Marvin Gaye

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Marvin Gaye
Birth name Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr.
Born April 2 1939(1939-04-02)
Origin Washington, D.C., U.S. Flag of Washington, D.C.
Died April 1 1984 (aged 44)
Los Angeles, California
Genre(s) R&B, Soul, Funk, Motown
Occupation(s) Musician, composer, singer-songwriter, instrumentalist, record producer
Instrument(s) Vocals, piano, drums, synthesizer, organ, keyboards, clarinet, percussion
Years active 1957-1961 (groups)
1961-1984 (solo)
Label(s) Motown
The Moonglows, Martha and the Vandellas, Tammi Terrell, The Originals, Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Diana Ross, Harvey Fuqua

Marvin Gaye (born Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr.) (April 2, 1939 – April 1, 1984) was an American soul and R&B singer-songwriter, instrumentalist, record producer and performer who gained international fame as an artist on the Motown label in the 1960s and 1970s. Gaye's soul music performances were unique in their high emotionalism and volitional stylisms which translated into Gaye's unselfish actions to better communicate with others, since his early personal life was beset with violence and miscommunications and Gaye sought to mend his ways. In soul and R&B, Gaye sang about an unselfish love for others to help bridge the racial divisions of the time.

Beginning his career at Motown in 1961, Gaye quickly became Motown's top solo male artist and scored numerous hits throughout the 1960s, working within the constraints of the creatively restrictive yet undeniably effective Motown hit-making machine, in which performers and songwriters and record producers were generally kept in separate camps.[1] However, with his successful 1971 album, What's Going On, and subsequent releases, including Trouble Man and Let's Get It On, Gaye, who was a part-time songwriter for Motown artists during his early years with the label, proved that he could write and produce his own singles without having to rely on the Motown system. This achievement (along with those of contemporaries, Curtis Mayfield and George Clinton), would pave the way for the successes of later self-sufficient singer-songwriter-producers in African American music, such as Stevie Wonder, Luther Vandross, and Babyface.

Gaye died in 1984, at the hands of his clergyman father. Gaye's father was spared from a first degree murder conviction because of the extenuating circumstances involving his son. Gaye's character and human spirit still prevailed and Marvin Gaye has become one of the most influential and beloved artists in all of soul music.

The Hitsville U.S.A. building in Detroit, Michigan, which served as Motown's headquarters from 1959 until 1968.


Early life and career

Marvin Gaye was born the first son and second eldest of four children to Rev. Marvin Pentz Gay, Sr. and Alberta Cooper. His sisters, Jeanne and Zeola, younger brother, Frankie, and Marvin lived in the segregated section of Washington, D.C.'s Deanwood neighborhood in the northeastern section of the city. Gaye's father preached in a Seventh-day Adventist Church sect called the House of God, which went by a strict code of conduct and mixed teachings of Orthodox Judaism and Pentecostalism. Marvin's relationship with his father was contentious and embattled. Marvin Sr. was a domineering father, beating his children frequently, demanding strict adherence to the tenets prescribed by the House of God, even after he himself left the sect. Gaye described the difficult nature of his childhood to biographer David Ritz:

Living with Father was something like living with a king, a very peculiar, changeable, cruel, and all-powerful king. You were supposed to tip-toe around his moods. You were supposed to do anything to win his favor. I never did. Even though winning his love was the ultimate goal of my childhood, I defied him. I hated his attitude… If it wasn't for mother, who was always there to console me and praise my singing, I think I would have been one of those child suicides you read about in the papers.[2]

A benefit of growing up in his father's church was that Marvin started singing and playing instruments in the choir, and his natural musical talent and charisma emerged. While attending Cardozo High School, Marvin took up with a few of his peers also interested in music and formed a group, in which he played drums and piano. Marvin's growing interest in secular music and the culture that accompanied it put additional strain on his home life and his relationship with his father in particular, and he decided to drop out of school at age 18, and join the United States Air Force. However, he was honorably discharged after only eight months of duty due to his general unruliness and lackadaisical attitude.[3]

