First of all, Clayton Roberts wants to get one thing straight.
Sensing the reason I’d been hounding him for months, one minute into our recent telephone conversation he said “We didn’t kick Marvin Gaye out of the group.”
The “group” to which Roberts referred is The Capitals, a D.C-based doo wop group from the late-50s to 1960s that achieved regional renown and even went to New York to audition for a record deal.
It’s become legend among some Washingtonians that there was a local group that didn’t think their homeboy, Gaye, was talented enough to sing with it and thus booted him from the group.
Roberts, the founder of The Capitals, said that while Marvin sung with them only briefly, they didn’t kick him out.
“Our lead tenor couldn’t make it” to an important audition, “so we took Marvin with us,” he recalled during a recent Sunday afternoon telephone conversation.
We Washington natives of a certain age remember and revere the city’s strong music roots, comprised of acts like The Dynamic Superiors, Skip Mahoney & the Casuals, Chuck Brown, Billy Stewart and the criminally under-recognized Van McCoy, among others.
None, however, achieved the international acclaim of Gaye, the Sultan of Smoooove.
Clayton Roberts’ first group was called The Ontarios. “It consisted of everybody in the neighborhood - everybody, okay?” Roberts said.
“Then came The Capitols. I started that one when I came back from the Air Force in 1958-59. That was me, Eddie Belton, Bobby Lee, Larry 'Tank' Williams, Maurice Watkins and a guy named Kelly. I don’t remember his last name because he wasn’t from the neighborhood. We were much more polished, talented. Eddie had this extremely rare, high tenor voice."
Maurice Watkins, whom Roberts said was the group’s piano player and songwriter, is pastor of a Washington church and deferred questions about the group to Roberts.
“Our second tenor, Kelly, couldn’t make an audition we had in New York, so I got Marvin to substitute for him. He got in the car and rode up to New York with us for the audition. That was our brief encounter with Marvin Gaye professionally,” he said. “People think we put him out of the group, but we didn’t. He was just a part of the group for a minute.”
Marvin, whom Roberts knew from the neighborhood, had also sung for a brief period around that time with Harvey Fuqua & the Moonglows, another doo wop group.
When Roberts mentioned The Capitols, I - a bit over-exuberantly - blurted out “Cool Jerk.” He quickly corrected me and let me know that The Capitols who made that 1966 dance hit was a different, Detroit-based group that spelled their name an “O.”.
Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On album, if not the best album ever, is certainly one of the most important. Rolling Stone magazine ranks it No. 1 on its list of the 500 greatest albums.
It’s also an album Motown president Berry Gordy didn’t want to release because he thought it was too political and socially conscious.
If you’re anything like my then 13-year-old self, that album’s song Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) was the first time you’d ever heard the “E” word, and it was released mere months after President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency.
Even though Roberts insisted “it’s not true” that they kicked Gaye out of The Capitols, he does say that the Marvin everyone knows and loves today was not the same Marvin that auditioned with them.
“Back in the day, Marvin used to holler," Roberts said. "He wasn’t the sweet-sounding Marvin Gaye that everybody knows today. He didn’t have that voice we all know now. If you listen to his first song, Hitch Hike, that’s how he sounded. He was hollerin.’ Hitch hiiiiiiike.” Here, Roberts gave an exaggerated high-pitched screeched and laughed loudly.
Two minutes after finishing the interview with Roberts, I turned on my cable TV soul music station and the first song playing was the aforementioned Hitch Hike. There’s no disputing that the rough voice on that song bore little resemblance to the polished, pleading one a decade later that urged us to “Let’s get it onnnnn.”
“Then, after leaving us, he eventually got in touch with Motown,” Roberts said of Gaye. “Like anybody else, if you have unlimited access to studio time, you’re going to learn how to sing. He had unlimited access and had time to develop his voice. And that’s where it began with him.”
Gaye joined a Motown subsidiary as a session drummer before morphing musically into the Prince of Soul.
That’s where it began for Gaye, but that’s not where it ended for Roberts and the Capitols.
“We put out a couple of things, but they never did much,” Roberts said.
He worked in the mortgage industry in Washington before moving to Los Angeles and doing the same there, he said. While in California, he wrote and produced for such acts as Sly & the Family Stone, Chaka Khan and the Gap Band. None of those associations yielded hits, though, he said, although he said he still has the masters of those sessions.
“I tried to run into Marvin when I moved to California, but could never reach him. He was too busy then. Out there, I lived in a really nice apartment building, and this guy who lived there was in touch with Marvin. I kept telling him to let Marvin know I was in town, but the guy never hooked me up with Marvin.
“He got killed before I could get in contact with him,” he said.
Marvin was killed – by his father – on April 1, 1984, one day before his birthday. I remember calling a buddy and him hanging up the phone after saying – in much harsher language than I can use here – that that was a terrible April Fools Day prank.
Roberts, moved back to D.C. and founded the United Training & Employment Center, a non-profit career development, school referral and job placement agency.
For scores of disadvantaged young people, Clayton Roberts is known as the man who helped train them to find jobs, not for being the man who kicked - allegedly - Marvin Gaye out of his group.
Nobody would want that as a legacy.