How a pair of former Detroit Lions helped inspire one of Marvin Gaye’s most defining records
Behind Marvin Gaye’s NFL tryout
This piece was originally published in August 2015, but we are resurfacing because Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On remains disconcertingly relevant. The project lives at the intersection of race, culture and sports. Finally, Gaye’s song was shipped to radio on Jan. 17, 1971 — the day the Baltimore Colts defeated the Dallas Cowboys 16-13 in Super Bowl V.
Lem Barney had just finished a round of golf at Detroit’s Palmer Park Golf Course in the summer of 1968. Palmer, one of four prominent courses in the area, attracted many of the city’s black celebrities, including Joe Louis, Smokey Robinson and The Temptations.
Barney heard Marvin Gaye, one of his favorite artists, lived nearby. With time to kill before heading back to training camp for afternoon practice, he figured why not? Gaye sang the score to Barney’s high school and college years at the historically black Jackson State University. The second-year defensive back introduced himself to Palmer’s clubhouse employees, who quickly obliged with his request for Gaye’s address.
Barney easily found Gaye’s house, less than a mile and a half from the course. When the legendary Motown crooner and avid sports fan opened the door, he instantly recognized Barney, inviting him in for breakfast. For nearly two hours, the athlete and the singer chatted like longtime friends, bonded by mutual passions: sports and music.
Being embraced by Gaye would come to have its perks. Being excused for being late to practice would never be one of them. Barney glanced at his watch and realized he had less than 30 minutes to hop into his ’67 Ford Thunderbird and make the roughly 13-mile trek to the Cranbrook Upper School grounds in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, where the Lions held training camp.
“I had to run red lights like I was Mario Andretti,” the 1992 Hall of Fame inductee says with a laugh. “Then I had to get changed, put my pads and everything on, and be down on the field in 30 minutes. I must’ve run red lights like I was a bandit!” Barney barely made it on time. Running back Mel Farr asked where Barney had been. Farr’s eyes widened with intrigue upon finding out why Barney nearly committed the cardinal sin of being late to practice. “Marvin Gaye’s house.”
Barney vowed they would all meet soon. And within weeks, the three were inseparable, with Gaye regularly attending Lions practices and games, even playing golf and basketball together.
The two Lions entered Gaye’s life as a dark cloud of uncertainty and depression stalked him.
Tammi Terrell had replaced Kim Weston as Gaye’s recording partner in 1967. The duo’s creative chemistry — her sensual, fluttery vocals and his soulful, embracing delivery — was evident from the beginning, spawning romantic rumors that both denied. Gaye and Terrell produced timeless tunes such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing” and “You’re All I Need To Get By,” inspiring pop culture staples decades later in Hollywood (Remember The Titans) and in hip-hop (Method Man and Mary J. Blige’s “You’re All I Need” and The Notorious B.I.G.’s “My Downfall“).
Their duets were soundtracks of love for black America when race relations, classism and war dominated evening newscasts and morning papers. They recorded three albums in the next two years before their partnership ended tragically.
Terrell had battled migraines since childhood, but the pain on Oct. 14, 1967, became too excruciating to bear. She collapsed in Gaye’s arms while performing at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia.
The medical diagnosis revealed a brain tumor. As she slowly withered away, a large piece of Gaye’s soul did, too. “In my heart, I could no longer pretend to sing love songs for people. I couldn’t perform,” Gaye told a friend. “When Tammi became ill, I refused to sing in public.”
She never recovered. Unable to walk, blind, most of her hair gone, Terrell died on March 16, 1970, 45 days shy of her 25th birthday. Gaye openly sobbed at her funeral, yet gathered the strength to deliver a moving eulogy, telling the crowd of her courage to endure seven brain procedures over two years.
Farr recalled that Gaye stopped singing and recording. “Marvin was in sort of a funk at that time,” he said. So was America. From the mid- to-late 1960s, many events tore at the fabric of the country. Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy’s assassinations were the gasoline; urban uproar lit the match. The Watts riot in Los Angeles and Detroit riots revealed entire communities disgusted by decades of racial and socioeconomic bigotry.
Around the same time, Gaye’s brother Frankie returned from Vietnam filled with horror stories about young men dying in a never-ending, senseless war. And those who did return home alive met everything but a hero’s welcome. These ideas and images rattled Gaye. “Land of the free and home of the brave” apparently didn’t apply to everyone.
