Hilton Head Monthly — Like most writers, I guess, I have a file on my computer called “Story Ideas.” It’s basically a to-do list of things I will probably never do. It’s full of ideas that are pushed aside for work, or parenting, or sleep, tiny flashes of inspiration that arrive during a drive or a lunch and are addressed sporadically in the creative spaces between dishes and running and making sure your magazine gets out somewhere near deadline. My list, for years, has had “Elgie Stover” on it.
Elgie — who passed away last month, didn’t know me and wouldn’t have had the remotest clue why I’m writing about him — was one of those sharply drawn characters that we Midwestern expats encounter here in the Lowcountry and have trouble believing are not fictional. How else could you explain a guy who would show up at perfectly irregular intervals, produce some of planet Earth’s finest barbecue and spin tales about how he came to appear on one of the most loved and acclaimed albums in music history?
As my memory has it — and I warn you that most of the following is clouded by time and beer, mostly beer — I first encountered Elgie very late at night. At the time, more than 12 years ago, I was part of a small crew of lively and extremely broke journalists who would generally end our drinking nights at the inexplicably still-shuttered building that housed the old Blue Nite Cafe, where we knew some guys in the band.
The band usually closed down about 2 a.m., and Elgie would materialize at about 2:04. He’d roll up in this monstrous white truck, which in my memory was about two stories tall, and he’d be towing a monstrous and very elderly-looking black smoker, which in my memory was approximately as long as a football field. We’d gather on the porch outside the bar like children. And he’d open the grill and this giant white puff would burst out and he’d come walking through the smoke and we’d feast and feast and feast. OK, it probably didn’t go like that at all, but I’m sticking with my image, because I like it.
So we’d sit there, sweating and demolishing barbecue at 2 a.m. on stupefyingly humid evenings on a porch on the coast of Carolina — food that was priced right for people who’d opted to get into writing, and thus poverty — feeling pretty damn good about ourselves. But as the nights went on and we got to know Elgie just a little bit, the stories came spilling out: the bit about working for Marvin Gaye, the Motown stories, the bit about his voice being the first you hear on “What’s Going On.”
Being aspiring journalist-types, we were initially suspect. And to be fair, on some nights he could have told us that he did lighting for Dylan at Newport and we’d have probably bought it wholesale. But the stories just kept coming, and as summer rolled on, we quickly drifted from skepticism to wonder. (Some years back I grabbed a fancy deluxe reissue of “What’s Going On” and found Elgie’s name sprinkled throughout the writing credits; elsewhere, Gaye credits Elgie with the curiously phrased but generous sentiment that he was “certainly instrumental in provoking my thought process.”)
Anyway, when I moved away to Chicago I took Elgie’s stories with me and briskly recounted them to anyone who would listen, very likely mixing up details and inflating others and never really getting around to checking the actual “facts” part. When we moved back to Hilton Head five years ago, we’d see him at the occasional festival or event, and each time I’d think, “Seriously, get that guy’s story.”
So this, I suppose, is the final version of the Elgie story I was hoping to get to, which, like more and more things as the years go on, is coming late and unfinished and probably at least half mixed up with fiction and hyperbole and that walking-through-the-smoke thing. You could make the argument that it’s better left that way. “Don’t know where he’ll wind up,” wrote my old friend David upon hearing the news, one of many who was around for all of those old stories. “But wherever it is, folks’ll be eating better tonight.”
(Written by Marvin Gaye, Anna Gordy Gaye, James Nyx and Elgie Stover.)