Marvin Gaye was a major force in twentieth century music—a singer of rare sensitivity, a versatile pianist, expert drummer, writer of startling originality and producer capable of seamlessly integrating a multitude of melodic strands. Beyond his great popularity, his impact on artists of his generations and generations to come is enormous.
Like no artist before or after, Gaye possessed an uncommon cool for combining the secular and spiritual. A man who lived much of his life at war with himself, music was his refuge, the place where he generated wondrous harmony.
Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. was born April 2, 1939 in Washington, D.C. His father came from Kentucky to the District where he met Marvin’s mother Alberta, a North Carolinian single woman with an infant son Michael. Marvin Sr. and Alberta married in 1935. Their first child was daughter Jeanne followed by Marvin Jr., brother Frankie and daughter Zeola. The family lived in what Marvin called “Simple City,” the East Capitol projects.
His childhood was rough. Alberta worked as a domestic and his dad held a part-time position in the local post office. Marvin Sr. was primarily a preacher, the leader of esoteric Christian sect that combined Orthodox Judaism and fundamental Christianity. The denomination was decidedly musical. That music—the full-gospel sounds of celebratory joy—formed the basis of Marvin’s art.
“I loved my father’s singing voice,” said Marvin. “I loved his preaching voice. I loved everything about his church. He expected me to fulfill what he considered God’s dictum—that I sing, preach and carry on in his hallowed tradition. I did feel the call. I was tempted. But the fact that I chose another path ruined our relationship. I rebelled against his authority. I rebelled against all authority.”
Marvin Jr. attended Cardozo High where he formed a singing group, the D.C. Tones, with friends Reese Palmer and Sondra Lattisaw.
“After gospel, my big influence was doo wop,” the singer explained. “My four favorite solo singers were Rudy West, Clyde McPhatter, Little Willie John and Ray Charles.”
Marvin quit school in the 11th grade to join the Air Force, where he didn’t last long. He could tolerate neither the discipline nor menial tasks.
“My discharge was honorable,” he said, “although it plainly stated, 'Marvin Gaye cannot adjust to regimentation and authority.'”
In 1957, the 18-year-old was back in D.C.
“I decided that, come hell or high water,” he said, “I was going to make it as a pop singer.”
Marvin reunited with Reese Palmer and joined the Marquees, the group that caught the attention of rock & roll architect Bo Diddley. Diddley produced and recorded the group for Okeh in New York. The songs didn’t sell, convincing the Marquees to disband. Harvey Fuqua convinced them otherwise.
A titan in the doo wop movement, Fuqua had formed the Moonglows that had enjoyed national hits, “Sincerely” and “The Ten Commandments of Love.” In 1958, he replaced his current members with the Marquees, rechristening his ensemble Harvey and the Moonglows. Fuqua recorded them singing “Mama Loochie” and “Twelve Months of the Year,” which both featured Marvin Gaye’s youthful voice.
For all its lush charms, though, doo wop was fading fast. The astute Fuqua dissolved the Moonglows and headed to Detroit where Berry Gordy was making noise with his newly-formed label. In making the trip, Fuqua took along only one of the Moonglows: Marvin.
This was the start of the sixties. Marvin had just turned twenty-one and decided to add an “e” to Gaye. Motown was a family operation in which Gordy’s older sisters played prominent roles. Fuqua married one of them, Gwen, and, two years after arriving in Detroit, Marvin married another, Anna, a woman seventeen years his senior. They adopted a son, Marvin III.
As the label generated heat, Marvin spent extensive time in the studio as a session drummer and backup singer. But he and Anna had designs of their own: make Marvin a star. He was signed as a solo artist yet resisted the rhythm-and-blues platform. He wanted to break out as a Nat Cole/Frank Sinatra crooner. But when his debut album, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye flopped, Marvin grew humble in a hurry. To survive in the hotly competitive Motown culture, he needed a hit. That came in in 1963 with “Stubborn Kind of Fellow.” The song was straight-up R&B and also the first of what would be a career-long series of autobiographical musings.
A string of hits followed. Most were written by other Motown writers: Smokey Robinson penned “Ain’t That Peculiar;” Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote “Pride and Joy.” At the same time, Marvin cowrote a major hit for the Martha and the Vandellas: “Dancing in the Street.” He also found success as a duet singer with both Mary Wells (“What’s the Matter With You Baby”) and Kim Weston (“It Takes Two”). The high point of his duo work was a series of classic love songs—including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “Your Precious Love” and Marvin’s own haunting composition “If This World Were Mine”—with Tammi Terrell. Then two events, one triumphant and the other tragic, changed the course of his career.
The first was “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” the Norman Whitfield- produced single that, at the time of its release in 1968, turned into the biggest seller in Motown history. Reflecting the turbulence in his marriage to Anna, the song turned the singer into a superstar. A year earlier, 1967—the same year Marvin recorded “Grapevine”—Tammi collapsed in his arms during a performance in Virginia. Diagnosed with brain tumor, she died three years later at age 24. Her demise traumatized Marvin. He refused to perform live and grew reclusive.
Recluse led to introspection that ultimately led to another seismic shift: the release of What’s Going On in 1971. Going against conventional wisdom—that his popularity depended solely on love songs—he forged this suite of songs by adopting the character of his brother Frankie, who had just returned from the Vietnam. Marvin’s texts confronted the issues of the day: the futility of war, the eroding of the ecology, the dangers of drug addiction, the brutality of law enforcement—all seen through the prism of Christian love. The record was a spectacular success and turning point in popular culture.
By 1972, Marvin, like Motown, had left Detroit for Los Angeles. In short order, he created another masterpiece: the score to the film Trouble Man that, beyond the chart-topping title tune, hit the sweet spot between instrumental rhythm-and-blues and highly sophisticated jazz.
Marvin never failed to surprise—or even shock. In 1973, after cutting a duet album with Diana Ross, he produced Let’s Get It On, an extravagant celebration of physical and sacred love. It was then that he met the woman, Janis Hunter, who would become his second wife.
“Let’s Get It On” broke the bank, out-selling even “Grapevine.” Three years later in 1976, Marvin upped the ante by collaborating with producer Leon Ware to create still another multi-layered suite of sensuous music, the lauded I Want You.
In 1977, Marvin married Jan, with whom he had two children, Nona and Frankie. 1977 was the same year as his final Motown top ten, the infectious “Got to Give It Up,” an anti-disco dance hit about a man, like himself, reluctant to dance.
A year later he released his most personal work, Here, My Dear, that chronicled his tempestuous two-decade long relationship with Anna. The album sold poorly but, years later, was rediscovered by fans and critics and is now considered one of his boldest achievements.
Marvin’s demons were formidable: drug addiction and crushing depression. In the late eighties, he worked only sporadically. In 1982, he left Motown and signed with Columbia.
His comeback hit, “Sexual Healing,” was a worldwide sensation. But during and after the U.S. tour to support the record, he fell into emotional disarray. Back in Los Angeles, living in the home he had bought his parents, his erratic behavior led him to physically assault his father, who fatally shot his son on April 1, 1984, a day before Marvin’s 45th birthday.
The horrific circumstances of his passing have done nothing to undermine his artistic reputation. In the decades since, his influence has grown exponentially. His ability to turn the turmoil of his life into transcendent music has resulted in a body of wonderfully satisfying music. His greatness rests in his genius for transforming spiritual energy into songs that both inspire and delight.