“My phone would ring, and it’d be Motown wanting me to start working and I’d say, ‘Have you seen the paper today? Have you read about these kids who were killed at Kent State?’ ” Gaye told David Ritz in Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. “I couldn’t sleep, couldn’t stop crying. The notion of singing three-minute songs about the moon and June didn’t interest me.” But a song whose inspiration came from seeing anti-war protesters harassed and assaulted by police officers? Now that was right up Gaye’s alley.
In 1969, The Four Tops’ Obie Benson and Motown songwriter Al Cleveland constructed the framework of what eventually became “What’s Going On.” After being turned down by different Motown acts, Benson and Cleveland took the idea to Gaye in 1970. Gaye told Barney and Farr about the song after a round of golf, saying he wanted the song to be given to The Originals, a group Gaye had taken under his wing. That idea never got off the ground. Benson was adamant about Gaye recording the song, even offering a percentage of the record. Farr and Barney were just as adamant.
“I said, ‘Nah, Marvin. No!’” Farr recalled. “‘No, Marvin. That’s you, man! You got to sing this!’”
Before the year was out, Gaye finally agreed, coming up with the song’s title while chopping it up with his two buddies having a beer after another round of golf. But he’d record the song only under one condition: If Farr and Barney, NFL offensive and defensive rookies of the year just three years earlier with the Lions, performed background vocals.
The request didn’t seem real initially, especially for Farr, who never hid his musical shortcomings. But Gaye’s ultimatum was serious. They had been in the studio with Gaye before as guests, but now he wanted to put them to work. “He says, ‘Lem, you take this part,’ ‘Mel, you take this part,’ ” Barney recalled, the excitement in his voice rising as he recounts the recording session. “The next time you listen to it, in the beginning when it says, ‘Hey, brother, what’s happening?! Solid! Right on! Mother, mother …’ We backgrounded him on the whole song, man!”
The two Lions helped revive Gaye’s spirit, battered through current events and all but dormant since Terrell’s passing. He came alive in the studio, conducting each portion of the session with an orchestra conductor’s precision and a mad scientist’s creativity. Where Malcolm and Martin inspired change through words, Gaye believed his could, too.
“The song was exactly about what was happening in this world, you know?” Farr said. “What he did, he just wanted to put it in lyrics. He wrote everything. He did it all. He was a very socially conscious individual about things being equal here.
“If you look at ‘What’s Going On,’ it’s the same thing that’s going on in the world today,” Farr continued. “You talkin’ ’bout wars, racism, the stuff the African-American is going through today. What’s going on?!”
Barney remembers the song’s impact in the Lions’ locker room long before Motown gave the green light. “Mel and I would talk about it all the time,” Barney said, laughing. “It was a hit before it became a hit.”
Not long after the recording session, Gaye unleashed another bombshell. He, Barney and Farr were already musical collaborators. Now Gaye wanted them to be teammates.
Trying out for a professional football team is difficult. Trying out for a professional football team at 31 with no experience sounds like the plotline of a yet-to-be-filmed Kevin Hart movie.
Frankie Gaye had long known of his brother’s sports obsession, but this was a stretch. He recalled the conversation in his book, Marvin Gaye, My Brother.
“Don’t even try to discourage me. Smokey [Robinson] said I’m insane, but he’s hanging in with me because, you know what?” Gaye asked.
“What?” Frankie Gaye said.
“I’d rather catch a pass and score a touchdown in Tiger Stadium,” Gaye said, “than rack up another gold record.”
Tiger Stadium was the Lions’ home for 36 years, before the Pontiac Silverdome and Ford Field. Gaye religiously attended games at Detroit’s athletic cathedral. He enjoyed the players’ camaraderie on and off the field, yearning for similar bonds. Barney and Farr, like Frankie Gaye, didn’t believe Gaye, but quickly realized he was as serious about trying out for the Lions as he was about having them record “What’s Going On.” They sang with Gaye, so why couldn’t he run routes with them?
