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Niyo: Marvin Gaye's Lions cameo a golden memory 50 years later


John Niyo   | The Detroit News

The memories fade, but the music plays on. So does the laughter all these years later, when you ask Lem Barney to tell a story he has told many times before.

It’s the one about the legendary Marvin Gaye and a football career that never quite got off the ground. The one about a friendship forged between a Motown legend and one of Detroit’s greatest gridiron stars. And specifically, the one about that job interview Gaye finally landed with the Lions, 50 years ago this summer, as he found solace in a time of grief while fulfilling a lifelong dream.

“Hallelujah, yes,” Barney says, chuckling, over the phone from his home in Commerce Township. “It was good, man. It was good.”

And while it’s harder now to remember all the details the way the Hall of Fame defensive back once did — after all this time and all those hits he absorbed in an 11-year NFL career with the Lions — Barney, who’ll celebrate his 75th birthday next week, still sees the reminders on the wall in the home he shares with his wife, Jacqueline.

“Got a gold record here,” Barney said.

Indeed, he does. And it’s from a song that rings as true now — on its golden anniversary — as it did when Gaye invited some friends to join him in the “Snake Pit,” as they called Studio A inside Motown’s Hitsville USA. Yep, two of those voices you hear underneath Gaye’s silky-smooth voice on that protest anthem, “What’s Going On,” belong to Barney — “Yeah, brother. Like, solid. Right on,” he says at one point — and his teammate Mel Farr, who’d both become running mates with the singer in 1968.

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That was a year after the two Lions were named NFL offensive (Farr) and defensive rookies (Barney) of the year, a feat that’s only happened one other time in league history. And only after Barney nearly missed a training camp practice introducing himself to Gaye, the story of which always brings a smile to his face, like it was yesterday.

It was during his second NFL training camp with the Lions — held at Cranbrook in Bloomfield Hills back then — and Barney had time on his hands between the team’s two-a-day practices. He’d also been dying to meet Gaye, whose hit songs he’d been listening to growing up in the deep South in the '60s, from “Pride and Joy” and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)" to "Ain't No Mountain High Enough.”

Barney had an inkling of where he’d find him, too. (“I’d heard it through the grapevine,” he once told me, with a wink.) Gaye had a regular tee time at Palmer Park Golf Course, so that’s where Barney went looking initially. Gaye wasn’t on the course that day, but a club employee told the Lions’ young star where he’d find his house, a couple miles away on Outer Drive, just west of Livernois.

And sure enough, before he could ring the bell twice, there was Gaye in the doorway, trading compliments — turns out he was a big Lions fan — and inviting Barney in for a visit. More than an hour later, Barney checked his watch and realized how much time had flown by while the two were lost in conversation.

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“Practice was in 35 minutes!” Barney said. So after they’d exchanged phone numbers, he excused himself in a hurry, and raced up Woodward in his red '67 Ford Thunderbird — “I must’ve run every light,” he said — making it just in time to avoid the wrath of second-year Lions head coach Joe Schmidt.

Lions lend a hand 

Before long, though, “we had a good friendship going, with me and brother Mel and Marvin.” Gaye would come the Lions games at Tiger Stadium, and afterward they’d all go out to dinner with their wives at Larco’s Inn at the corner of McNichols and San Juan in Detroit. They’d go golfing together, hang out at Gaye’s house, and occasionally they’d tag along to the Motown studio.

It was a turbulent time, obviously. Barney and Farr arrived in Detroit just after the '67 riots. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated the following spring. Gaye’s own brother, Frankie, returned home from the Vietnam War and shared some of the same feelings that had anti-war protesters in the streets, including those killed by members of the Ohio National Guard on the Kent State campus in May 1970.

A couple months earlier, Gaye was left devastated by the loss of his duet partner, Tammi Terrell, with whom he’d recorded some of his biggest hits. She had collapsed in his arms on stage during a concert in October 1967 and later was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor that ultimately took her life at the age of 24. Gaye’s marriage to Anna Gordy, the sister of Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy, was starting to fall apart.

