One of the greatest talents in the history of soul music, as well as one of its most tormented, Marvin Gaye paid fervent testimony to the joys of emotional and physical love in such enduring classic songs as "Can I Get a Witness," "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You") and "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" over the course of a three-decade career. He escaped an abusive childhood to find initial fame as part of the doo-wop group the Moonglows, but became a solo star under Berry Gordy at Motown, who struggled mightily with Gaye's anti-authoritarian streak before releasing a string of Top 10 and Top 40 hits between 1963 and 1970. Some of Gaye's greatest accomplishments were alongside Tammi Terrell, who became his musical soulmate on songs like "It Takes Two" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Her 1970 death left him devastated, but he emerged with a pair of astonishing albums, the socially conscious What's Going On (1971) and the erotically super-charged Let's Get It On (1973). Personal demons left him financially and commercially spent in the late 1970s, but he rebounded in 1982 with the seductive, Grammy-winning single, "Sexual Healing." His career revival, however, was cut short by his 1984 murder at the hands of his own father, bringing to a tragic close one of the most brilliant careers in American music.
He was born Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. on April 2, 1939 in Washington, D.C., the youngest of four children by Marvin Gay, Sr., a minister with the House of God, and schoolteacher Alberta Gay. His younger brother, Frankie, and sister, Zeola, would later enjoy their own entertainment careers as a singer and choreographer, respectively. Gaye's childhood was, by many accounts, a miserable one due to his father's tyrannical nature: the House of God was an extremely conservative Christian sect that forbade its members to participate in even the most benign secular activities like sports or celebrating holidays. Gay, Sr. was also an alcoholic and relentlessly abusive towards his children, who received daily beatings for the slightest infraction. Gaye would later state that he suffered from depression as a child, and believed that he would have fallen into dissolution had he not been encouraged to pursue his growing interest in music outside the confines of the church.
He discovered doo-wop and R&B as a student at Cardozo High School, and began singing in several amateur groups. This decision did not sit well with his father, and Gaye eventually left home after graduation to join the U.S. Air Force. However, his issues with authority made the military an intolerable situation for him, and after feigning mental illness, he received a discharge. Upon returning to D.C., he worked as a dishwasher while trying to launch his music career. Eventually, he teamed with high school friend Reese Palmer to form a vocal quartet called the Marquees. In 1958, the group was discovered at a D.C.-area club by rock-n-roll pioneer Bo Diddley, who signed them to the R&B label Okeh Records. Their first single, "Wyatt Earp," was only a modest success, but their fortunes improved when singer Harvey Fuqua hired them to replace the members of his doo-wop group, the Moonglows, after he assumed lead vocalist duties in the group and sacked his former bandmates. The "new" Moonglows were soon signed to Chicago's Chess Records, where they sang backup for such established artists as Chuck Berry and Etta James while cutting such singles as "The Twelve Months of the Year" and "Mama Loochie." The latter became a hit in Detroit, but Fuqua again dismissed all of the members of the group, save Gaye, whom he hoped to groom into a solo act for his new labels, Harvey Records and Tri-Phi Records.
According to legend, Gaye was discovered by Motown head Berry Gordy at either a Detroit area club or through a performance of "Mr. Sandman" at the Motown Christmas party. After working out negotiations that gave 50 percent interest in Gaye's output to Fuqua and ownership of Harvey and Tri-Phi to Gordy, Gaye became a Motown artist in 1961. At first, Gaye and Motown were at odds over the direction of his career. He favored jazz and standards over the pop and R&B material that other acts at the label were recording. As a result, he worked largely as a session drummer on tracks like "Dancing in the Street" by Martha and the Vandellas and "Fingertips" by Stevie Wonder, while making ends meet by working as the label's janitor. He also resisted Gordy's Artist Development, which attempted to streamline new singers into polished artists. Eventually, after a string of failed singles - all billed to "Marvin Gaye," a move designed to emulate soul singer Sam Cooke's name change after he left gospel for secular music - he struck upon his first hit, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," which was inspired by squabbles he had with both Gordy and the label chief's sister, Anna, who became Gaye's wife in 1961. The single was a minor hit on the R&B chart in 1962, but its follow-up, "Hitch Hike," broke the Top 40 and even inspired a short-lived dance craze.
