Very few musicians and performers have what many in the music business refer to as “the gift.” This gift is the rare ability to express emotion through the music they make, forcing the listener to “feel” the music, as opposed to just listening to it as background noise. These artists make songs you cannot ignore; music that resonates within our very souls and takes us to a spiritual place that is impossible to define through any other expressive vehicle. Marvin Gaye is one of these “gifted” people. In fact, he is so widely influential, that he is probably your favorite musician’s favorite musician. Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder, both colleagues of Marvin during his tenure with the legendary Motown record label, proclaim Marvin’s masterpiece of an album, “What’s Going On,” as their favorite record of all-time. This 1971 work of art was a gutsy collection of pain and struggle-inspired music aimed at creating social change and awareness around unpopular topics like poverty, the war in Vietnam, social equality, lack of religion, education, pollution, and other ills of American society. This album is Gaye’s mea culpa, his confession of gratitude and sense of his unworthiness of God’s gift, as his musicianship, songwriting, and vocal abilities are overwhelmingly perfect when applied to the theme of a society taking itself for granted. It also defines the struggle within the artist himself, as Marvin was a complex man with many vices, often attributed to his upbringing in a very strict religious family. While at one moment he could be music’s equivalent of Dr. Martin Luther King, the next moment, he could be society’s social pariah, demonizing himself through songs that centered around sex. This duality would define and consume his life, and would ultimately follow him to his tragically early grave on April 1, 1984, when he was shot and killed by his own father, just one day shy of his 45th birthday.
Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. was born on April 2, 1939 in Washington D.C. as the son of a Minister in the House of God, a religious church that followed Pentecostal and Orthodox Jewish teachings. This unusual pairing of spiritual ties confused a young Marvin, as his strict father, Marvin Gay Sr., kept Marvin, his half-brother, Michael, his older sister, Jeanne, his beloved younger brother, Frankie, and his younger sister, “Sweetsie” on a very tight leash. Marvin, being the rebel, faced the worst of his father’s wrath, as the tough disciplinarian was not shy in physically addressing his offspring. Marvin played in his father’s church, learning his musical skills by singing and playing instruments in the choir, and this made Marvin Gay Sr. very proud-until he discovered Marvin Jr.’s penchant for secular music, which developed in his late teens. Like fellow soul man Sam Cooke, the high school girls became mesmerized by the pretty tone of Marvin’s voice, as he had begun singing doo wop with his friend Johnny Stewart in a group they formed called “The Dippers.” This infuriated Marvin’s father to no end, and the beatings became more severe. Marvin also caught his father doing strange things around the family’s home. Most notably, he was disturbed upon discovering his father dressed in women’s underwear, something Gay Sr. was doing more and more often while keeping it a secret from his congregation. This struggle between a headstrong young boy and his religious, yet confused father, would rage for all of Marvin’s life, and he dropped out of high school in 11th grade to join the Air Force, in the hope of becoming a pilot. Marvin’s hard-headed ways earned him a discharge, forcing him to go back home and figure out what he wanted to do with his life.
Upon his return home, Marvin rejoined his childhood friend Reese Palmer in a group called “The Moonglows,” which also featured future music producer Harvey Fuqua. The group sang background on records for Chuck Berry and Etta James, before breaking up in 1960, when Fuqua took Marvin to Detroit and introduced him to the Motown family. Upon completion of his solo record deal, Marvin changed his last name to “Gaye,” rather than the original spelling of “Gay.” Marvin believed that it sounded more professional, although it is widely believed that he wanted to separate himself from his father, and the homosexual connotations associated with that spelling, which is probably true, given his hatred for his father’s obsession with women’s lingerie. Many believe it was a tribute to Sam Cooke, who had also added an “e” to his last name, a claim that Marvin denied. Marvin’s stubbornness did not help him blend in with the Motown label’s artist development nor its creator, Berry Gordy. Marvin’s romantic relationship with Gordy’s daughter, Anna, did not help his situation out either. After Marvin’s first solo album “The Many Moods of Marvin Gaye,” a compilation of Broadway standards and jazz tunes, failed, he wrote about himself in his breakout hit “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” Marvin charted 3 more top 40 singles in 1963, and “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” was released in 1964, becoming Gaye’s most popular record. His clean cut vocals and boyish good looks were a hit with the female audiences, and Marvin became a favorite performer among his exceptional Motown counterparts.
A successful pairing with young singer Tammi Terrell proved to launch Marvin Gaye into the stratosphere, as the pair made memorable songs like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” and “Your Precious Love.” The chemistry between the two was undeniable, and rumors of a romantic involvement between them began to circulate, infuriating Anna Gordy, whom Marvin had married in 1961. These proved to be just rumors, however, as Marvin was married and Tammi was dating Temptations lead singer David Ruffin. The two singers were performing at a concert at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia, when Tammi suddenly collapsed during the show, falling into Marvin’s arms. Marvin was devastated as Tammi was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and was not expected to recover. Motown released another album featuring the two despite Tammi’s condition, and this featured the Ashford and Simpson-penned hits “You’re All I Need to Get By,” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing Baby.”He also issued his biggest solo single, a Norman Whitfield tune called “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” in 1968, and it became Motown’s biggest selling record to date. Distraught by Tammi’s failing health, Marvin did not revel in the song’s success; in fact he downplayed it, even though it had become #1 on the Billboard R&B Charts. “Too Busy Thinkin ‘Bout My Baby” also went to #1 in 1970, but in March of that year, Tammi lost her battle with the brain tumor, and passed away at the tender age of 24. Marvin was crushed, and fell into a deep depression and seclusion for the next two years, and vowed to never replace her as a partner, a promise which he kept throughout his life.
