The House Where ‘What’s Going On’ Was Born

45 years after singing background on Marvin Gaye’s landmark record “What’s Going On,” former Detroit Lion Lem Barney returns to the west-side house where he first learned the song from the late prince of soul.

When Motown founder Berry Gordy bought a 10-bedroom mansion in Detroit’s tony Boston-Edison district in 1967, he decided he’d give his old house in the city’s Bagley neighborhood to his sister Anna. Soon Anna moved into the handsome brick ranch on West Outer Drive with her young artist husband, launching what would become the greatest creative period in his tumultuous career.

His name was Marvin Gaye.

Gaye, then on the brink of superstardom with “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” had grown weary of the stale formula Motown prescribed for him and was tired of being known as the label’s sex symbol. In the wake of the city’s violent rebellion and at the height of the Vietnam War, all of that was about to change.

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In the summer of 1968, Detroit Lions defensive back Lem Barney took a break from training camp one day to drive down Woodward Avenue in search of his favorite singer. After following a few false leads, the NFL’s 1967 Defensive Rookie of the Year found himself on the doorstep of Marvin Gaye.

“It was just my second year in the league,” says Barney, a native of Gulfport, Mississippi. “I’m hearing all the Motown on the radio and I’m digging the music, and one day I just decided I wanted to meet Marvin.”

Barney, then just 22, found his way down to Palmer Park, where he’d heard some of Motown’s biggest stars played golf. But Marvin Gaye was nowhere to be found.

“The guy in the pro shop told me that Marvin lived nearby,” Barney says. “So I go down Seven Mile to Livernois, hang a right, hang a left on Outer Drive, and there it is – Marvin’s house! So I just walk up on the porch and ring the bell.”

Much to his surprise, Gaye answered the door.

“I couldn’t believe it!” Barney says. “I said, ‘Hey, Marvin, I just wanted to introduce myself. My name is Lem Barney, and I play for the Detroit Lions.’ He was like, ‘Man, you’re too small to play football!’”

“I said, ‘You wanna see my driver’s license?’ and he says, ‘Naw, man, come on in!’”

The two hit it off and soon became inseparable. Within months, Barney and his Lions teammate Mel Farr would join forces with Bobby Rogers of the Miracles to play a key role in the making of Gaye’s seminal 1971 album, What’s Going On, providing background vocals on the title track.

Cisley Creech, a Detroit schoolteacher who lives in Gaye’s old house today, remembers it well.

“That was the song in the day!” she says.

The making of “What’s Going On”

In the spring of 1970, as Marvin Gaye was struggling to emerge from a deep depression after the death of Tammi Terrell, he was holed up in the house on Outer Drive tinkering with a new song written by Al Cleveland and the Four Tops’ Obie Benson.

Benson had just returned to Detroit from California, where he’d witnessed a brutal police crackdown on peaceful war protesters. Gaye’s younger brother, Frankie, had just gotten back from Vietnam and helped open his brother’s eyes to the horrors of war.

One night, Gaye invited Barney, Farr, and Rogers over to the house to hang out in the so-called “black room” (named for its black velvet wall paneling). After a few drinks, Gaye sat down at the piano and proceeded to teach the new song to his houseguests.

Once they got their parts down, Gaye jumped up and announced, “Come on, we’re going down to the studio and record this!”

Barney was incredulous. “I was like, ‘Come on, man!’”

But Gaye wasn’t joking.

“So we jump in the car and head on down to Motown,” Barney says. “And the rest is history.”

Back to the studio

To mark the 45th anniversary of the release of What’s Going On, Barney recently embarked on a historic tour of Detroit, returning to Motown’s original headquarters on West Grand Boulevard, where he and Farr cut their vocals all those years ago.

“I still get goose bumps walking in here,” Barney said.

Conspicuously absent in Studio A was his old friend and teammate Farr, who died last August at the age of 70. Gone, too, are Marvin Gaye, Bobby Rogers, bassist James Jamerson, Eddie “Bongo” Brown, and arranger David Van DePitte, who were all essential in the making of the album.

“They’re with us in spirit,” Barney said.

Sam Jolly, Barney, Terry Harrison and Creech in Marvin Gaye’s infamous “black room”

Back in black

Barney’s nostalgic Detroit odyssey ended last weekend back where it all began: at 3067 W. Outer Drive.

Current homeowner Cisley Creech, who grew up nearby, remembers when Barney and Gaye used to go jogging through the neighborhood in the early 1970s.

“Back then, Lem Barney was a household name,” she says. “We all knew that he would run with Marvin. I had a lot of friends in this neighborhood, and one of my girlfriends … would see them running down Outer Drive all the time.”

Standing in the house’s epicenter, Barney fondly recalled Gaye’s infamous “black room.”

“We did a lot of singing in this room,” Barney told Creech and her family, reflecting on the genesis of the song that would change the face of American music.

But Gaye wasn’t satisfied with the success of What’s Going On and soon began to consider a change in careers.

“He used to come to all our games [at Tiger Stadium],” Barney says. “We’d always give him tickets in the upper deck. Next thing you know, he wants to try out with the Lions!”

With no college or even high school gridiron experience, Gaye’s dream of playing in the NFL was a longshot. But he took it seriously and began to train in earnest with Barney and Farr.

When Lions coach Joe Schmidt finally gave him a tryout, Gaye held his own. “He was pretty decent,” Barney says. “He really was. I think if he would’ve started playing sooner, he might’ve had a shot.”

But Gaye’s dream of NFL stardom was not to be. “Coach didn’t want to see him get hurt,” Barney says.

All in the family

Creech says she bought Gaye’s former residence in 2007 after it sat vacant for a few years.

“When I first moved in,” she says, “my mother was afraid because she thought Marvin was killed here.” Gaye, of course, was killed by his father in California in 1984.

“This house just has such character,” Creech says. “There’s something very special about it. My father ended up spending the last three years of his life here with us.”

Creech’s parents divorced in the late 1960s, but when her father became ill a few years ago, he came to live with them once again.

“My parents were living under the same roof for the first time in 47 years,” she says. “It was really wonderful having my father back in the fold again before he passed. So here in Marvin Gaye’s old house, we all finally had closure.”

The longest yard

Before leaving, Barney took a walk out back to see if Marvin Gaye’s old yard looked the way he remembered it. As he stood in front of the very same fire pit pictured on the back of What’s Going On, a light rain began to fall, just as it did the day of the photo shoot for Gaye’s historic album.

Looking skyward, Barney smiled and said, “You know Marvin pushed the button.”

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