By 1964, Gaye was one of Motown's most prolific hitmakers, with such Top 10 and Top 40 singles to his name as "Can I Get a Witness," "You Are a Wonderful One" and "Try It Baby." His smooth delivery and versatile voice, which could swoop from a glittering falsetto to a down-and-dirty growl within a few notes, had a huge influence on other performers, most notably the growing rock scene in the U.K., where acts like The Rolling Stones, The Who and Dusty Springfield emulated his cool and covered his songs. But despite his success, Gaye remained unsatisfied with his career direction. He remained convinced that he was a jazz singer, and convinced Motown to release a trio of albums filled with standards, including a 1965 tribute to Nat "King" Cole. All three records failed upon their release, and Gaye's efforts to include this material in his live set were met with disinterest by the pop and R&B crowd. Gaye's frustration resulted in conflicts with Gordy, who shelved one jazz album after it took over two years to record.
In 1967, Gaye enjoyed a major hit with "It Takes Two," a duet with singer Kim Weston. Its success inspired Motown to refashion Gaye as part of a singing duo, but to their chagrin, Weston had left the label shortly after the release of the single. A solution was found in Philadelphia singer Tammi Terrell, with whom he recorded "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" in 1967. Audiences responded overwhelmingly to the blend of Gaye's smoky vocals with Terrell's high-energy delivery, and over the next 18 months, the duo would release some of the most joyous love songs of the 1960s, including "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" and "You're All I Need To Get By." So convincing were their declarations of love in song that many believed that Gaye and Terrell were a real-life couple, despite his marriage to Anna Gordy and her relationship with Temptations singer David Ruffin.
Tragedy struck in 1967 when Terrell collapsed on stage during a performance. She was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor that forced her to abruptly end her recording career. Gaye was devastated by the news, which overwhelmed the extraordinary success of his 1967 single, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," his first No. 1 and the biggest selling song in Motown history up to that point. When Terrell died in 1970, Gaye's emotional well-being took a further turn for the worse. He refused to record any future duets with female singers, and developed a case of stage fright so severe that he was sued on several occasions for breach of contract. His marriage was also in a state of disarray, and for a period of time, Gaye drifted afield from music, attempting at one point to join the Detroit Lions football team.
Eventually, he found renewed focus from the world around him. His brother Frankie had returned from service in Vietnam with stories about the war, and he was shocked by footage of violent police response to protestors. With Four Tops singer Renaldo "Obie" Benson, he penned "What's Going On," an eloquent observation on the issues of the day that featured one of Gaye's most inspired vocals and an arrangement that foresaw the future of soul music with its blend of jazz, funk and Latin grooves. However, Gordy was violently opposed to the song, which he considered one of the worst he had ever heard. The song was eventually released under considerable duress, where it immediately struck a chord with listeners who sent it to the top of the R&B charts for five weeks. Gaye would later record the entire album, also titled What's Going On (1971), independent of Motown's staff producers, exerting a creative control over that was a rarity at the label. The result was a soul classic that produced two more No. 1 hits, "Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler"), both of which drew praise for their message and their production. What's Going On went on to win several NAACP Awards, as well as earn numerous Grammy nominations. More importantly, it set the stage for other Motown artists to break free of the label's often-constrictive production regulations and set their own creative path, including Stevie Wonder, who refused to renew his contract with Gordy unless he was granted complete creative control.
