Twenty-two years after the murder of Marvin Gaye, a North Philadelphia record store owner keeps the flame burning.
Bruce Webb has sold music from his store on Ridge Avenue at 22nd for more than 40 years, a time evidenced by the red "E" dangling from the sign outside that once read "WEBB'S" and by the thousands of pieces of vinyl, 45s, cassettes, scattered 8-tracks and yes, even CDs-from artists past, present and forgotten-that clutter the narrow store with the leaky roof.
But despite the seeming chaos and endless stacks, Webb can find anything. Like the gospel song "Did You Stop to Pray This Morning" a woman who walked off the street requested with certainty despite not knowing the artist's name. Different artists had done different versions, but Webb deduced that she wanted the one by the Swan Silvertones.
Throughout the years Webb has heard and seen countless artists, and he's drawn these conclusions:
The best music was recorded between 1955 and 1975. And there's only one singer who has that natural groove.
Webb first heard that groove one day in 1959, when producer Harvey Fuqua brought in a 45 single of his doo-wop group the Moonglows. He'd recently reformed the group, and the lead singer's voice was so hypnotically smooth that Webb shouted, "Oh man," then asked, "Is this guy going to do his own song?"
The man in question was Marvin Gaye.
In 1961 Motown signed Marvin Gaye. His graceful tenor and three-octave range solidified Webb's fandom. It also skyrocketed Gaye to legend status.
Then the truly unimaginable happened.
Twenty-two years ago this past week Chappie Johnson, a big promotion man for Motown at the time, called Webb to give him the news. Gaye's father had shot him to death at point-blank range during an argument. It was the day before his 45th birthday.
"It was something like when Kennedy got killed," says Webb of the mood on the Ridge Avenue after the news. The Avenue was then a thriving marketplace for fresh meats, vegetables, fruits-even china. There was a movie theater, and of course Webb's record store. Webb was tight with all of Gaye's promotion people, and as a freelance photographer, he says he even took pictures for Gaye once or twice.
That week the store phone rang off the hook. People crowded the store, crying and confused, wanting to know if it was true, wanting to grieve and remember, wanting to listen to and buy Gaye's music.
Today Webb doesn't like to talk about Gaye's death or his personal demons-the early beatings and taunts from his preacher father, the drug abuse, the trouble with the IRS, his bitter relationship with his wife and his longings for suicide.
Webb prefers to remember the good.
"You could get the groove just from watching him," he says, and for a moment he's young again, remembering, smiling. "Just the way he delivered a song ... He was a great performer."
Webb first saw Gaye when the Motown Revue came to the Uptown in the '60s, back when Webb's tuft of white curls was jet black, and the fresh-faced crooner, dapper in a suit and tie, had the crowd boppin' and slidin' and sloppin' with tunes like "Hitch Hike" and "I'll Be Doggone," one of Webb's favorites.
Then there's the time, years later, when a musically evolved Gaye, sporting a low afro and full beard, stood onstage at the Spectrum, with his pants around his ankles, likely in a rendition of "Sexual Healing."
"Marvin was the first black performer to pull his pants down," Webb says proudly, giving Gaye credit for the radical innovation practiced today by music's wannabe male sex symbols. "He had on red underwear."