Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Racism and the National Anthem

I just watched a clip on YouTube that filled in a missing blank in my personal history. And I’m crying my eyes out right now.

In 1985 I was asked to perform live at the Grammy Awards with Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and Howard Jones. The producers wanted us to play a synth medley consisting of one hit from each of us, and ending with the US National Anthem. As the TV show was to be mimed, we were booked to record the backing track the day before the dress rehearsal at Stevie’s studio on Western in Los Angeles, which was a huge and beautiful old movie theater.

This was quite an elaborate process, and it took all day. Towards nightfall Stevie’s manager took myself and Howard aside and told us that Stevie was going to play a practical joke on Herbie, and it was going to be filmed for a TV show called ‘Bloopers.’ Stevie had told Herbie that we’d been recording on a brand new prototype Sony 48-track digital recorder, and that two top Sony executives from Japan were coming to be filmed with us at the session. They showed up, bowing very cheerfully, everybody danced around to our groovy backing track, and the cameraman was getting it all down. But suddenly someone in the control room pressed the wrong button, and the tape went silent. It seemed all 48 tracks had mistakenly gone into ‘erase’ mode, leaving a 5-second silence in our recording.

Of course, everybody but Herbie knew it was all a hoax. They allowed him to suffer for about 5 minutes before telling him the truth. Everybody was delighted with the joke, even Herbie, and around midnight people started to disperse to different parts of the building.

But I was a bit concernced as we had not yet recorded ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, and we were due at the Grammy’s rehearsal in about 10 hours’ time. So I went to look for Stevie in the maze of small rooms scattered around the building. Usually he is pretty easy to find as there’s an entourage of several people with him. But on this occasion he was nowhere to be found.

I eventually tracked Stevie down. He was all alone, in an attic-like room on the top floor of the building filled with old files and papers. He was on his knees, playing a beaten-up upright piano.

I announced my presence, and reminded him we had an anthem to record. He asked if I had any ideas for it. I said, what about a really slow sexy groove on a drum machine, and really spread it out? Stevie thought for a moment, then said ‘uh-uh. Marvin tried that one time man. He sang it that way at an NBA all-star game, and you know what? he never got on TV again until the day he died. Because all the network executives couldn’t handle a black man singing a sexy soul version of the National Anthem.’

Ok, I thought, that wasn’t such a good idea. But the image of Marvin, one of my all time favorite singers, shocking televisionland in his own inimitable style, was too much. So I said ‘wow, that must have sounded pretty great! How did he sing it?’

Stevie’s head stopped moving and for a few seconds he was completely motionless. Then slowly his fingers found the piano keys, and he started to play and sing. He sang the song through to the end. For those two minutes I don’t think my heart beat at all. I couldn’t breathe. I swear if my vital signs had been hooked up to a monitor, it would have been a flatline.

He was simultaneously recalling the song; translating the chords into a gospel style; and playing in his memory banks, if not perhaps the exact licks, then at least the soul and the feeling of Marvin’s vocal performance from two years earlier. His only audience was me, huddled in a corner of this dusty attic. And any single line was one that I (or any almost other singer on the planet) would have given my right eye for.

I’ve told this story a few times over the years. But until tonight, I had never seen Marvin’s actual performance the NBA game. I’d never thought to look for it on YouTube-though now I come to think of it, it’s a natural for someone to put up there. By chance I saw an article today about Marvin, and it included a link to the clip. So, thanks to YouTube, a little piece of history is now complete for me. From the first few seconds I was completely crying my eyes out.

Here it is.

THOMAS DOLBY’s cds include The Golden Age of Wireless, The Flat Earth and the Sole Inhabitant. This essay originally appeared on his blog.