WASHINGTON — He brought us social — and sexual — healing.
Sunday night, the eternal Marvin Gaye was honored at the Kennedy Center’s annual Spring Gala with this year’s theme “How Sweet It Is: A Tribute to Marvin Gaye.”
The black-tie event was hosted by Whoopi Goldberg, a rare EGOT, having won an Emmy (“The View”), Grammy (“Whoopi Goldberg”), Oscar (“Ghost”) and Tony (“Thoroughly Modern Millie”), not to mention a pair of Golden Globes (“The Color Purple” and “Ghost”).
“He never scolded, he never preached; he seduced,” Goldberg told the crowd about Gaye’s signature style. “Even with his protest songs, somebody somewhere was making a baby.”
Indeed, the Motown legend ranged from smooth, sexy, lovemaking gems like “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing,” to powerful social commentary like “Mercy Mercy Me” and “What’s Going On,” which was recently voted the No. 4 Greatest Song of All Time by Rolling Stone magazine.
Gaye’s legacy has echoed through the generations, inspiring today’s biggest stars, including Tony nominee Leslie Odom Jr., who plays Aaron Burr in the Broadway smash “Hamilton.”
“My parents, one of the best things they ever gave me was the gift of their music, which was the best music America probably ever produced, the music of the ’60s and ’70s,” Odom Jr. told WTOP.
“On long car rides, we would listen to Marvin and The O’Jays and The Spinners and Four Tops and Temptations, so that’s really where I learned to sing.”
Odom Jr. was a last-minute substitute Sunday for Michael Bublé, who’s undergoing vocal cord surgery. But you could argue that Odom Jr. is the hotter hand, just a week away from what could be a record-breaking night for “Hamilton” at the Tony Awards.
The night’s headliner was R&B singer Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, an 11-time Grammy winner who co-founded LaFace Records with L.A. Reid in 1989. Over the years, he’s sold more than 500 million units worldwide, be it recording his own hits like “Every Time I Close My Eyes,” or writing and producing more than 150 top 10 R&B hits and 51 top 10 pop hits, including 16 No. 1 singles.
“I don’t know who doesn’t love Marvin Gaye,” Babyface told WTOP. “I’ve always looked at him as a national treasure for America and for the world. We all love his music and have grown up with it. It’s a part of our DNA … He was quite an artist. We don’t make ’em like that anymore.”
If anyone knows music, it’s Babyface. His collaborations include Whitney Houston (“Exhale: Shoop Shoop”), Eric Clapton (“Change the World”), Madonna (“Take a Bow”), Toni Braxton (“Breath Again”), TLC (“Baby-Baby-Baby”), Boyz II Men (“I’ll Make Love to You”), Brandy (“Sittin’ Up In My Room”), Pink (“Most Girls”), Faith Evans (“Never Gonna Let You Go”), Mariah Carey (“Never Forget You”), En Vouge (“Whatever”), Mary J. Blige (“Not Gon’ Cry”) and The Whispers (“Rock Steady”).
“What he was so great at was he always reached inside and wrote from an emotion that lived inside of him and he wasn’t afraid to bare it,” Babyface said. “He put it all out there and put it on his records, so you can only imagine that he had to be somewhat tortured for how he laid it all out there.”
Babyface performed a rendition of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” before closing the night out with a duet of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” with Valerie Simpson, who co-wrote the legendary song with late husband Nick Ashford.
The Ashford & Simpson duo penned multiple classics, including “You’re All I Need to Get By,” “Reach Out and Touch Somebody’s Hand,” “I’m Every Woman,” “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing,” “Solid,” “Your Precious Love” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned.”
— Jason Fraley (@JFrayWTOP) June 6, 2016
Motown fans were also treated to Mary Wilson of The Supremes, who sang “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” as well as performances by Andra Day, Ledisi and Jussie Smollett of TV’s “Empire.”
Local talents were also on display, from the local tap-dancing act The Manzari Brothers, to the student vocal ensemble group The Mellow Tones from D.C.’s Duke Ellington School for the Arts.
Still, the surprise showstopper may have been Brian Sledge — aka BJ The Chicago Kid — during his rendition of “Let’s Get It On.” Sledge has performed backup vocals for Mary J. Blige, Musiq Soulchild, Mary Mary and Kanye West and is currently working on tracks with Snoop Dogg and Chris Brown. In fact, he is coming for a pair of shows in Baltimore and D.C. in July.
The Kennedy Center also handed out its inaugural Award for the Human Spirit, a national recognition to be presented each year to two individuals who have had an enduring impact on the advancement of arts and culture. This year’s recipients were philanthropist Wallis Annenberg and Chicago-based conceptual artist Theaster Gates.