In 2016, Jan Gaye was invited to dinner with Bell Hooks, the great humanist intellectual, and invited me. Jan and I had recently worked together on her autobiography, After the Dance, and Hooks was eager to meet the woman who had been Marvin Gaye’s second wife.
Hooks soon saw what I had already seen in our work together. Jan had a wonderful sense of humour, a bright smile and a brilliant mind. She knew Hook’s handwriting and wasn’t the least bit intimidated by their presence. Within minutes they were talking like old friends. Both women were warm and welcoming. They were also brilliant storytellers.
However, it was Jan’s story that Hooks was dying to talk about.
“You are one of the most honest and courageous women I have ever met,” Bell said. “But I have to ask you – how on earth did you ever survive?”
Jan smiled and replied, “Some spirit inside me kept pushing me in a positive direction.”
“Was this spirit connected to Marvin?” Haken asked.
“Definitely,” said Jan. “In everything that troubled our life together, he conveyed a positive mood of love that somehow prevailed. To this day I put on his music and can’t help but feel my spirit renewed.”
Janis Hunter Gaye died on December 3rd. She was 66 years old. For the past several 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, strikingly beautiful and eager to reconcile her relationship with the singer, who was suffering from depression and drug addiction. We stayed in the house Marvin bought for his parents in downtown Los Angeles. Cute one moment and sour the next, Marvin was beside himself.
Marvin’s mother stepped in with some advice for her daughter-in-law.
“He loves you,” Alberta Gaye said, speaking in the same calm voice that characterized her son. “But because he’s a genius, his head is crowded with too many thoughts. He finds it difficult to organize his feelings. All we can do is be patient.”
Over the years I’ve seen that patience was Jan’s most consistent trait. Enduring the story that Bellhook found so intriguing required almost superhuman patience.
Although Jan was born into a jazz nobility, her childhood was tough. Her father, singer-writer-instrumentalist Bulee “Slim” Gaillard, famous for his hit “Flat Foot Floogie (with a Floy Floy)”, was a bebopper of mythological importance. He was the author of the Slim Gaillard Vout-o-Reenee Dictionary, which describes a hipster language he invented.
Jan’s mother, Barbara, had a short-lived affair with Slim, who was then married and, as he says, “had more children than I can name or remember.”
From the age of 14 months to 14 years, she lived in an unlicensed nursing home in LA where she was constantly abused by the woman who owned the facility.
By the time she was 15, she had found a way to break free.
“Mom knew,” said Jan, “that she could no longer force me to stay in a house I loathed so much.”
By that time her mother had married Earl Hunter, who, in Jan’s words, “was another hyper-hip character with swag and style. He came from a crazy background, but he took me into his home and did his best to love and protect me.”
Days after Jan’s 16th birthday, in 1973, Ed Townsend, a friend of Barbara and Earl’s, wrote with Marvin Gaye, who was then estranged from his first wife Anna, sister of Motown owner Berry Gordy.
During the studio sessions producing Marvin’s megahit Let’s Get It On, Ed introduced Jan to the soul singer.
“I saw her as more than a real girl,” Marvin later told me. “She suddenly appeared as a gift from God.”
His infatuation was profound. Jan has been in love with Marvin since she was 8 years old when she saw him sing “How Sweet It Is” on “American Bandstand”. Now she suddenly found herself in a life of excitement and endless turmoil.
“The early years were beautiful,” she recalls. “Even dreamy.”
Their daughter Nona “Pie” Aisha was born in 1974; their son, Frankie “Bubby” Christian, in 1975.
“In 1973 I wrote my first song – called ‘Jan’ – for the woman who had become my muse, but on a deeper level it was the spiritual and sensual love I felt for Jan that influenced ‘I Want You’. said Marvin, referring to his landmark 1976 album.
Marvin’s psychological challenges wreaked havoc on those closest to him.
“He created pain in his personal life,” Jan suggested, “and turned that pain into musical ecstasy. The more he suffered, the greater his art grew.”
Jan designed Gaye’s iconic signature look in the ’70s: red watch hat, beaded denim shirt, high-heeled silver boots with red laces. She also sang backup vocals on Marvin’s 1977 unworldly hit “Got to Give It Up.”
“She understood my quirks better than I did myself,” Marvin said. “Jan saw my soul.”
Their marriage lasted until their divorce in 1982, but their bond endured. Despite Jan’s brief romances with soul singers Teddy Pendergrass and Frankie Beverly, Marvin’s obsession with his second wife never waned.
“I’m going to write about her,” he told me, referring to “Falling in Love Again,” the closing song of his masterpiece Here My Dear“, “until the day I die.”
Rick James, the late R&B and funk rock star, was one of Jan’s confidants during her difficult times. He spoke to me about their friendship.
“She understood the madness that can accompany gifted artists,” he said. “Jan was all about compassion. She had a strength that could not be broken. Especially when it came to their children. She was the ultimate mother bear, protecting her cubs.”
After Marvin’s death, Jan became the executor of his estate.
“Your steadfast commitment,” said her attorney Mark Levinsohn, “was to ensure the publicity of Marvin’s legacy. She was passionate about Marvin’s music and his dream of inspiring positive change, and dedicated much of her life to achieving that goal.”
In mourning her death, I take comfort in remembering that she did indeed overcome great obstacles. A super strong single mother, she had lovingly raised her children and grandson Nolan Pentz; she had kept Marvin’s artistry alive; she had told her story with unflinching frankness; and she had lived a life of faith.
During our last conversation earlier this year, Jan had told me, “It took me a long time to realize this, but real healing doesn’t come from regret, it comes from gratitude. I am thankful for so much.”
David Ritz, co-composer of the song “Sexual Healing,” is the author of numerous books, including “Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2022-12-11/janis-gaye-marvin-david-ritz Janis Gaye was Marvin Gaye’s muse and so much more