Marvin re-emerged on the scene in part because of his brother’s return from Vietnam. Marvin’s beloved brother Frankie, whose voice is remarkably similar to Marvin’s, was drafted into the conflict in 1964 and served until 1967. Frankie’s firsthand accounts of the horrors of war moved Marvin to get back in the studio and begin work on what would become his greatest achievement; “What’s Going On.” At a time when Motown wanted carefree hits that would continue their run of commercially successful music, Marvin delivered his early sessions from this album, which featured complex subject matter and soul searching lyrics. It is rumored that Berry Gordy dismissed “What’s Going On,” as “the worst record I ever heard.” Marvin stuck to his guns, however, and threatened to leave the label if Gordy did not release the album. Reluctantly, Gordy did release it, and the album proved Marvin right. The album yielded three Top Ten Billboard Hits in “What’s Going On,” “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler),” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), and remains one of the most seminal works of modern pop music. Marvin had taken a stand, and had won, releasing what many consider to be the first ever successful “concept album” in a pop world, as every song on the album remains in line with Gaye’s theme of a world in decay.
Marvin’s stand also proved to be successful in a business sense, as he was granted a $1 million dollar contract with Motown subsidiary Tamla Records, and given 100% total creative control over his future projects, a major step for musicians, especially Black musicians. Marvin packed up his things and moved to Los Angeles, where he began recording his next album, “Let’s Get It On,” which showed a complete departure from the Marvin that wrote “What’s Going On,” as the album was erotically charged and sensual in nature. The album’s title track again shattered his previous record for sales, and “Let’s Get It On” still receives major radio play today. Other hits on the album include “You Sure Love To Ball,” and the ballad heavyweight, “Distant Lover,” a staple of Lowrider slow jams for many a Boulevard date night.
My personal favorite Marvin album to ride to is called “I Want You,” and was released in 1976. The grooves in this album are unmistakable, and the conga and Latin-percussion influence in this album adds the perfect beat for the lush keyboard arrangements and Marvin’s exceptional vocal harmonizing abilities. “After the Dance (Vocal)” is my favorite cruising song, and the album also contains an instrumental of this song, with Marvin playing Jazz-like improvisations on a lead synthesizer. “Come Live With Me Angel,” “Soon I’ll Be Loving You Again,” “Since I Had You, “and “Feel All My Love Inside” are all sure fire Boulevard bangers, as the mix down on these sessions also kept the bass and percussion very loud, and perfect for your Lowrider sound system. The album’s erotic nature stems from Marvin’s affair with a 17 year old named Janis Hunter, whom he would divorce his wife Anna Gordy for, and later marry.
Marvin’s torrid affair and downward spiral into obsessions with sex and cocaine fueled his ultimate downfall. A messy alimony agreement left Anna entitled to profits off of Gaye’s next album, so he defiantly titled it “Here, My Dear,” and dished out the dirt on their relationship throughout the disc. A self indulgent move designed to slow album sales so that his ex-wife would not become rich off of their split, Marvin’s plan worked, and the album tanked. Drugs and tax problems further slowed Gaye’s career, spinning him into a state of constant paranoia, and forcing him to move Janis and his children to Hawaii as he attempted to save this union, which was also going downhill in a hurry. Living in a bread van, he began working on his next album “In Our Lifetime Vol. 1” before finishing it in Europe, as he was on the run from the I.R.S.. In 1982, Marvin released the monster single “Sexual Healing,” which signaled a potential comeback for the troubled musician. It won him his first two Grammy awards, and landed him a European tour. Unfortunately, the album the single was released on, “Midnight Love,” was underwhelming, and Marvin’s cocaine problem was at an all-time high. His last enigmatic performance would come at the NBA All-Star Game in 1983, where he put his own unique stamp on the Star Spangled Banner, leaving nearly half of the starters for each team in tears by the song’s end. It remains one of the most stirring versions of the song to date.
By late 1983, Marvin complained of depression, and exhibited suicidal tendencies before heading back into seclusion. He moved into his parents’ house in 1984, and the reunion between Marvin and his Father reignited unresolved tensions between the two. One day, after intervening on his mother’s behalf during a family argument, Gaye and his father engaged in a heated fight, which ended with Marvin Gay Sr. shooting Marvin Gaye in the chest, killing him instantly. The gun his father used was actually given to him four months earlier by Marvin himself, and many believe this to be a tragically ironic end to an otherwise brilliant life.