Tuesday, June 28th, 2011
“My people are from this city. We got back five generations on my father’s side and four generations on my mother’s. I come from a family of lawyers, teachers, and government workers. My goodness, if you even tried to talk badly about the federal government, you were gonna hear about it from my mother and grandmother.
“For me, there were only two things that I wanted to be in life: a Catholic priest and a broadcaster. My mother swore up and down that I would never make the priesthood because women were too important in my life. I guess she was right because while I studied for the priesthood, I left and eventually got married. So, I decided to be a broadcaster. I don’t like to say I’m a journalist because that is too high class. I like to say that I am a community broadcaster.
“When I was a kid, I used to have my own radio studio in my room. I was fortunate enough to have a tape recorder, phonograph, and a microphone. My mother used to say, ‘My God, who in the hell is upstairs with you because you are making enough noise for 50 people.’ I guess I always entertained myself with that stuff. Later on, my friends started to come by and make broadcasts from my room with me.
“Every Thursday night, me and those friends would join a bunch of other guys, including Marvin Gaye, on the corner of 59th and Eads St. NE to sing doo-wap. At that time, he was just a kid from the neighborhood who we all thought was kind of weird. From that doo-waping on the corner, I started putting on talent shows at Dunbar, Easton, and Spingarn High Schools with a friend. We called ourselves the Enterprises.
“One night, we organized this talent show where the big act was a band called the Scholars. Man, they were good! They had these matching white sweaters with a big ‘S’ on them, and this sexy lady in the band. They needed some time to set up in between acts, so, I said, let’s throw Marvin out there to sing and entertain the crowd. We sent that poor man out there to start singing and people were yelling,’Get him off the stage.’ He was so bad. Man, I still feel sorry for him for that performance. Poor Marvin. Poor, poor Marvin.
“A few weeks later, while we are out on 59th St, Marvin came to us one Thursday night and said, ‘I am going to New York to record some songs.’ We kept doo-wapping and didn’t pay him much mind. He said, ‘Really, I am going up to New York to record some music.’ I said, Marvin, please, no one in the world is going to listen to that stuff you sing. You ain’t going to no New York. You ain’t going to record nothing. Why you gotta lie to us? You know, we were all good kids, we were just teasing him.
“About a month later, I was listening to Cliff Holland on WOOK radio. All of the school kids would listen to him before school. It was 8:15 in the morning and Marvin Gaye’s record started playing. Man, we went to school every one walked around saying, ‘Did you hear Marvin Gaye on the radio?’ Man, I will never forget hearing Marvin Gaye on the radio. Let’s just say, he never returned to 59th and Eads St after that.
“I didn’t see Marvin again until 1971 when I was at Howard University radio. At the time, I was a member of the Communications Club with about 15 other people in radio and television. We hired Marvin Gaye to come and sing for us at the Kennedy Center. By then, he was a celebrity, but he would still come back and help out his hometown.
“We were all there in out finest fineries and Jim Vance was the emcee. Marvin came out onto the stage with three musicians. He said, ‘I am going to play a score of music that is a draft. It hasn’t been published, but I want to get your reaction to it.’ He sat down there at that piano and introduced What’s Going on. We heard that music and said, ‘Lord, this is something.” The next thing we knew, it was the number one track. From there, Marvin soared.”
Jerry Phillips worked in broadcast radio for 45 years, and staying true to his other passion, Catholicism, he was recently made a Knight of Mount Saint Sepulchre “to serve the people of God and the Franciscan community.”
Emily Cohen and I conducted this interview.
People’s District will be taking a short break until July 18th. Until then, we share with you some of our favorite stories from the past year.