It’s one of the most enduring urban legends in music history: that a family court Judge ordered Marvin Gaye to pay his ex-wife all the royalties from his next album, so he deliberately recorded a stinker that no one would buy.
The truth, according to Snopes.com, is more complicated (and much more interesting):
By the time Marvin’s day of financial reckoning arrived, he had little cash and was well in arrears for a large amount of back taxes, so his attorney worked out a settlement under which Anna would be paid off from the royalties earned by Gaye’s next album. That next album turned out to be Here, My Dear, a harrowing “concept album of divorce” which chronicled the turmoil of Anna and Marvin’s relationship. The record’s symbolism was hardly subtle: The inner sleeve depicted a Monopoly-like board game emblazoned with the word JUDGMENT, across which a male hand passed a record to a female hand. On the man’s side of the board were only a piano and some recording equipment, while the female’s side of the board included money, a house, a Mercedes, and a diamond ring.
Although Marvin and Anna’s divorce settlement was indeed tied to the royalties generated by Here, My Dear, the common legend surrounding the record — that Marvin was ordered by a judge to hand over all his royalties from the album to Anna, and that Marvin was in a position to spitefully deprive Anna of those royalties by intentionally recording an album so bad it would not sell — is largely untrue. First off, the payment-through-royalties scheme was a settlement worked out through mutual agreement, not one devised and mandated by a judge. Second, rarely does a competent attorney accept (or a responsible judge impose) a dissolution of partnership settlement under which the amount of compensation received by one party is completely dependent upon a future endeavor of the other party, precisely because such a settlement could allow one side to cheat the other by deliberately underperforming. (A similar legend about producer Phil Spector is based on this premise.)
The circumstances in Marvin Gaye’s case were that he agreed to pay Anna a total of $600,000, the first $307,000 coming from the advance against royalties he was guaranteed for his next album, and the remaining $293,000 to be paid out of any royalties earned beyond the advance. But Anna would lose nothing if the record sold poorly, because the agreement specified that if the album failed to earn $293,000 within two years, Gaye was obligated to pay Anna the difference himself, and thus he had nothing to gain by tanking the sessions and purposely turning out substandard product. (In fact, he was in a position to lose a great deal by doing so, both because he was entitled to keep any royalties earned after the first $600,000, and because he stood to earn additional monies not payable to Anna through his publishing rights.)
Critical reaction to Here, My Dear was mixed. As Gaye biographer Steve Turner wrote, “Reviewers didn’t seem to know whether the double album was a huge joke at the expense of Anna Gaye and Motown, or a work of genius.” The record was not a hit, failing to sell well enough to even recoup the advance against royalties paid by Motown, so Marvin Gaye (who was by then officially bankrupt) was obligated to begin making monthly payments to Anna to cover the shortfall. However, Gaye was killed in 1984 still owing Anna the additional $293,000 due her, and monies earned by his estate since his death have gone to paying off the IRS rather than benefiting his ex-wives and children, thereby proving the maxim about life’s only two certainties.
Here, My Dear is No. 462 on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. The track listing includes “When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You,” “Anger” and “You Can Leave, But It’s Going to Cost You.”