Detroit Lions cornerback Lem Barney was on a mission: he wanted to meet Marvin Gaye. As a member of the Lions since 1967, Barney was in Detroit as Motown began to spread its influence over a global market with acts like The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, and The Temptations. One of the pivotal acts in Motown’s enormous success was Marvin Gaye, whose diverse vocal abilities made him the perfect pairing for duets with singers like Diana Ross and Tammi Terrell.
Barney was a fan of Gaye’s, and he figured that he could leverage his connections at the Palmer Park Golf Course filled with Motown stars to find out where the singer lived. After poking around and getting an address, Barney showed up at Gaye’s door one morning. Gaye himself was a sports fan and recognised Barney, subsequently inviting him inside for breakfast. The two hit it off, and when they made plans to meet again, Barney asked to bring along his teammate Melvin Farr. The three became fast friends, with Barney and Farr even being invited to Motown sessions. Later, they could be recognised, along with Hall of Famer Charlie Sanders, creating the party atmosphere on the title track to Gaye’s seminal LP What’s Going On?.
Before those lively sessions, Gaye was in an emotional state of depression. Having lost Terrell to a brain tumour in 1970, Gaye vowed to never sing in public again and looked to retire from the industry altogether. It was then that he contacted his friends on the Lions, seeking out a tryout to become a professional football player.
Gaye certainly had the build: although relatively short by today’s enormous standards, the 6″ 1′ hopeful was fit and had the drive to make his dream a reality. The only problem was that Gaye had never played football before in his life. “Don’t even try to discourage me,” Gaye told his brother Frankie. “Smokey [Robinson] said I’m insane, but he’s hanging in with me because, you know what? I’d rather catch a pass and score a touchdown in Tiger Stadium than rack up another gold record.”
“Marvin wasn’t a gifted athlete. Marvin was a great singer,” Farr said. “You know how the things that you really can’t do, you either stick with it or try something else? That’s kind of who Marvin was. But he was sincere about it.” Gaye began a strict regimen of running and weight lifting, eventually gaining 30 pounds of muscle in order to withstand the violent sport of gridiron football.
According to head coach Joe Schmidt, Gaye was pretty good for someone who had never played football before. Competent at running routes, speedy, and with an inherent knowledge of the game he watched every Sunday, Gaye was impressive. But a recurring visit kept recurring to Schmidt: a 275-pound defensive linebacker going full force into one of America’s premier singers, ruining (and possibly ending) his life.
The bitter truth was that Gaye was just too inexperienced and too risky to put on the field. Although disappointed, Gaye accepted the decision with grace, happy to have been given a fair shot and a legitimate tryout. He returned to the studio with a renewed passion and set about recording What’s Going On?, proving his future was still in music.