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Marvin Gaye: Never-before heard music resurfaces in Belgium

It is 40 years since Marvin Gaye died in Los Angeles - shot dead by his father in the middle of a violent domestic dispute

For the last 40 years, Marvin Gaye has enjoyed a level of enduring fame which he shares with only a handful of other artists – like Elvis, or the Beatles.

They began their careers cutting records on vinyl discs, lived on through the eras of tape cassettes and CDs, and continue to thrive in the age of digital streaming.

It is 40 years since Marvin Gaye died in Los Angeles – shot dead by his father in the middle of a violent domestic dispute.

But his music is still streamed and downloaded around 20 million times a month, and his classic duet with Tammi Terrell, Ain’t No Mountain, has been streamed more than a billion times.

So the value of a cache of audio tapes containing new material recorded by Marvin Gaye could be huge.

They’re part of a strange treasure trove of material associated with the star which lay hidden in Belgium for more than forty years, but which may now be about to make global headlines.

The story of Marvin’s Belgian connection has been told before.

He was living in London and becoming a heavy user of cocaine when he met a Belgian concert promoter in a nightclub. He took the promoter’s business card and a week later called and arranged to move to the coastal city of Ostend.

Ostend fondly remembers Marvin Gaye’s stay – with photos of the star adorning bars he visited

It’s not an exaggeration to say the move may have saved the singer’s life.

He got fit again, jogging and cycling on the flat North Sea landscape, and he returned to the studio, recording one of his greatest hits, Sexual Healing.

For a time he lived in the home of a Belgian musician, Charles Dumolin. The collection of stage costumes, notebooks and tape cassettes is now in the hands of Charles’ family.

But now the BBC can disclose the intriguing possibility that Marvin may have recorded previously unheard new music in the same period, which has lain hidden in Belgium for more than forty years.

Belgian lawyer Alex Trappeniers, who’s a business partner of the family who lay claim to the material, is in no doubt that the fate of a hugely valuable collection of stage costumes, notebooks and never-before heard music is about to be decided.

Speaking exclusively to the BBC, he explained the legal position as he sees it.

“They belong to [the family] because they were left in Belgium 42 years ago,” he says. “Marvin gave it to them and said, ‘Do whatever you want with it’ and he never came back. That’s important.”

At the heart of this story though is that new, never-before heard music.

Alex Trappeniers argues the never-before heard tapes belong to the Dumolin family

Alex played us a brief, tantalising sample of Marvin rehearsing. In a rather eerie moment, the Prince of Motown almost seemed to live again.

He and his backing musicians deliver a complex sequence of harmonies and the great man says self-deprecatingly: “Was the tape-recorder on? I’m not sure I could do that again.”

The task of getting the recordings into some sort of order was huge, but it gives a clear hint as to how big – and how important – this find could be.

“Each time a new instrumental started when Marvin started singing, I gave it a number,” Alex told us. “At the end when I had listened to all the 30 tapes I had 66 demos of new songs. A few of them are complete and a few of them are as good as Sexual Healing, because it was made in the same time.”

One new track above the others makes Alex think we might hear another global hit from Marvin Gaye in the future – just think of the way in which relatively primitive recordings of the Beatles were salvaged and remastered to create their final hit Now and Then.

A legal fight over the ownership of the tapes – and the music – is now brewing.

Alex wouldn’t play us the song – he hasn’t even played it to his wife – but he says simply: “There was one song that when I listened to it for ten seconds I found the music was in my head all day, the words were in my head all day, like a moment of planetary alignment.”

On a more practical level, there’s no doubt about the authenticity of the archive.

We spent an afternoon in a private room in a concert hall in Ostend flicking through page after page of documents revealing every aspect of Marvin Gaye’s life at the time.

There are typed running orders for concert performances, angry letters to his record company, drafts of lyrics for new songs and notebooks filled with private thoughts.

The BBC has seen a rack of Marvin Gaye’s clothes and costumes, including the unmistakeable red suit which he wore on tour. They are, we were told, just a small sample of the total.

It’s not just tapes – Ostend is also home to some of Marvin Gaye’s tour outfits too

But above all there is the music.

We sat, spellbound, looking out at the Ostend promenade where Marvin used to enjoy jogging as we listened to the startling purity and power of that voice in studio recordings which had never been heard before.

It was a spine-tingling moment, and Alex Trappeniers is in no doubt of its potential value.

“We can open a time capsule here and share the music of Marvin with the world,” he said. “It’s very clear. He’s very present.”

But of course stories about intellectual property and music publishing rights are rarely straightforward.

Marvin’s apparent decision to gift this material to Charles who died in 2019 does seem to mean that the collection belongs absolutely to the Dumolin family.

Marvin Gaye died in 1984, shot dead by his own father.

On top of that, Belgium has a rather unusual law which stipulates that any property, however you acquire it, even if you steal it, becomes absolutely yours after a period of 30 years.

So far, so clear.

But that Belgian law doesn’t apply to intellectual property.

So Alex Trappeniers and his partners could end up as the owners of the physical tapes on which the music was recorded, without the right to publish the songs.

And the heirs of Marvin Gaye in the United States could find themselves with a theoretical right to exploit the music but with no way of accessing the music because they don’t own the tapes.

In Alex’s view, the case for some kind of compromise is obvious.

“I think we both benefit, the family of Marvin and the collection in the hands of [Dumolin’s heirs]. If we put our hands together and find the right people in the world, like Mark Ronson or Bruno Mars,. I’m not here to make suggestions but to say, OK, let’s listen to this and let’s make the next album.”

The level of secrecy surrounding the disclosure of Marvin Gaye’s Belgian archive makes it hard to judge what the global impact of the collection might be.

More important still of course will be the question of how all this is received by Marvin Gaye’s children, Marvin III, Nona and Frankie, and by the administrators of his estate.

We reached out to the Gaye family for a response. Lawyers for two of Marvin Gaye’s three children are now aware of the existence of this Belgian collection. It’s possible that negotiations may follow, but they haven’t started yet.

A compromise might be reached between the owners of the physical tapes on the one hand and the owners of the rights on the other.

Morally, there may be people reading this who feel that the collection of documents, costumes and recordings belongs to the Gaye family and should simply be handed over to them.

Source
BBC
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