What’s Going On: How Lem Barney and Mel Farr backed up Marvin Gaye

Posted Jul 19, 2016

Lem Barney and Mel Farr's backup vocals on “What’s Going On" could be back in the spotlight soon.

What’s going on now for two former Detroit Lions stars – Hall of Fame cornerback Lem Barney and his running back teammate, the late Mel Farr – could be a reprise of their studio performances singing backup vocals on “What’s Going On,” Motown legend Marvin Gaye’s timeless hit.

According to media reports and statements by Gaye’s family members, production is scheduled to begin later this year on a documentary of the making of the album “What’s Going On.”  It included the title song “What’s Going On,” which was released in 1971.

It is perhaps the defining song of Gaye’s brilliant career. The single and the album both reached No. 1 on the chart.

Gaye was fatally shot by his father at their home in Los Angeles in 1984. Marvin was 44.

Gaye’s association with the Barney and Farr was initiated by Barney’s desire and persistence in meeting the signer early in Barney’s career with the Lions.

Barney, a Metro Detroit resident since his rookie season, detailed how the friendship developed in a recent interview with Detroitlions.com that was conducted before news broke on the production of the documentary.

Barney and Farr were drafted by the Lions in 1967. Farr was a first-round pick from UCLA. Barney was a second-round pick from Jackson State.

Barney was attracted to Gaye and other Motown artists while in college when their tour made stops in Jackson, Miss.

Memories of that music, sweet music, resonated for Barney the day he was drafted.

“The biggest thing I knew about Detroit was Motown,” Barney said. “I got a chance to see Marvin and Smokey (Robinson) and the Miracles, the Temptations and the Four Tops at different functions on campus.”

Gaye already was an established star in 1967. As players, Barney and Farr got in the groove as rookies.

Barney led the NFL in interceptions (10) and touchdown returns (3). He made the Pro Bowl and was voted defensive rookie of the year. Farr led the Lions in rushing with 860 yards in 13 games and was voted offensive rookie of the year.

In his second season in 1968, the Lions were in training camp at Cranbrook Academy when Barney acted on his desire to meet Gaye. Barney knew that Gaye played golf regularly at the Palmer Park public course on Woodward and Seven Mile in Detroit.

Barney used his break time between double sessions one day to drive straight south on Woodward to Palmer Park – only to be told by the head pro that Gaye was not at the course that day.

The pro recognized Barney and gave him directions to Gaye’s house on West Outer Drive, a little more than a mile from the course. Barney was instructed to “look for the big, brown Cadillac Brougham.”

Barney did as instructed. He rang the doorbell and identified himself when Gaye came to the door.

Barney reconstructed the conversation as follows:

“Mr. Gaye, my name is Lem Barney. I just wanted to stop by and tell you what a great guy you are.”

“Who’d you say you are?” Gaye responded.

“Lem Barney,” Barney answered.

“The guy who plays for the Lions?” Gaye said.

“You want to see my license?”

Gaye laughed and invited Barney in for breakfast.

Their friendship developed from there, and their careers interlocked. The football players wanted to sing, and the singer wanted to play football. He was 6-foot-4 but had never played organized sports.