After leaving the Air Force, Gaye continued his music career in earnest, performing in several doo wop groups, before settling in with The Marquees, a popular D.C. group. Also at some point during this time, he changed the spelling of his last name from "Gay" to "Gaye," adding the "e" to separate himself from his father's name, to curb gossip about his sexuality and also in earnest imitation of his idol, Sam Cooke, who also added an "e" to his given last name.[4] With Bo Diddley, The Marquees released a single, "Wyatt Earp," in 1958 on Okeh Records and were then recruited by Harvey Fuqua to become The Moonglows. "Mama Loocie," released in 1959 on Chess Records, was Gaye's first single with the Moonglows and his first recorded lead. After a concert in Detroit, the "new" Moonglows disbanded and Fuqua introduced Gaye to Motown Records president Berry Gordy. He signed Gaye first as a session drummer for acts such as The Miracles, The Contours, Martha and the Vandellas, The Marvelettes, and others, most notably playing drums on The Marvelettes' 1961 hit, "Please Mr. Postman" and Little Stevie Wonder's "Fingertips Pt. 2."

Gaye developed a serious relationship with Gordy's sister, Anna Gordy, seventeen years Marvin's senior, who he would later marry in 1963. With her help, he convinced Berry Gordy to let him record his first album. In June 1961, Gaye issued his first solo recording, The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye, which was the first album issued by the Motown record label besides The Miracles' Hi… We're The Miracles album. Gaye had envisioned himself as a sophisticated crooner, in the vein of Perry Como or Nat King Cole, and, with Anna's help had convinced Gordy to let him record an album of mostly Broadway standards and jazz-rendered show tunes. It was a commercial failure.

Early Motown success

After arguing over the direction of his career with Gordy, Gaye eventually agreed to conform to record the more R&B-rooted sounds of his label mates and contemporaries, issuing three singles that were written by Gordy. His first single release, "Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide," built upon a Ray Charles vibe, failed to chart, as did the follow-ups, "Sandman" and "A Soldier's Plea," each released in 1962. Ironically, Gaye would find his first success as a co-songwriter on the Marvelettes' 1962 hit, "Beechwood 4-5789." Finally in the fall of 1962, the single, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," brought Gaye success on the R&B chart. The record, co-written by Gaye and produced by friend William "Mickey" Stevenson, featuring Martha and the Vandellas (then known as The Vells), was an autobiographical jab at Gaye's nonchalant moody behavior, and became a top ten hit on the Hot R&B Songs chart.

The single would be followed by his first Top 40 singles "Hitch Hike," "Pride & Joy" and "Can I Get a Witness," all of which were charted successes for Gaye in 1963. The success continued with the 1964 singles "You Are a Wonderful One" (which featured background work by The Supremes), "Try It Baby" (which featured backgrounds from The Temptations), "Baby Don't You Do It," and "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)," which became one of Gaye's signature songs. During this early success, Gaye contributed to writing Martha and the Vandellas' 1964 smash, "Dancing in the Street." His work with Smokey Robinson on the 1966 album, Moods of Marvin Gaye, spawned two consecutive top ten singles in "I'll Be Doggone" and "Ain't That Peculiar," both of which became the singer's first Billboard charted number-one hits of his career peaking at the top spot on the R&B singles chart. Marvin's early success granted him teen pop status as he became a favorite on the teen-based shows, American Bandstand, Shindig! Hullaballoo, and The Mike Douglas Show, he also became one of the few Motown artists to perform at the Copacabana.

Tammi Terrell and increasing success

A number of Gaye's hits for Motown were duets with female artists, such as Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell; the first Marvin Gaye/Mary Wells duet album, 1964's Together, was Gaye's first charting album. Terrell and Gaye in particular had a good rapport and their first album together, 1967's United, birthed the massive hits "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (later covered by Diana Ross and more recently, by former Doobie Brothers singer, Michael McDonald) and "Your Precious Love." Real life couple Nickolas Ashford and Valerie Simpson provided the writing and production for the Gaye/Terrell records; while Gaye and Terrell themselves were not lovers (though rumors persist that they may have been), they convincingly portrayed lovers on record; indeed Gaye sometimes claimed that for the durations of their duets he was in love with her. On October 14, 1967, Terrell collapsed into Gaye's arms onstage while they were performing at the Hampton University homecoming in Virginia. She was later diagnosed with a brain tumor and her health continued to deteriorate.

