Gone But Not Forgotten: Marvin Gaye
April 2, 1939 - April 1, 1984
One of the talented, gifted and visionary artists of our time, Marvin Gaye evolved popular Black music from the Motown hit sound to his own unique and powerful personal and political statements.
Moving from lean, powerful R&B to stylish, sophisticated soul to finally arrive at an intensely political and personal form of artistic self-expression, his work not only redefined soul music as a creative force but also expanded its impact as an agent for social change.
Born in 1939 to Marvin Gay Sr., a preacher, and Alberta Gay, a schoolteacher and housewife in Washington, D.C., Marvin Pentz Gay Jr. was second of his father's children and third of six. He was raised in a strict Apostolic religion and during his life struggled to balance the elements of "good" and "temptation." Marvin Gaye developed an early love of music through singing in the church choir starting at the age of three or four and then learned piano and drums. His father routinely whipped the children, especially Marvin Jr., for any small infraction. In high school Marvin started singing with doo wop groups and his relationship with his father got worse. He dropped out of high school to join the Air Force at age 17 to escape the abuse, but ultimately faked his way out to a discharge not long after enlisting.
After leaving the Air Force, Gaye started a group called the Marquees with his friend Reese Palmer and the group worked with Bo Diddley. Their first single didn't chart and they were dropped, but Gaye started writing his own music as a result. With the help of Moonglows' founder Harvey Fuqua, The Marquees started recording again under Chess Records and changed their name to Harvey and the New Moonglows. They worked as session singers for Chuck Berry and disbanded in 1960. Gaye went to Detroit with Fuqua to sign as a session player (mainly drums) with Tri-Phi Records. He got his big break performing for Berry Gordy Jr. at a holiday party in 1960. Gordy bought out Fuqua's share of his contract with Marvin Gaye and signed him to Tamla Records. At this point in time, Gaye added the e to the end of his name.
Marvin Gaye released his first single, "Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide" in May 1961, with the album The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye. The recordings were not a commercial success and he spent the rest of the year as a session player for The Marvelettes and The Miracles. Not long after signing to Motown, Gaye married Berry Gordy's sister, Anna. In 1962, he co-wrote The Marvelettes' hit, "Beechwood 4-5789" and then released his own hits "Hitch Hike" and "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" later that year. He worked his way up the charts with more songs, and "Pride and Joy" made the Top Ten in 1963. Work with Mary Wells followed - a duet album called Together. "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)" rose to #6 on the Hot 100 and Gaye started appearing on American Bandstand and other tv shows. Next, he had two songs hit #1 on the R&B charts, including "Ain't That Peculiar."
Gaye worked with Tammi Terrell on duets, which included now-powerhouse classic songs like "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," and "You're All I Need to Get By" which were all written by Ashford and Simpson. When Terrell became diagnosed with a brain tumor and unable to perform, Gaye was devastated. He wrote and produced some songs for other groups and turned out some of his own solo hits, including his hit version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby." Gaye attended Terrell's funeral in 1970 and tried to join a football team during his period of depression and disillusionment with music, but that idea was nixed due to fears of injuries ruining his musical career.
After taking a short musical hiatus, Gaye recorded "What's Going On" in 1970 after seeing police brutality at an anti-Vietnam war rally in Berkeley. Berry Gordy did not want to release the song originally but Gaye went on strike from the label until the song was released. Hitting the radio in 1971, It hit #1 on the R&B charts and #2 on the Hot 100, and sold over 2 million copies. Gaye got the OK to record the full album with complete creative control and finished the album quickly - it was released in May 1971. He was one of the first Motown artists, along with Stevie Wonder, to get complete artistic control. "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Inner City Blues" both rose to the top ten as well and the album sold over a million copies. What's Going On the album was considered one of the first concept albums for R&B. It won a Rolling Stone Album of the Year Award and influenced countless artists to follow across many genres.
The success of What's Going On allowed Marvin Gaye to negotiate a great new deal worth $1 million and he followed up with Trouble Man and Let's Get It On, as well as a duet album with Diana Ross, Diana & Marvin. Gaye spent 1974-1975 touring and then built a custom-made recording studio at Motown. Troubles in his marriage to Anna Gordy Gaye led to divorce. After the settlement, Marvin Gaye declared bankruptcy. Gaye got married to his second wife, Janice, in 1977, and he released "Got To Give It Up (Pt. 1)" - a #1 Hit.
Unfortunately Gaye's success streak did not continue, and he struggled to chart in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was under pressure to make more disco songs after "Got to Give It Up" but disco wasn't doing him any favors and he developed an addiction to cocaine. His financials were under fire from the IRS. A stolen master tape led to Motown remixing and editing an album without his input and Gaye left the label in 1981. 1981 would also mark the second divorce for Marvin Gaye - his marriage to Janice did not last. He moved to Belgium and started cleaning up his life with the help of Freddy Cousaert. After a few months of recovery, Gaye hit the stage for a short tour in England and Belgium. He signed with CBS Records in March 1982.
Gaye released "Sexual Healing" in September 1982 on CBS Records, and hit #1 on R&B and #3 on the Hot 100 charts, landing as Gaye's biggest-selling record and gaining international success. The song earned Gaye his first two Grammy Awards, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Instrumental Performance, as well as an American Music Award. Marvin Gaye went on the Sexual Healing Tour, his final tour, in April 1983. When the tour ended he was struggling with depression and substance abuse again, and relocated to his parents' house in Los Angeles to try to clean himself up one more time.
On April 1, 1984, Marvin Gaye tried to intervene in an argument between his parents. His father shot him twice, once in the heart and once on his left shoulder. Gaye left behind three children, Marvin Gaye III, Nona Gaye and Frankie Gaye. Marvin Gaye was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987 and his legacy lives on. He recorded and released 17 studio albums in his lifetime, three live albums and six duet albums; four posthumous albums were released after his death including one live album. He received a star on the Hollywood Hall of Fame in 1990, The R&B Music Hall of Fame in 2014, and the Songwriter's Hall of Fame in 2016.