45 years later, Detroit Lion Lem Barney remembers ‘What’s Going On’ 

An NFL Hall of Famer’s role in Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece

“What’s Going On” is a hymn to man. A soulful, spiritual anthem that has stood the test of time. After all these years, the song — as critic Ben Edmonds once put it — still floats in its own atmosphere.

Forty-five years ago this week, Marvin Gaye’s landmark album of the same name was released on Motown’s Tamla label. Motown founder Berry Gordy initially hated the title track and refused to release it, calling it “the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” But when Gaye threatened to go on strike, Gordy relented. When the song finally hit the airwaves, it skyrocketed to the top of the charts. In 2007, Metro Times understandably voted it No. 1 in our list of “100 Greatest Detroit Songs.”

In the years leading up to the album’s release, Gaye befriended Detroit Lions stars Mel Farr and Lem Barney, who, along with Bobby Rogers of the Miracles, were recruited to sing background on the title track.

Gaye, of course, died tragically at his father’s hand in 1984. In the years since, Rogers, Farr, arranger David Van DePitte, and many of Motown’s legendary house band, the Funk Brothers, have also died. But Barney is still with us, and recalls the making of an American classic.

We caught up with Barney recently at the Motown Museum to see what the song and the album mean to him 45 years after their release.

Metro Times: Lem Barney, what's goin' on?

Lem Barney: Hey, brother, like solid. Right on.

MT: Ha! Is that your line?

Barney: It is!

MT: Who's making that wild trilling sound at the start of the song?

Barney: That's me!

MT: So that's you and Mel Farr, Bobby Rogers from the Miracles, Elgie Stover, and Kenny Stover, you guys are the party at the start of the song on the album version. Were your lines scripted or did you guys just ad-lib 'em?

Barney: No, it wasn't scripted at all. Marv wanted to make it like a party, man. He told us to just go on and do it.

MT: I think it's Stover who kicks the song off, "Hey, what's happenin'!" Who's that at the end going, "Get the football! Get the football!"

Barney: That's me too!

MT: Next thing you know, you're gonna tell us you played the bass, the piano, and the drums!

Barney: [Takes a seat at the vintage drum kit in Studio A.] I used to play drums in high school.

MT: So 45 years later, Marvin and What's Going On are still relevant and still as poignant as ever. Does it still resonate with you?

Barney: Absolutely. Believe it or not, I listen to the album every day. In the mornings, I pray in my library, then ... I'll go down to my man cave and my workout room, and I'll play some Marvin down there. Then I'll come up and sit in my library and play my man again. So, you know, I've got him covered like a wide receiver!

[The opening notes of "What's Happening Brother" fill the air of Studio A].

Barney: Oh, man. That's strong. I work out to this!

MT: That's solid.

Barney: Right on!

MT: So here we are in Studio A, the heart of Motown Records. What's it like to be back in "the snakepit" again?

Barney: Man, it's just a joy to get back here after all these years. It really is.

MT: So when you get to Detroit in 1967, you're 21, Marvin's already a star, Motown's in its heyday, but the rebellion has just broken out on 12th Street, and the city is in crisis. What do you remember from that first visit? I read that you were actually driving to Detroit during the rebellion.

Barney: I got here the week after the riot, 1967, reporting to training camp out at Cranbrook. It was crazy across the world, man. You had the Vietnamese conflict, we had the Watts riot in Los Angeles, there were some things down in Birmingham [Alabama] that went crazy, and then the Detroit riot. It was just unbelievable, but I was here for a reason and that reason was for football. So even though Detroit was going through some tough times, I still had to stay focused.

MT: Where'd you stay your rookie year?

Barney: Our first two years, we stayed at the Leland House, both Mel Farr and I. Mel was the Lions' No. 1 draft choice out of UCLA, and I was the No. 2 choice from Jackson State.

MT: What was your first encounter with Motown?

Barney: We were still in training camp out at Cranbrook, and one day after morning practice I drove down to Palmer Park cuz I heard that's where some of the Motown guys played [golf]. They told me just take Woodward down to Seven Mile and make a right. I had about an hour-and-a-half to kill before our second practice. So I get down there and I ask a guy in the clubhouse if Marvin's playin' today. He said, "No, Marvin don't normally play till later on in the evening." Then he said, "He don't live that far from here. Just take Seven Mile, make a right on Livernois, and make a left on Outer Drive."

So I get over there, and I just walk up on his doorstep and ring the doorbell. It was a musical chime. It was bling bloom bloom bloom bloom bling! I stand back a minute and as I'm about to ring it again, the door opens up and it's Marvin! He says, "Hey, man, what's happenin'?" And I said, "My name is Lem Barney." He said, "Not the guy with the Detroit Lions!" And I said, "Yeah," and he said, "Man, you're too small to be playin' football!" [Laughs] Then he says, "Come on in!"

So I go in, and we kick it and he's making breakfast or lunch or somethin', and next thing I know I look at my watch, and I'm like, 'Man, I've got 25 minutes to get back to practice!' I had a '67 T-Bird, so I hop in ... man, I must've did 85 miles an hour up Woodward just to get back to camp on time!

MT: So the story goes that when Obie Benson of the Four Tops first brought the song to Marvin, Marvin wanted to give it to the Originals. But Obie and Anna Gaye talked him out of it.