Motown decided to try and carry on with the Gaye/Terrell recordings, issuing the You're All I Need album in 1968, which featured the hits "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" and "You're All I Need to Get By." By the time of the final Gaye/Terrell album, Easy in 1969, Terrell's vocals were performed mostly by Valerie Simpson. Two tracks on Easy were archived Terrell solo songs with Gaye's vocals overdubbed onto them.

Gaye achieved his greatest commercial success with 1968's "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," his first #1 single on the Pop charts. Although the single was first released by Gladys Knight and the Pips, and had even been a #1 pop hit for them, Gaye had actually recorded his version before Knight. Initially vetoed by Berry Gordy during discussions about its release, the success of the Knight version and the persistence of the song's co-writer, Norman Whitfield, made its release possible. It stayed at the top position on the pop charts for seven weeks, from December 1968 to January 1969, and would turn out to be the highest selling Motown single of the entire decade, selling nearly four million copies.[5][6]

Marital and personal difficulties

Meanwhile, Gaye's marriage with Anna was crumbling. The union had been tempestuous from the beginning and physical violence between the two was not uncommon. Marvin's growing fame and the resultant female attention, as well as the couple's inability to conceive a child (they adopted a child, which they named Marvin III, in 1965) added to the strain on their relationship. Marvin had also begun using drugs since arriving at Motown, and by the end of the 1960s was abusing cocaine. Terrell's illness contributed to putting Gaye in a depression and he even contemplated suicide. Even in the face of the unprecedented success of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," Gaye was unsatisfied, saying that his success "didn't seem real" and that he "didn't deserve it."[7]

What's Going On

Tammi Terrell died of a tumor on March 16, 1970. Devastated by her death, Marvin was so emotional at her funeral that he'd talk to the remains as if she were going to respond.[8] Gaye subsequently went into seclusion, and did not perform in concert for nearly two years. At the same time, Marvin had begun to feel musically irrelevant, singing endlessly (albeit successfully) about love while popular music underwent a revolution and began addressing social and political issues.

Fueled by personal turmoil, the political unrest brewing in the country, and by letters he received from his brother Frankie, an enlisted soldier fighting in Vietnam, he entered the studio in June 1970 and recorded the songs "What's Going On" and "God is Love." "What's Going On" was written by Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops and Motown staffer Al Cleveland, and presented to Marvin to sing. However, overseeing production and instrumentation, Gaye made the track his own, a moving and soulful plea for peace, both in the world, and within.[9]

Gaye wanted to release the two songs as a single, with "What's Going On" on the A-side. Motown head Berry Gordy refused, however, calling the single "uncommercial" (Even after the success of the song and the eponymous album it was drawn from, Gordy asserted that he didn't understand the album.[10]). Gaye refused to record anything else until Gordy gave in and released the song, which became a surprise hit in January 1971. Gordy subsequently requested an entire album of similar tracks from Gaye.

The album, also entitled What's Going On, became one of the highlights of Gaye's career and is today his best-known and most well-regarded work. Both in terms of sound (influenced by funk, jazz, and Latin rhythms) and lyrical content (which was both topical and heavily spiritual) it was a major departure not only from his earlier Motown work, but from anything Motown had yet released. Two more of its singles, "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," became Top 10 pop hits and #1 R&B hits. The acclaim for the album was immediate, earning Gaye a NAACP Image Award, a key to the city of Washington D.C.,[11] Billboard magazine's Trendsetter of the Year award and Cashbox magazine's Male Vocalist of the Year award.[12]

The album became one of the most acclaimed soul albums of all time and made the concept album the new frontier for soul music. It has been called "the most important and passionate record to come out of soul music, delivered by one of its finest voices."[13] In an measure of just how enduring and well-regarded the album is, Rolling Stone Magazine in 2003 placed the album at #6 on its list of the greatest albums of all time.[14]

Continued success in music

Gaye's first project after the ground-breaking success of What's Going On was the soundtrack to the blaxploitation film, Trouble Man in 1972. An album of songs and instrumental score music, it scored Gaye another hit single with the title track, which peaked at #7 on the pop charts.

