In 2016, Jan Gaye was invited to dinner with the great humanist intellectual Bell Hooks, and he invited me too. Jan and I recently worked together on his autobiography “After the Dance,” and Hooks was eager to meet the woman who became Marvin Gaye’s second wife.
Hooks soon saw what I had already seen in our work together. Jan had a great sense of humor, a bright smile and a brilliant mind. He knew Hooks’ writing and hadn’t been in the least afraid of its presence. In a matter of minutes, they talked like old friends. Both women were warm and welcoming. They were also brilliant storytellers.
Still, what Hooks was eager to discuss was Jan’s story.
“You are one of the most honest and courageous women I know,” Bell said. “But I have to ask you – how did you survive?”
Jan smiled and replied, “A spirit within me kept pushing me in the positive direction.”
“Was that spirit connected to Marvin?” hooks asked.
“Absolutely,” Jan said. “He conveyed a positive spirit of love that somehow prevailed, despite all the troubling things about the life we lived together. Even today I listen to his music and I can’t help feeling renewed.”
Janis Hunter Gaye died on December 3. She was 66 years old. For the past few years she has lived with her immediate family in Providence, RI.
I first met Jan in 1979 while working with Marvin on his biography “Divided Soul.” She was 23 years old, stunningly beautiful and eager to reconcile her relationship with the singer, who suffered from depression and drug addiction. We were at the house Marvin bought for his parents in downtown Los Angeles. One moment sweet, the next sour Marvin was out of his mind.
Marvin’s mother stepped in to offer some advice to his daughter-in-law.
“He loves you,” said Alberta Gaye, speaking in the same calm voice that characterized her son. “But because he’s a genius, his mind is full of so many thoughts. He’s having trouble sorting out his emotions. All we can do is be patient.”
Over the years I’ve found that patience is Jan’s most enduring trait. It took almost superhuman patience to endure the story that Bell Hooks found so fascinating.
Although Jan was born into a jazz royal family, his childhood was tough. His father, Bulee “Slim” Gaillard, a singer-writer-instrumentalist, was a bebopper of mythological significance, famous for his hit song “Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy Floy)”. He was the author of “The Thin Gaillard Vout-o-Reenee Dictionary,” describing an innovative language he had invented.
Jan’s mother, Barbara, had a brief affair with Slim, who was married at the time and, as she says, “has more children than I can name or remember.”
From 14 months to 14 years old, he lived in an unlicensed foster home in Los Angeles, where he was constantly harassed by the woman who owned the facility.
By the time he was 15, he had found a way to free himself.
“My mother,” said Jan, “knew that she could no longer force me to stay in a house I hated so much.”
By then, her mother had married Earl Hunter, who was, in Jan’s words, “another hyper-cool character with cool and style.” He had a strange past, but he welcomed me into his home and did his best to love and protect me.”
In 1973, days after Jan’s 16th birthday, Ed Townsend, a friend of Barbara and Earl’s, was writing to Marvin Gaye, separated from his first wife, Anna, who was the sister of then-Motown owner Berry Gordy.
Ed introduced Jan to the soul singer during the studio sessions, during which Marvin would produce the mega-hit “Let’s Get It On.”
“I saw her as more than just a real girl,” Marvin later told me. “Suddenly it appeared as a gift from God.”
His love was deep. Jan had a crush on Marvin since he was 8 when he saw her singing “How Sweet It Is” on “American Bandstand”. She now found herself suddenly in a state of immense excitement and endless turmoil.
“The first years were good,” he recalled. “Even like a dream.”
Their daughter Nona “Pie” Aisha was born in 1974; Their son Frankie “Bubby” Christian in 1975.
“In 1973 I wrote my first song, ‘Jan’, for the woman who was my muse, but on a deeper level, it was the spiritual and sensual love I felt for Jan that shaped ‘I Want You’.” said Marvin, referring to his landmark 1976 album.
Marvin’s psychological difficulties created chaos for those closest to him.
“He created pain in his personal life,” Jan theorized, “and he turned that pain into musical enthusiasm. The more he suffered, the greater his art.”
Jan designed Gaye’s iconic look in the ’70s: red watch cap, beaded denim shirt, high-heeled silver boots with red laces. She also sang backup vocals on Marvin’s 1977 hit Don Quixote, “Got to Give It Up,” she.
“He understood my temperament more than I did,” said Marvin. “Jan saw my soul.”
Their marriage lasted until they divorced in 1982, but their ties remained. Despite Jan’s brief romances with soul singers Teddy Pendergrass and Frankie Beverly, Marvin’s obsession with his second wife never waned.
“I will write about him,” he said, referring to the closing song of his masterpiece “Here Canım”, “Falling in Love Again.””“until the day I die.”
The late R&B and funk-rock star Rick James was one of Jan’s confidants during his difficult times. He told me about his friendships.
“He understood the craziness that can accompany talented artists,” he said. Jan was all about compassion. He had an unbreakable strength. Especially when it comes to children. She was the ultimate Mother Bear protecting her cubs.”
After Marvin’s death, Jan became his estate agent.
“His unwavering commitment,” said his attorney, Mark Levinsohn, “was to make Marvin’s legacy stand out. He was passionate about Marvin’s music and his dream of inspiring positive change, and has devoted much of his life to achieving that goal.”
As I mourn his death, it is comforting to remember that he actually overcame great hurdles. As a super-powered single mother, she had raised her children and grandson, Nolan Pentz, with loving care; It kept Marvin’s art alive; he told his story with unflinching candor; and lived a life built on faith.
In our last conversation earlier this year, Jan told me: “It took me a long time to understand this, but true healing comes with gratitude, not regret. I am grateful for many things.”
Co-composer of the song “Sexual Healing” David Ritz is the author of numerous books, including “Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye.”