-society life-style."

While he was in England, Gaye's relationship with Motown finally collapsed when the company took the tapes of an album he had been working on and released the songs in altered form on the LP In Our Lifetime. "I called up Berry and said I didn't think I would survive as an artist," he says. "He reminded me, 'You ain't selling no records anyway.' "

In early 1981 Marvin moved with his Dutch governess girlfriend, Eugénie Vis, to Ostend, Belgium (pop. 69,000). Rumors of his availability had been floated to Larkin Arnold, an executive for CBS Records, who flew to Belgium around Easter. "When I met with Marvin he was calm and collected and seemed to realize what he'd done," Arnold says. "He was anxious to set things right."

At that time Gaye didn't look like much of a bargain. In Our Lifetime had sold a mere 340,000. Yet Arnold continued to pursue him. He explains now, "You don't lose genius; you just make it hard to recognize."

CBS finally bought Gaye's contract from Motown for nearly $2 million. A team of advisers began putting Gaye's legal life in order. Creditors from the bankruptcy proceeding were appeased, the IRS established a "reasonable" payment schedule, and criminal charges were dropped; Gaye swore off drugs and began recording songs for CBS in Brussels in late 1981. About the resulting album's success, Gaye himself admits, "Even I am a little surprised."

He recently rented a three-bedroom house in Palm Springs. It is accessible to his children (Frankie has been returned to his mother) and the music business in Los Angeles but removed from its temptations. He expects a visit from Eugénie but in the meantime lives alone and has already started work on his next album. There are tentative plans next summer to begin his first U.S. tour since 1977.

If all this seems a remarkable comeback, Gaye himself is nonchalant. "I was built with a special nervous system," he says soberly. "Just like Muhammad Ali was built to box, I was built to sing."

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