Gaye relished his newfound freedom, diving into a variety of projects that included instrumental and jazz albums, as well as the soundtrack to the 1973 crime film "Trouble Man," which generated a No. 7 single with its title track. By this time, his marriage to Anna Gordy had finally come to an end, and he seemed to celebrate his newfound freedom with the single "Let's Get It On," a steamy come-on to an unspecified lover that reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The subsequent album, 1973's Let's Get It On, was as dedicated to love and sex as What's Going On was to social unrest, and listeners helped to make it another hit. Pressure from fans spurred Motown to demand that Gaye go on the road to promote the album, so he returned to live performance in 1974 and enjoyed a sold-out tour. By 1975, Motown was granting Gaye his every wish, including his own custom-made recording studio as part of his renewed contract.
However, Gaye found it difficult to balance his touring requirements with studio work, and for the next three years, he was without a new solo album. To make up for the lack of fresh material, Motown released Marvin and Diana, a compilation of duets with the Supremes singer that had begun prior to the release of What's Going On. Finally, in 1976, he began work on his new record, titled I Want You, but its production was wracked with external problems, most notably the threat of jail time over unpaid alimony to his wife Anna, who had filed for divorce. I Want You was eventually completed and released in 1976, and its moody, slow-simmering sound, inspired in part by Janis Hunter - with whom Gaye had been involved since 1973 - was met with mixed reactions by fans and critics alike. A 1977 single, the disco-flavored "Got to Give It Up, Pt. 1," became his final No. 1 hit.
In 1977, Gaye's divorce from Gordy was complete. Their financial issues were settled by an agreement that she would receive a portion of the sales from his next album, and Gaye set about to produce a record that would sell quick and conclude the contract. However, the result was Here, My Dear, a sprawling, unfocused double album that tanked upon its release. Gaye was sent back on the concert trail to recoup his losses while his personal life began to unravel in a dramatic fashion. His 1979 marriage to Hunter had collapsed after just 18 months due to allegations of infidelity on both sides and Gaye's mounting addiction to cocaine, which at one point reportedly caused him to threaten her at knifepoint. He was also in debt to the IRS for millions of dollars in unpaid taxes, which forced him into self-imposed exile in Hawaii and later London. He attempted to rebound with an album of ballads, but changed direction and delivered In Our Lifetime to Motown, an album that explored Gaye's personal issues through a veil of religious pronouncements that suggested an impending Armageddon. The label released the record in a dramatically different format, which resulted in Gaye demanding to be released from his contract. He eventually signed with CBS in 1982.
Now situated in Belgium, Gaye began to withdraw from his downward spiral and revive his flagging career. He wrested control of his physical and emotional health and set out on a European tour that received positive reviews. He also re-teamed with Harvey Fuqua to begin work on a new album, titled Midnight Love, which featured his last great single, "Sexual Healing." An unabashed tribute to the joys of carnal knowledge, the single shot to the top of the R&B charts and earned him two Grammys and renewed respect from the music community. He even settled his long-standing feud with Berry Gordy by performing "What's Going On" at the legendary "Motown 25" (NBC, 1983) tribute special. A tour was launched in 1983, but the pressures of nightly performances played havoc with Gaye's resolve, and he was soon back in the grip of his drug addiction.
To the surprise of many, he returned to his parents' home in Los Angeles to recuperate. There, his condition deteriorated even further, with drug dealers and groupies laying siege to the house, and battles between Gaye and his father reaching epic levels of rancor. On more than one occasion, Gaye threatened suicide after a particularly violent episode. The situation reached its terminal point on April 1, 1984, one day before Gaye's 45th birthday, when a misunderstanding over business documents led Gaye to assault his father, who responded by fatally shooting him. Charges of murder were dropped when it was discovered that Gaye, Sr. was suffering from a brain tumor, and he spent his remaining years in a retirement home before succumbing to pneumonia in 1998. Gaye was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame three years later. More importantly, his music influenced fellow R&B legends like Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson, who demanded and retained the level of creative control he gained for his work. Furthermore, his influence on a generation of romantic and erotically inclined soul singers - from Prince and D'Angelo to Usher and Justin Timberlake - was immeasurable.
By Paul Gaita