Barney: That's right. Mel and I wanted him to record it too, which, of course, he did, and the rest is history.

MT: The album was recorded here in Studio A, partly in Studio B at Golden World, and possibly also at United Sound. Do you remember where you and Mel cut your vocals?

Barney: I think it was here.

MT: What kind of singing experience did you have before "What's Going On"?

Barney: Growing up in [Gulfport, Miss] the Barney household with my mom and dad, on Sunday morning church wasn't an option. If you slept in our house Saturday night, I don't care who you were, your butt was going to church Sunday morning. So, you know, I started off singing in the junior choir. Then I made it to the big choir and then off to college, where I had to sing songs as a fraternity Kappa.

MT: How'd you learn the song in the first place?

Barney: Well, we'd go over to Marvin's house and we'd just kick around a have a beer and do some singing. We were having so much fun. Marv would be like, "Mel, you take this part; Lem, you take this part ..."

MT: I've heard Mel Farr say that singing wasn't exactly his strong suit. But you can carry a tune and with a little help from Bobby Rogers, I guess you guys made out all right. 

Barney: We sure did, man. Who'd have thought we'd end up with a gold record!

MT: So as "What's Going On" is climbing the charts in early '71 [eventually reaching No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Soul Singles chart], you spent a month in the Pacific visiting American troops wounded in Vietnam. What effect did that have on you?

Barney: Well, it was Marvin's brother Frankie — his experience in 'Nam really inspired the album. At that time, the war was still going on. I did a month in the [Pacific] visiting troops in the hospitals. I went over with [NFL players] Bob Lilly, Tom Matte, Ernie Wright, and Tom Dempsey, the kicker from the New Orleans Saints.

I saw guys with quarter skulls, guys with no limbs, no arms, stomachs shot all out, eyes, faces blown off, fingers ... Seeing those guys giving up [their] lives — it gave me a lot of intestinal fortitude, man. I thought, "What I'm doing [in the NFL] ain't nothin' compared to what these guy are doin' here."

So we made a pact that we would never cry about another football injury at all, man. (In a bizarre twist, just months later, Barney would find himself holed up with a groin injury at Henry Ford Hospital, helplessly listening to the radio as his teammate Chuck Hughes lay dying on the turf at Tiger Stadium.)

MT: What does it mean to you when you sing "Brother brother? Sister sister?"

Barney: It's a message, man. It's a universal message if you really listen to it, what Marvin was expressing. And I felt it, man. You know, it speaks to all people not just [that] blacks are brothers. I mean, men and women across the country. It's relating to the spiritual side of life. I don't care what nationality you are; we're all brothers in the Lord. We're on this planet and everybody's in heaven as brothers and sisters, so we should be acting the same way down here on planet Earth, man.

MT: So thanks to Marvin, you and Mel Farr got a taste of the record business. And at one point, he wanted a taste of the NFL?

Barney: Yeah, Marvin would come to every game. We'd give him tickets in the upper deck and afterwards we'd all go to Larco's over on Six Mile. When we played at Tiger Stadium — win, lose, or draw — we were going to Larco's afterward. The whole team, our wives and girlfriends. So Marvin started going with us, and that's when he started talking about gettin' a tryout. And then later he's on the Tonight Show, and Johnny Carson's talking to him, and he says, "Yeah, I'm trying out for the Detroit Lions!"

MT: What do you remember about that? I mean, he couldn't have been worse than George Plimpton! 

Barney: Ha, no! The Paper Lion! Man, Plimp didn't have any athletic ability! ... So Marvin goes on Shirley Eaton and a couple other big shows, and he starts working out with us in the offseason. And one day Coach [Joe Schmidt] says to me, "Lem, what's this shit Marvin's talkin' about — trying out with the Lions?"

I said, "Coach, I keep letting him know that he's gotta make some clearance." He said, "I'll tell you what, Lem — just bring him down to the office on Monday and we'll talk." So I call him up, and I say, "Gator, look, Coach Schmidt wants me to bring you down to the office, man." And he goes, "This it, Lem! This it!" I said, "I don't know if this is it or not." [Laughs]

Marvin said, "I'll tell you what, Lem. Don't you drive down. I'mma come get you. I'mma get a driver!" So, you know, we limo down, he's all three-pieced and everything, and we get to the Lions' office and Coach says, "Hey, Marvin. Good to see you again. Have a seat. So I hear you want a tryout with the Detroit Lions."

And he goes, "Coach, I tell you, I just know the first time I touch the football I'mma score a touchdown."

And Coach says, "I like your attitude ... you got any film from when you played in college?"

Marv says, "Coach, I never played in college."

"That's OK. You got any high school film?"

"Coach, I never played in high school."

So Coach says, "What the hell makes you think you can just walk out there and play?"

Marv says, "Coach, man, I've been working out with Mel and Lem, I'm in shape."

Coach says, "Well, we'll see. We're gonna have a tryout up in the Lansing area in a few weeks ..." and so he went up. He tried Marvin out at fullback, halfback, wide receiver, and tight end. He did pretty good, but Coach told him, "Marvin, I like what I see, but with you not having any experience, I just don't want to put you out there and jeopardize your health." Marvin appreciated that, you know. At least he got a tryout.

MT: So Marvin sticks to making music and the world gets the gift of What's Going On.

Barney: Best decision he ever made.

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