Marvin Gaye

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Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye in 1973
Marvin Gaye in 1973
Background information
Birth nameMarvin Pentz Gay, Jr.[1]
Born(1939-04-02)April 2, 1939
Washington, D.C., United States
DiedApril 1, 1984(1984-04-01) (aged 44)
Los Angeles, California, U.S.
GenresSoul, R&B
Occupation(s)Singer-songwriter, composer, musician, record producer
InstrumentsVocals, keyboards, drums, percussion, clavinet, synthesizers, piano
Years active1958–1984
LabelsMotown (Tamla-Motown), Columbia

Marvin Gaye (born Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr.,[1] April 2, 1939 - April 1, 1984) was an American soul and R&B singer and songwriter. He was a famous artist recording on the Motown label in the 1960s and 1970s. He became an independent artist when he released his 1971 album, What's Going On. After living in Europe in the late 1970s, Gaye had a comeback hit with 1982's "Sexual Healing". The record won him two Grammy Awards and became his biggest hit. He was killed on April 1, 1984 by his own father, Marvin Gay, Sr.. After his death, he was inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Biography[change | change source]

Early life and career[change | change source]

Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. was the eldest son of a Pentecostal minister and the second of four children. His family lived in a mostly African-American community in Washington, D.C. When he was a child, Gaye was abused by his father. He used music to help him cope with the abuse, playing instruments and singing gospel music in his father's church. When he was a teenager, Gaye became a fan of doo-wop and joined several groups before he left high school at the start of his senior year.

In 1956, when he was seventeen years old, Gaye left home and enlisted in (joined) in the United States Air Force. He was honorably discharged the following year. Gaye moved back to Washington D.C. and formed a group called The Marquees. The group was discovered by musician Bo Diddley and they recorded the songs "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl" and "Wyatt Earp". They then met Harvey Fuqua and joined with his group The Moonglows. They released a song called "Mama Loocie" in 1959. This was the first song recorded with Gaye singing as lead vocalist. The following year, the new Moonglows split up and with Fuqua as his mentor, Gaye traveled to Detroit, Michigan where they met Berry Gordy, who had formed Motown Records. Gordy was impressed by Marvin's talent as a piano player and drummer and signed him as a session drummer for Motown. Gaye played drums on most of Motown's early hits for artists like The Marvelettes, Mary Wells, the Miracles and Stevie Wonder. In 1961, Gordy signed Gaye as a recording artist and released The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye. The album did not sell well.

Early stardom[change | change source]

Gaye's first became successful when he co-wrote the Marvelettes' top twenty hit, "Beechwood 4-5789". In 1962 he released his own song called "Stubborn Kind of Fellow". It was partly about his own life and got into the top fifty of the pop chart and number eight on the R&B side. His first top 40 single, "Hitch Hike", and his first top ten hit, "Pride & Joy",[2] made him a teen idol. These early singles and those on his second release, That Stubborn Kind of Fellow, featured Martha and the Vandellas in the backGaye had more successful songs like early success continued with "Can I Get a Witness", "Baby Don't You Do It", "You Are a Wonderful One" and "Try It Baby". In late 1964, Gaye recorded "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)",[2] which peaked at the top ten of the American pop charts and became one of his first hits abroad reaching the top fifty in the United Kingdom. Gaye also worked with his friend, singer Smokey Robinson to write number-one singles, "I'll Be Doggone" and "Ain't That Peculiar".

Duets with female artists[change | change source]

After his early success, which Marvin had struggles with, Motown began to widen his role as a ladies man, having him record duet albums with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Diana Ross. His first album with Wells, Together, became Marvin's first charted album, and yielded two popular hits, while his single with Weston, the Sylvia Moy-penned "It Takes Two", hit the top twenty on both sides of the Atlantic. But it would be his collaboration with Philadelphia R&B singer Tammi Terrell that landed him his biggest known success in his duet work. Building on songs written by Ashford & Simpson, the team of Marvin and Tammi scored a multitude of hits including their original version of "Ain't No Mountain High Enough", "Your Precious Love", "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" and "You're All I Need to Get By". Their success would be short-lived following Tammi's collapse during a show at Virginia in October 1967. Having complained of headaches, Tammi was rushed to the hospital that night and was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Terrell braved it out but by the release of their third and last album together, Easy, was losing her fight with the tumor. Tammi died in March 1970 at the age of 24 from complications of her brain cancer. Marvin was said to be so devastated by Tammi's death that he said he felt a piece of him died with her, and reports state at her funeral, Marvin talked to her remains as if she was gonna respond. Promising not to tour again and not to record another duet album after that, Marvin went into a self-imposed seclusion that ended briefly. In 1973, Marvin would work on his final duet album with Diana Ross. Their recording was hampered by arguments between them as Marvin refused to stop smoking marijuana in the studio as Diana was then pregnant. The resulting album, Diana and Marvin, became a top twenty U.S. success and reached the top ten in the U.K.