After Trouble Man, Marvin decided to switch topics from social to sensual with the release of Let's Get It On. The album was a departure for the singer with its unrestrained sensualism. Yielding the smash title track and subsequent other hits such as "Come Get to This," "You Sure Love to Ball" and "Distant Lover," Let's Get It On became Marvin Gaye's biggest selling album during his lifetime, surpassing What's Going On. Also, with the title track, Gaye broke his own record at Motown by surpassing the sales of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." The album would be later hailed as "a record unparalleled in its sheer sensuality and carnal energy."[15]

Gaye began working on his final duet album, this time for Diana Ross, for the Diana & Marvin project, an album of duets that began recording in 1972, while Ross was pregnant with her second child. Gaye refused to sing if he couldn't smoke in the studio, so the duet album was recorded by overdubbing Ross and Gaye at separate studio session dates. Released in the fall of 1973, the album yielded the U.S. Top 20 hit singles "You're a Special Part of Me" and "My Mistake (Was to Love You)."

In 1976, Gaye released the I Want You LP, which yielded the number-one R&B single, "I Want You" and the modest charter, "After the Dance." and produced erotic album tracks such as "Since I Had You" and "Soon I'll Be Loving You Again" with its musical productions gearing Gaye towards more funky material.

Marital upheaval

Marvin's marriage to Anna, plagued for years by infidelity, bickering, and physical violence (by both parties), finally entered its last phase in 1973, when Marvin began a long-running affair with Janis Hunter, daughter of jazz musician Slim Gaillard, and seventeen years Marvin's junior. Marvin met Janis during sessions for recording Let's Get It On, and his desire for her fueled the intensity of his performances. In fact, Hunter was the main inspiration for Gaye's music in his post-What's Going On/Trouble Man period. Their relationship produced two children, Nona Marvisa Gaye (b. September 4, 1974) and Frankie Christian Gaye (b. November 16, 1975). Marvin and Janis married after Marvin's divorce from Anna was finalized in 1977. Shortly after their October 1977 wedding in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, however, they separated due to growing tensions between them, finally divorcing in February 1981.

Later years

In 1977, Gaye released the seminal funk single, "Got to Give It Up," which went to number-one on the pop, R&B and dance singles charts simultaneously and helped his Live at the London Palladium album sell over two million copies and becoming one of the top ten best-selling albums of the year. The following year, after divorcing his first wife Anna, he agreed to remit a portion of his salary and sales of his upcoming album to his ex for alimony. The result was 1978's Here, My Dear, which addressed the sour points of his marriage to Anna and almost led to Anna filing an invasion of privacy against Marvin. That album tanked on the charts however (despite its later critical reevaluation and acclaim), and Gaye struggled to sell a record.

By 1979, besieged by tax problems and drug addictions, Gaye filed for bankruptcy and moved to Hawaii where he lived in a bread van. In 1980, he signed with British promoter Jeffrey Kruger to do concerts overseas with the promised highlight of a Royal Command Performance at London's Drury Lane in front of Princess Margaret. Gaye failed to make the stage on time and by the time he came, everyone had left. While in London, Marvin worked on In Our Lifetime, a complex and deeply personal record. When Motown issued the album prematurely in 1981, Gaye was livid: He accused Motown of editing and remixing the album without his consent, releasing an unfinished song ("Far Cry"), altering the album art he requested, and removing the question mark from the title (rendering the intended irony imperceptible).

After being offered a chance to clear things out in Oostende, Belgium, he took up residency there in 1981. Still upset over Motown's hasty decision to release In Our Lifetime, he negotiated a release from the label and signed with Columbia Records in 1982, releasing Midnight Love that year. The album included Marvin's final big hit, "Sexual Healing." The song gave Gaye his first two Grammy Awards (Best R&B Male Vocal Performance, Best R&B Instrumental) in February 1983. The following year, he won a Grammy nomination for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance again, this time for the Midnight Love album itself. In February 1983, Gaye gave an emotional and memorable performance of The Star-Spangled Banner at the NBA All-Star Game, held at The Forum in Inglewood, California, accompanied by a drum machine. In March 1983, he gave his final performance in front of his old mentor and label for Motown 25, performing "What's Going On." He then embarked on a U.S. tour to support his album. The tour, ending in August 1983, was plagued by health and drug problems, Gaye's bouts with depression, and Gaye's paranoia about potential attempts on his life.