Barney and Farr couldn’t guarantee a spot on the team, much less a tryout. Swaying the coaching staff to give him a serious opportunity — long before Master P and the Charlotte Hornets — was, at best, a pipe dream. Still, Gaye fully committed himself to an intense workout regimen, running 4-5 miles per day and lifting weights. Occasionally, he’d work out at the University of Michigan. Gaye even transformed portions of his house into a gym. Farr recalled the singer moving his Rolls-Royce and other cars out of the garage to make room.
Gaye bulked up nearly 30 pounds during the training. Unlike in other periods of his life, drugs — most notably cocaine — were absent. Gaye also understood this was a long shot. But he wanted his NFL dream to be taken seriously. For that to happen, Gaye had to take the process seriously.
He trained with Farr, Barney and future Hall of Fame receiver Charlie Sanders. Besides the university and Gaye’s garage, they trained at parks and local high schools, anywhere a productive workout could take place. Athletic limitations and all, he wanted this. Badly.
“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.” Word circulated around the city that Marvin Gaye — yes, Motown’s Marvin Gaye — had been preparing for a tryout with the Lions.
Joe Schmidt, then Detroit’s head coach and a fan of Gaye’s music, was admittedly impressed when he discovered two of his star players were featured on a song of Gaye’s. Excitement quickly morphed into befuddlement when Barney and Farr relayed Gaye’s football fantasy. He finally told them to tell Marvin to come to his office to see whether he was serious.
Forty-five years later, Barney vividly recalled the phone call to Gaye:
Barney: “Guess what?!’
Gaye: “What is it?’
Barney: “Coach Schmidt wants to meet with you!'”
Gaye: “I know this is it! This is my shot! Don’t drive! I’ll come by and pick you up in the limo!”
“He was so fired up,” Barney recalled. “He had on a three-piece suit. I mean, he was dressed to the nines!”
Gaye didn’t waste a second before selling himself in the interview. His confidence beamed even brighter than his suit: He told Schmidt he believed he could not only start but score a touchdown the first time he touched the ball. Schmidt asked whether he had any footage of when he played in college. Gaye never attended college. What about high school? Marvin never played in high school either. He dropped out at 17 and enlisted in the Air Force.
“I assumed [he’d at least] played in high school,” Schmidt, an eight-time first-team All-Pro and 1973 Hall of Fame inductee, said, laughing. “They [Barney and Farr] said they would try and get him a tryout. And I said I [didn’t] think so. But it was kind of funny and kind of neat at the same time.”
Shortly before training camp, Schmidt, for reasons even he can’t fully explain, had a change of heart. The Lions were holding a three-day shoes-and-shorts workout at the University of Michigan. He couldn’t guarantee anything, but Schmidt would try Gaye out at several positions, including running back, tight end, wide receiver and fullback.
Before beginning his tryout, in front of about 20 people on the field and in the bleachers, Gaye said a prayer with Barney and Farr. Whatever happened, he could accept the outcome. Gaye had set a goal and achieved it: He’d get a shot at playing in the NFL alongside two of his closest friends. He acted like the consummate pro, running routes and lining up wherever asked. For someone who’d never played competitive football, he was decent. But decent wasn’t good enough in Schmidt’s mind.
Privately, Schmidt cringed at the wood-layers of their day — Deacon Jones, Chuck Howley or Dick Butkus — violently greeting one of America’s most beloved musicians running across the middle. Gaye would’ve been a moving target. That was too much burden for any coach’s conscience.
Gaye didn’t receive a training camp invite. His tryout was the end of the fantasy. He would go back to a recording studio and watch Farr and Barney ply their trade on Sundays. Afterward, Farr said, “Coach just told him, ‘I love you, Marv. I love your attitude.’ But it just wasn’t enough to push him over the level where Coach would want to put him in pads and add that really physical contact and ruin his life. [Gaye] was appreciative of that.”
“I think it sort of satisfied his desire to have an opportunity,” Schmidt says now.
Schmidt hesitates to admit he helped Gaye overcome his personal funk. He doesn’t deserve that much credit, the old ball coach said. But he did play a small role in the healing process Farr and Barney helped ignite. That mattered more to Gaye than making the team or taking a slant pass 60 yards to the house.
The song, the training, the mental commitment and the tryout allowed Gaye to clear his mind, albeit briefly. He needed the escape. The time away from music brought joy, a feeling that was anything but constant in Gaye’s life. Not the kind money or material possessions produced. He never cared much about money anyway. The joy Gaye found came from living life on his own terms.