Breakthrough from Motown[change | change source]

In 1968, Marvin returned to the top of the charts as a solo act with the Norman Whitfield-penned "I Heard It Through the Grapevine". The song, originally recorded in 1967, was initially blocked from release since Berry Gordy disapproved of the song. Instead, one of its cover versions by Gladys Knight & the Pips was released, and it ended up reaching number-two. Whitfield was determined to get Gordy to release Marvin's, and in October 1968, Motown finally issued "Grapevine" as a single where it eventually reached number-one in December of that year, it also reached number one in the U.K. and became the biggest-selling single in Motown history during the sixties. During this period, Marvin used his "Grapevine" success to produce a collection of singles for his background group the Originals. Those songs, "Baby I'm for Real" and "The Bells" became top 40 recordings. After two more top ten hits that followed, Marvin began working on a more personal production. Inspired by Tammi Terrell's death, his brother Frankie's Vietnam stories, footage of the Vietnam War and race riots in the U.S., Marvin's success with his first productions and a rough draft of a song composed by Four Tops member Obie Benson, Marvin recorded an introspective single titled "What's Going On". Like "Grapevine", Motown refused to release it due to it being "uncommercial" and "risky" since Gordy could not find a song to match anything with and also because Gordy was against anyone in his company to talk openly about serious issues. In spite of releases by the Temptations, the Supremes and Edwin Starr, which opened about inner city struggle, illegitimate pregnancy and wars respectively, Motown was afraid the song would ruin Marvin's squeaky-clean teen pop image. Marvin, confident in his own abilities, stood his ground, and in January 1971, the song was released quickly becoming a hit single reaching number two on the Billboard pop chart and number one on the Cashbox pop chart, also hitting number-one on the Billboard R&B chart. A follow-up album of the same name was quickly released that May and with accompanying top ten singles "Mercy Mercy Me" and "Inner City Blues", songs that also talked about social issues including environmentalism, the album sold over a million copies and permanently made Marvin one of the first independent artists on the label. Inspired by Marvin's success, Stevie Wonder refused to renew his contract with Motown in May 1971 after releasing the non-Motown approved Where I'm Coming From, an album that also dealt with social issues. In 1972, Motown signed Marvin to a $1 million contract, making him at the time the highest-paid black recording artist in music history. Marvin celebrated the contract by releasing the pro-political single "You're the Man", which attacked the Nixon administration. Moving from Detroit to Los Angeles that year, he recorded the soundtrack to the movie, "Trouble Man". The soundtrack and its title track became top twenty and top ten hits on the charts respectively. In 1973, Marvin dramatically changed direction from social topics to sexual politics with the release of "Let's Get It On". The song became Marvin's second number-one Billboard hit and was the biggest-selling R&B single of that year. Its subsequent album became another critical milestone as What's Going On had been and with his new look as a wool hat-wearing, studded jean outfit, bearded "messiah", Marvin had become an icon of early seventies soul music.

Decline[change | change source]

