He made friends easily and never acted like a big star, says Jan van Snick, who today runs Jan's Café but who used to be the proprietor of Le Bistro, where Gaye was a regular.
"He came in every day with the basketball players who were his friends," says van Snick, who has a signed poster from Gaye on display at his new restaurant. "He was very generous, very nice, and he liked the girls. He acted like a normal person - no glitter, no show. He spoke about his problems in the United States. He was very popular here; he spoke to everyone, he sang in the church, he went to the fishermen's cafés. He was a good man. He did not have a big head."
Gaye's stay in Ostend revolved around the late Freddy Cousaert, a local club owner and promoter who convinced the soul singer to leave his risky life in England behind and take up residence in Ostend. The open-ended sojourn lasted for almost two years before Gaye returned to the United States as his last hit song, "Sexual Healing," was climbing the charts. Cousaert, who died in a bicycle accident in 1998, was motivated partly by an abiding love for American soul and blues music, and partly by the conviction that he could rehabilitate Gaye and earn a healthy living by putting the singer back on the road for European gigs.
Cousaert had been part of a relatively small group of blues and soul aficionados in Western Europe in the era before the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Animals exposed an entire generation to the genius of Little Richard, Chuck Berry, John Lee Hooker, and others. He had a nightclub in Ostend that was known for the spectacular quality of its jukebox, and he became a magnet for people who shared his taste.
When Eric Burdon was just 15 - years before he shot to fame as lead singer of the blues-oriented Animals - he went to Cousaert's club on his first trip outside England. The music he found there was a revelation, and he started a casual, on-again, off-again friendship with Cousaert that lasted for decades.
"We were attracted by the sounds on the jukebox," says Burdon of his first encounter with Cousaert. "It wasn't the normal top-10 stuff. He had Ray Charles and Charles Brown, blues people."
Burdon was not in Belgium when Gaye was under Cousaert's care - living in an apartment Cousaert rented, taking many home-cooked meals at Cousaert's house - but he said many musicians believe that Cousaert saved Gaye from self-destruction.
"What I heard was that Freddy really grabbed hold of Marvin and shook some sense into him, and told him he had to straighten out his life and get off drugs," says Burdon. "They started working out on the beaches of Ostend. When I met Freddy later, he told me that he had succeeded in getting Marvin off of any kind of hard drug. Marvin was totally clean. He was capable of stepping into the ring and going toe-to-toe with top amateurs. Freddy felt he'd done a great job in turning this guy's life around."