Final days and death

When the tour ended, he isolated himself by moving into his parents' house. He threatened to commit suicide several times after numerous bitter arguments with his father, Marvin, Sr. On April 1, 1984, one day before his forty-fifth birthday, Gaye's father shot and killed him after an argument that had started after Marvin's parents argued over misplaced business documents.[16] Ten thousand mourners, including Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, and comedian and activist Dick Gregory, were present at Gaye's funeral in Los Angeles, which was presided over by the head of his father's old church, the Chief Apostle of the House of God.[17]

After Gaye's death, two of his children followed in his footsteps to show business: eldest son Marvin Pentz Gaye III became a record producer, while Gaye's only daughter, Nona, became a model, an actress and a singer. His youngest child, son Frankie Christian, has not followed his siblings into show business.


In 1987, Marvin was inducted posthumously to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with Marvin's first wife Anna Gordy and son Marvin III accepting for Marvin. He was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1990. In 1996, he was posthumously awarded with the Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Throughout his long career, Gaye scored a total of forty-one Top 40 hit singles on Billboard's Pop Singles chart between 1963 and 2001, sixty top forty R&B singles chart hits from 1962 to 2001, eighteen Top Ten pop singles on the pop chart, thirty-eight Top 10 singles on the R&B chart (according to latest figures from Joel Whitburns Top R&B/Hip-Hop Singles: 1942-2004, 2004), three number-one pop hits and thirteen number-one R&B hits. His development as an artist was immense over the course of his career and mirrored the changing world around him:

Marvin Gaye's entire recorded output signifies the development of black music from raw rhythm and blues, through sophisticated soul to the political awareness of the early 70s, and the increased concentration on personal and sexual politics thereafter.[18]

Today, Marvin Gaye is considered one of the most gifted vocalists to emerge from Motown, one of the great musical visionaries of soul music, and thus one of the greatest artists in the history of rock music.


  1. Garofalo, 261-262.
  2. David Krajicek, The Life and Tragic Death of Motown's Marvin Gaye—Chapter 5: Nightmare Childhood, The Crime Library. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  3. The Smoking Gun, "Marvin Gaye No Military Hit." Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  4. BBC, H2G2—The Stars of Motown. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  5. Rolling Stone, I Heard it Through the Grapevine.
  6. Ritz, 122.
  7. Posner, 225.
  8. Ritz, 138.
  9. Rolling Stone, "What's Going On."
  10., Marvin Gaye's Biography. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  11. David Krajicek, The Life and Tragic Death of Motown's Marvin Gaye—Chapter 11: The Superego. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  12. Thomson Gale Free Resources, Biography of Marvin Gaye. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  13. Josh Bush, Review of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  14. Rolling Stone, The RS 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
  15. Jason Ankeny, Review of Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  16. David Krajicek, The Life and Tragic Death of Motown's Marvin Gaye—Chapter 24: Conclusion. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  17. David Krajicek, The Life and Tragic Death of Motown's Marvin Gaye—Chapter 23: The Postmortem. The Crime Library. Retrieved January 9, 2009.
  18. Soul Walking, The Marvin Gaye Page. Retrieved January 9, 2009.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Dyson, Michael Eric. 2004. Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves, and Demons of Marvin Gaye. New York: Basic Civitas. ISBN 0-465-01769-X.
  • Gambaccini, Paul. 1987. The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time. New York: Harmony Books.
  • Garofalo, Reebee. 1997. Rockin' Out: Popular Music in the USA. Allyn & Bacon. ISBN 0-205-13703-2.
  • Gaye, Frankie, with Fred E. Basten. 2003. Marvin Gaye: My Brother. Backbeat Books. ISBN 0-87930-742-0.
  • Posner, Gerald. 2002. Motown : Music, Money, Sex, and Power. New York: Random House. ISBN 0-375-50062-6.
  • Ritz, David. 1986. Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-81191-X.
  • Turner, Steve. 1998. Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye. London: Michael Joseph. ISBN 0-7181-4112-1.
  • Ward, Ed, Geoffrey Stokes, and Ken Tucker. 1986. Rock of Ages: The Rolling Stone History of Rock and Roll. Rolling Stone Press. ISBN 0-671-54438-1.

External links

All links retrieved November 7, 2022.


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