“Drugs were not a part of his life at that time,” Farr reflected. “I’ve never seen Marvin happier than he was then.” Gaye’s emotional reprieve proved temporary.
Farr and Barney last saw Gaye at the Detroit stop in June of the singer’s 1983 tour, the final trek of his career. Twelve years had passed since the release of “What’s Going On,” days after Super Bowl Sunday in 1971. The album — which Motown head Berry Gordy implored Gaye to complete after the instant success of the single he initially loathed — redirected the course of popular political music. Gaye, meanwhile, remained steadfastly loyal to Barney and Farr, awarding them both gold records. The plaques still hang in their homes.
The lows revealed the destruction of a man — whose music defined a generation of all races finding themselves sexually, socially and emotionally — headlined by drug addiction and mounting tax issues that led to a self-imposed European exile in the early 1980s.
“Sexual Healing,” found on his last album, 1982’s Midnight Love, placed Gaye atop the music world again. To the public, Gaye had reasserted himself as a pop culture dynamo. In 1983, he captured the only two Grammys of his career and delivered a soulful, moving rendition of the national anthem at the NBA All-Star Game at The Forum in front of Magic Johnson, Julius Erving and Larry Bird.
His personal life, though, was filled with demons and voices in his head convincing him death lurked around the corner. The negative influences in Gaye’s life had returned tenfold by Barney and Farr’s last encounter with Gaye. They helped rescue him from depression 13 years earlier. History, unfortunately, wouldn’t repeat itself.
Dozens of people roamed in and out of Gaye’s dressing room, allegedly including a preacher he brought on tour with him. Actual clergy, competing for time and space with drugs. The two former Lions greeted their friend as they always had, exchanging hugs and high-fives, and reminisced about simpler times. Farr remembered, however, staring in amazement and terror as Gaye drifted further and further into a sedated abyss. Gaye performed, flaunting his storied sex appeal to the crowd. Where legions of fans saw Gaye, the bedroom savant with a one-of-a-kind soul, Farr saw a zombie.
“After the performance, we got back to the dressing room,” Farr said, the pain in his voice still evident 30 years later. “He had all those hangers-on giving him this drug and this drug. I said, ‘Wow, man. I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ It was that bad.
“Lem and I, we felt for him. These people were taking advantage of him. [There was] nothing we could do. There weren’t cellphones back then. It was difficult trying to get to him because he had everybody around him. They didn’t want us to talk to Marvin about ‘Hey, Marv, man, you got to stop this! It ain’t good.’ ”
Farr, Gaye and the voices were correct. The sun goes down, and heroes eventually die. Gaye — the blueprint for wickedly talented and tormented artists after him like Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur and Amy Winehouse — didn’t last much longer. He was murdered by Marvin Gay Sr., his father and lifelong antagonist, less than a year later. On April Fools’ Day, no less. The fatally flawed father-son relationship was the foundation of Gaye’s demons.
Had it not been for an adoring mother who embraced his talents, Gaye said, “I think I would have been one of those child suicide cases you read about in the papers.”
Barney and his wife attended Gaye’s funeral.
Despite his tragic final days, Gaye’s life, love and loyalty are what his friends, collaborators and not-so-nearly teammates cherish far beyond playing days and legendary recording sessions.
“I’ve never seen a more genuine person than Marvin Gaye,” Farr said. “I think, like all the geniuses, they kind of live in their own world. The Michael Jacksons, the Whitney Houstons, those kind of people that left us out here early but they were real, true geniuses.”
Farr was interviewed for this article on July 13, 2015. On Aug. 3, 2015, he died suddenly in his home at the age of 70. This is believed to be his last interview.
Schmidt couldn’t resist pondering the alternate-universe possibilities had Gaye made that playoff-bound 1970 Lions team. “I love Lem, Mel, Charlie Sanders and those guys. Not only were they great football players, they [were] great human beings,” Schmidt said. “Maybe if we had Marvin on our team, he might’ve gotten some scores for us. Now that would’ve been a helluva story, man!”
What about Marvin Gaye catching the game-winning touchdown in the Super Bowl?
“Now that would be a movie.”
Barney, Farr and Gaye’s friendship very well could be.