Uniquely Detroit: How Lem Barney met Marvin Gaye

Then-Detroit Lions player set out to find his favorite Motown singer

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DETROIT – The year was 1968. 

Detroit Lions cornerback Lem Barney had just finished training camp practice and headed south on Woodward Avenue with one goal in mind: to find and meet his favorite Motown artist, Marvin Gaye. 

Barney heard that Gaye often played golf at the Palmer Park Golf Course. 

"I asked the manager, 'Is Marvin Gaye out playing today?' He said, 'No, he's not playing today, sir. But if you continue down 7 Mile, he's the second block at Outer Drive," Barney said. 

Barney confidently followed through and walked right up to Gaye's front door. 

"I hit the doorbell, and it's a chime, bling, bloom, bloom, bloom, bling, bloom. The door opens and all of a sudden, it's Marvin. And he said, 'Yeah man, what's up man?' I said, 'Look, Mr. Gaye, my name is Lem Barney. I just came by to tell you what a great musician and entertainer you are,'" Barney said. "He said, 'Who'd you say you are?' I said, 'Lem Barney.' He said, 'Not the guy that plays for the Lions?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Man you're too small.' I said, 'No, it's me man.'"

Gaye invited Barney in, and the rest is history. 

"We must've talked about an hour and a half, and I looked at my watch, and I've got 35 minutes before the next practice ... I must have ran every red light on Woodward," Barney said. 

Gaye started going to Lions games.

"Afterwards, we would go to different restaurants for dinner with the wives and the team, and Marvin would go with us. Sometimes he would entertain," Barney said. 

One day in 1970, while Barney was visiting with Gaye with fellow Lion Mel Farr, Gaye took them over to Hitsville U.S.A for a recording of "What's Going On." 

"He said, 'We're going to record this.' I said, 'OK. Well, we had been over there before with him but there wasn't no we in it," Barney said. "I said, 'Wow, you're recording this?' He said, 'Yeah, you're going to be on the record.'"

The song turned out to be a smash, selling more than 2 million copies. 

Web-only video: Lem Barney sings "What's Going On"

"It was a joy for me to have met Marvin. The relationship that we established was like a dream come true," Barney said. 

Singing with Gaye was such a memorable experience for Barney that he said it tops football.

"The best I did in football was make seven Pro Bowls, one playoff game in my 11-year career. Singing background, I got a gold record," Barney said.

Web-only video: Lem Barney talks about Marvin Gaye's football skills

Barney recently went back to Gaye's home on Outer Drive and shared stories with the current owners

On May 21, the Motor City Soul Club will pay tribute to the 45th anniversary of “What’s Going On,” by playing it and other Motown hits at the St. Cece’s Pub at 10 p.m.

A collaborative piece by Dave Mesrey is also appearing in the Metro Times. 

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