In 1974, Marvin returned officially to touring after a four-year sabbatical following the death of Tammi Terrell and began to suffer from the effects of a long-developing cocaine addiction, which started in the late sixties. Marvin went a year without producing a record though through yet another new Motown contract, he built a recording studio in the middle of Sunset Boulevard. In 1976, Marvin released the erotic I Want You album, an album that had been delayed by his first wife, Anna Gordy's divorce case against him. The divorce was finalized after Marvin agreed to remit a portion of his royalties from his next album to Ms. Gordy. The result was the controversial Here, My Dear project, which came out in early 1979 after two years of holding the project from release. Marvin recorded a disco hit in 1977 titled "Got to Give It Up". The song hit number-one marking his third pop hit to reach the spot and his twelfth on the R&B side. It would end up being his last major hit with the Motown label. Following the release of Here, My Dear, the album tanked and Marvin, already run dry by dwindling finances, numerous lawsuits, a troubling marriage to a second wife and an even more troubling cocaine addiction, eventually left his wife, three children, and the U.S. settling first in Hawaii and then settling in London in 1980 after a European promoter advised him to tour Europe. Recording most of his final Motown release, In Our Lifetime, in London, the album was rush-released by Motown in early 1981 much to Marvin's chagrin: he complained that the label had edited certain songs, including one that seemed unfinished, and had taken off a question mark that he put at the end of the title to ask a question about life. Marvin stated he would no longer record for Motown and was granted his wish when CBS Records brought him out of his contract in April 1982.

Return from exile[change | change source]

In 1981, Marvin settled in Ostend, Belgium thanks to a former Belgian sports promoter and with his encouragement began rebuilding his life cutting away from drugs and also rebuilding his music career. After a successful European tour, Marvin signed with CBS Records and began work on a new album in his adopted home. After his friend and biographer David Ritz arrived to interview him, Marvin and David collaborated on a reggae-styled track in which Ritz titled "Sexual Healing" after a conversation between the two evolved into pornography. The song was one of eight Marvin worked on to fit into his comeback release, Midnight Love. Boosted by its Caribbean flavor, the song returned Marvin to the top of the charts, hitting number-one on the R&B chart for a period of ten weeks and also becoming a top ten hit in several countries including number-three in the U.S. pop chart and number-four in England. It also hit number-one in New Zealand. Selling over two million copies, it became Marvin's biggest-selling single to date and won him his first couple of Grammys in 1983. Marvin's comeback was cemented with his emotional performance of the national anthem at the NBA All Star Game and a reunited showcase at Motown 25, where Marvin was reunited with his old Motown buddies. Marvin's performance consisted of him playing piano while speaking on the illustrious history of black music before singing "What's Going On" to a receptive audience. That year, Marvin went on the road to promote the Midnight Love album. It would end up being his final tour.

Murder and legacy[change | change source]

Settling in his parents' Los Angeles home after the tour, Marvin reportedly struggled with drug abuse and his troubling relationship with his father continued spiraling downwards. On the morning of April 1, 1984, Marvin and his father got into an argument after his father verbally assaulted Marvin's mother while they were arguing over misplaced business documents. The two men clashed and Marvin reportedly shoved his father to the ground during the struggle. After returning to his room, Marvin's father reentered Marvin's room with a loaded shotgun Marvin had bought for him for Christmas and shot him twice with one fatal shot to his chest. At approximately 1:10 pm, Marvin Gaye was pronounced dead on the scene at Cedars Sinai Medical Center. He was one day shy of his forty-fifth birthday. Marvin's death shocked his fans though family members and friends knew of Marvin's depression. Over 10,000 well-wishers paid their last respects at a star-studded funeral in Los Angeles. Marvin's ashes were spread to the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. In 1985, Motown and CBS collaborated on two posthumous records while Motown re-released Marvin's famed material. In 1987, Marvin was posthumously inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame confirming his status as one of the greatest artists in music history.

Personal life[change | change source]

Marvin first dated Anna Gordy in 1961. Anna was said to be the inspiration behind Marvin's sixties hits including "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" and "You Are a Wonderful One". He married her in 1964 and the couple adopted a boy they named Marvin Pentz Gaye III in 1965. Their marriage was rocky by the time Marvin began courting a beautiful seventeen-year-old high-school student named Janis Hunter in 1973. Hunter was reportedly the inspiration behind the song "If I Should Die Tonight" as he had sung the song to her in the studio. His 1976 album, I Want You, was dedicated to Janis, who married him in 1977. The couple had two children together, daughter Nona and son Frankie. They divorced in 1981.

Discography[change | change source]

Studio albums

References[change | change source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 Simmonds, Jeremy (2008). The Encyclopedia of Dead Rock Stars: Heroin, Handguns, and Ham Sandwiches. Chicago Review Press. p. 190. ISBN 978-1-556-52754-8.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Hear Marvin Gaye (music and interviews) on the Pop Chronicles (1969).