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Barney and Farr were among those who tried to help Gaye cope. They also were the ones who helped convince Gaye he was the artist that needed to record the lyrics that songwriter Al Cleveland and the Four Tops’ Obie Benson had brought him about that same time.

Which is how it came to be that they were the ones Gaye invited to the Motown studio later that summer, along with songwriters Kenny and Elgie Stover and Bobby Rogers of the Miracles, to lay down the background vocals and house-party chatter that would give “What’s Going on?” — a smash hit after its studio-delayed release in 1971 — such a distinctive feel. (That’s Barney with the curious trilling off the top, and it’s him again at the end shouting, “Get the football!”)

It’s also what set the stage for Gaye’s NFL cameo later that summer.

“Marvin said since he gave us a chance at singng,” Barney recalled, “he wanted us to get him a chance to play football.”

Truth is, it’s something he’d been pestering them about for quite some time. It started out as a running joke between his pals and Schmidt, the coach who’d been a All-Pro linebacker and team captain when writer George Plimpton took part in Lions training camp — an experience Plimpton chronicled in the book, “Paper Lion.”

But, “I don’t want to be known as the black George Plimpton,” Gaye explained in an interview with the Free Press in late July of 1970. “I have no ulterior motive. … I’m not writing a book. I just love football.”

'Keep singing'

He had for as long as he could remember, too. As a youngster, he’d occasionally get in trouble for playing in the sandlot instead of being in church, where his father was a minister. (The Watts Branch playground in Washington D.C. where he once played hoops with Dave Bing is now named Marvin Gaye Park.) And as an adult, he was more than just a casual fan.

“Had I not become an entertainer, I’m sure I’d have been a pro athlete,” Gaye said in that same interview. “I love baseball and basketball and I golf in the mid-'80s, but football is the only thing I’ve had a real feeling for. I’ve watched the pros over the years and it became a part of me. I learned to love it and I have confidence I could play.”

As Farr, who passed away in 2015, told the Free Press a half-century ago, “It’s like me saying I’m going to sing at the Copacabana. He’s never trained for it, but being a football player is an obsession with him.”

He did start training seriously, though. Gaye moved the Rolls-Royce out of his garage and turned it into a makeshift gym, started running five miles a day, and worked out regularly at the University of Michigan with Barney and Farr and another future Hall of Famer in Lions tight end Charlie Sanders, who’d been drafted in '68. By Barney's estimation, the once-sinewy, 6-foot-3 Gaye packed on 20 pounds over the course of several months.

And not long after he told Johnny Carson in an appearance on “The Tonight Show” that he was going to try out for the Lions, he finally got his chance.

First, there was a meeting with Schmidt in his office, where the coach asked Gaye, who'd dressed up in a three-piece suit, if he could see some of his game film, only to learn Gaye hadn’t played college football.

How about high school then?

“He didn’t have none of it,” Barney said, laughing again.

But Gaye, who vowed to score a touchdown the first time he touched the ball, wasn’t taking no for an answer. And Schmidt, who’d played for an NFL coach in Buddy Parker who routinely let the good times roll during the Lions’ championship era, knew it wouldn’t hurt to say yes. So he agreed to let Gaye take part in a tryout before the start of fall practice.

“I finally said, ‘OK, bring him out,'’” recalls Schmidt, now 88 and living in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. “Because training camp is so long and so tedious and difficult, you had to have something to break it up. You needed to have a few laughs and enjoy it a little bit. And that was it.

“So he went out and it was a fun day and guys sort of helped him along. He was a pretty good athlete.”

Just not good enough to make an NFL roster, let alone one that’d go on to win 10 games and come up just shy of a berth in the NFC championship game in 1970. So when Gaye's tryout was over, Schmidt tried to let him down easy: “I just told him, ‘You’re a good athlete, but I don’t think you’ve got a chance to make the team. So I suggest you keep singing.'”

Chuckling at the memory, he added, “There’s no doubt he was a better singer than he was a football player.”

jniyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo