Inspired by Marvin Gaye

Written by Piece by Piece Artist, John McDowell

On Sunday, April 1, 1984, I was busy at work on a rehearsal sound stage in Hollywood, California.

As usual, and after several weeks of going over and over the various show tunes and choreography, rehearsals were winding down as we prepared to fly from Los Angeles down to Dallas to begin that year’s concert tour called “Another Miller Thriller” featuring Marvin Gaye. 

We’d be leaving soon, so the time had come to tie up any loose ends, review the checklists, and finalize the details. As a “Roadie,” my job was to identify, inventory, label, and then assure that all the instruments, public address systems, stage monitors, lighting instruments, stage apparatus, and sound reinforcement equipment were in first-rate working order and packed into numbered Anvil Cases prior to our leaving town for the next four months. 

The process included packing everything into trucks that would leave for Texas the weekend prior to our own departure, so this was one of my busier days during the pre-tour preparation. The tour consisted of several rotating groups: the Whispers, Cameo, the Ohio Players, Maze, and O’Bryan. 

The supporting cast was set to perform nationwide, going through Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, DC, Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Minnesota, then Washington State and Oregon before returning to Los Angeles via Northern California with Marvin headlining on designated dates.

The location of a given concert would determine which of the bands would be featured. The exception was that in the major cities Marvin Gaye was the star attraction. The year before, from April 18 through August 14, 1983, Marvin Gaye had performed before 51 sold-out venues during what he called “The Sexual Healing Tour.” The 1984 tour was scheduled to include similar details.

I worked for the company produced by Don Cornelius of Soul Train fame. Marvin’s management group oversaw his own expedition. But, without a doubt, it was Marvin Gaye’s tour, no matter the specific connection to any of the sponsors auxiliary units or personnel, like me!

One of the members of one of the bands quickly rushed by telling me, “You might as well relax man, the tour is off.” Paying him no never mind, I continued doing what I was so hurriedly doing.

“What a lousy April Fool’s joke,” I thought to myself, brushing off his quietly spoken remark as just that, an April Fool’s joke. I continued double checking every tour related detail I could think of.

When I got through and made a call to the management company on the phone, I was informed that the cancelation was no joke. Marvin Gaye had just been shot and killed by his own father.

The much-anticipated tour was indeed canceled and I was out of the best job I’d ever had.

As had been my custom for years, I had concurrently been taking classes at USC. That year, just like several others before, I would have been leaving school just before the semester had ended to go on tour. Instead, because of the cancelations, I was able to finish the year’s courses. 

After also taking a number of “Challenge Examinations” and making up several “Incomplete  Grade” scores in required courses that had accumulated because I had left school to go on tour in the years before, I graduated from the University of Southern California on May 19, 1984.

I had begun college as an Astronomy Major, but after so many years of interrupted classes, I changed majors in order to get academic credits attributable to my professional experience. With that change I’d earned a Bachelors Degree in Dramatic Arts, with a specialty in Technical Theater. 

While recovering from injuries incurred during a hang-gliding accident many years later, I was fortunate enough to be introduced to Piece by Piece, a philanthropic group that specializes in the ancient skill and fine art of Mosaics. 

Having never been aware that I personally possessed any skill as an artist, I discovered a new, and most welcome, talent for rendering Mosaic Artwork. The Andamento technique called “Crazy Paving” came very naturally to me. It formed the basis and foundation for Marvin’s piece.   

John M holding dried flowers

More than six years after joining Piece by Piece and having learned so much, I was given an assignment to create a portrait of a recognizable person from my past. Thank you, Monica! (The instructor who gave this particular assignment.)

The choice of a suitable subject was clear. It had been nearly forty years since we had lost Marvin, and I had a great photo of my old basketball buddy on my phone. 

Marvin loved to shoot baskets or throw around a football when he got a chance during breaks in the tedious concert schedule. Standing about six foot one and naturally strong, though somewhat slender, Marvin was an athlete at heart. 

A legend in song and an incredibly gifted creator, Marvin worked hard on his music, and had earned several coveted Grammy Awards over his way-to-short life and career. The featured song for the 1983 tour, Sexual Healing, was unmistakably physical, overtly sexual and emotional, it made you want to get up and move. 

On tour, the crowds would do just that:e, especially the thousands of women who sang, danced, and cheered, screaming out loud, punctuating the intensity of the fire of sheer delight ignited by his every word or expressive gesture.

My mosaic project, "Marvin Gaye,” utilized the referenced photograph as a model. I wanted to make something physical to show my own appreciation.

Marvin Gaye Mosaic

I gave the finished product to my sister as a present for her birthday on April 13, 2023, thirty-nine years and a dozen days after Marvin Gaye’s tragic death. He had been her favorite artist. She loved him then and now loves the very personal work of art dedicated to his memory. 

The portrait turned out so well primarily because of how brilliantly I was taught the vital fundamentals of Mosaic Art by the wonderful and skilled staff of knowledgeable, dedicated instructors who’ve shared with me the tools, materials, and techniques required to create such art. 

Thank you, Piece by Piece, for the gift of artistry, the hope of mastery, and a vision for the future.  There’s more to come.


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