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Gaye, Marvin (originally, Gay, Marvin Jr.)

Gaye, Marvin (originally, Gay, Marvin Jr.)

Gaye, Marvin (originally, Gay, Marvin Jr.), seminal soul singer and hitmaker of the 1960s-80s; b. Washington, D.C., April 2, 1939; d. Los Angeles, April 1, 1984. Raised in Washington, D.C., Marvin Gaye first sang solos with his father’s church choir at the age of three. During high school, he studied piano while also learning to play drums. In the mid- 1950s, he was a member of the local vocal group, The Rainbows, whose membership included Don Covay and Billy Stewart. Gaye made his first recordings in 1957 as a member of The Marquees, who were drafted to replace the original members of The Moonglows in 1958. Spotted performing with the group in 1961 by Berry Gordy Jr., Gaye was signed to the fledgling family of Motown labels. He initially served as a sessions drummer, later toured with The Miracles for six months, and co-wrote Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Streets” with William Stevenson.

Gaye started recording solo for the Tamla label in 1961, scoring his first near-smash rhythm-and-blues and moderate pop hit with “Stubborn Kind of Fellow,” recorded with Martha and the Vandellas, in late 1962. A string of major hits in both the rhythm-and-blues and pop fields followed with “Hitch Hike” and “Pride and Joy” (which he co-wrote) and Holland-DozierHolland’s “Can I Get a Witness.” A more pop-oriented sound emerged in 1964 for the crossover hits “Try It Baby” (by Berry Gordy Jr.) and “You’re a Wonderful One,” the overlooked “Baby, Don’t Do It,” and the smash “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You,” all written by Holland-Dozier-Holland.

Gaye began a series of recordings with Motown organization female singers in 1964 with Mary Wells. The duo produced the major two-sided hit “What’s the Matter with You, Baby”/”Once Upon a Time.” Gaye and Kim Weston had a minor hit in late 1964 with “What Good Am I without You” and a smash crossover hit in 1967 with “It Takes Two.”

Established as a singles artist by 1965, Gaye continued his hit-making ways with “I’ll Be Doggone” and “Ain’t That Peculiar,” both co-written by Smokey Robinson, and the definitive top-hit version of Barrett Strong and Norman Whitfield’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” recorded a year earlier by Gladys Knight and the Pips. Subsequent crossover hits included “Too Busy Thinking About My Baby” and “That’s the Way Love Is.”

In 1967, Gaye began teaming with Tammi Terrell, recording three albums with her through 1969. Their smash rhythm-and-blues and pop hits of the period included four Nicholas Ashford/Valerie Simpson compositions, “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,” as well as “If I Could Build My World Around You.” However, Gaye ceased touring after Terrell collapsed in his arms on stage in 1969. She died from a brain tumor on March 16, 1970, in Philadelphia.

After a protracted period of seclusion, Gaye reemerged to demand more independence from the Motown organization. Eschewing the rigid singles format, he recorded and produced What’s Going On, which featured sophisticated string and horn arrangements. The album, which revealed Gaye’s growing social and spiritual concerns, was reluctantly released in mid-1971. With all songs either written or co-written by Gaye, the album ironically became one of Motown’s best-selling albums, yielding top rhythm- and-blues and smash pop singles with “What’s Going On,” “Mercy, Mercy Me (the Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” Opening the door for other independent productions by Motown artists, most notably Stevie Wonder, What’s Going On was the first “concept” album by a black artist and its success paved the way for other black artists to explore the form. Furthermore, in its poignant and passionate concern with urban decay, ecological crises, and spiritual impoverishment, the album helped expand soul music’s boundaries into areas of social concern. He followed up the stunning success of What’s Going On with the largely instrumental soundtrack to the movie Trouble Man, which yielded a smash crossover hit with the title song.

In 1973, Gaye co-wrote, co-produced, and recorded Let’s Get It On. A dramatic contrast to his previous effort, the album shunned social commentary in favor of sensual, romantic material. The title song became a top rhythm-and-blues and pop hit, and the album also yielded the two-sided hit “Come Get to This”/”You Sure Love to Ball.” Later that year, Gaye teamed with Diana Ross for an album and the hits “You’re a Special Part of Me,” “My Mistake (Was to Love You)” and “Don’t Knock My Love.”

In early 1974, Gaye returned to live performance at the Oakland (Calif.) Coliseum, which resulted in Marvin Gaye Live! Subsequent 1970s successes included the top R&B and major pop hit “I Want You” and the discofied “Got to Give It Up (Part I),” a top pop and R&B hit taken from his best-selling Live at the London Palladium album. During 1979, bankrupt and the subject of divorce proceedings, Marvin Gaye issued the embittered double-record set Here, My Dear, with royalties assigned to his ex-wife.

Gaye moved to Europe in 1980, eventually settling in Belgium. He negotiated his release from his Motown contract and signed with Columbia Records in 1982. His debut for the label, Midnight Love, was recorded in Belgium and became his best selling album, yielding a top R&B and smash pop hit with “Sexual Healing.” He returned to the U.S. to tour in support of the album in 1983, but on April 1, 1984, while in the midst of recording material for a new album, he was shot to death by his father at his parents’ home in L.A. The posthumous Dream of a Lifetime produced a rhythm-and-blues smash with “Sanctified Lady.” Gaye was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. In 1992, his daughter Nona launched her own recording career on Third Stone Records. Motown Records issued a tribute album to Gaye in 1995.

In a career that spanned the entire history of rhythmand-blues, from 1950s doo-wop to 1980s soul, Gaye helped define the Motown sound and recorded some of the organization’s most enduring hits of the 1960s and 1970s. Recording some of the label’s most personal and engaging songs, Gaye made a graceful transition from early gospel-style recordings to a pop-oriented sound that emphasized his smooth, sensual tenor voice. The top sex symbol among black male singers throughout his career, he was one of soul music’s most charismatic yet enigmatic figures and one of its most important stylists, influencing both black and white male vocalists.

Discography

Soulful Moods o/M.G. (1962); That Stubborn Kinda Fellow (1963); Live on Stage (1963); When I’m Alone I Cry (1964); How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You (1965); Hello Broadway (1965); A Tribute to the Great Nat King Cole (1966); Moods o/M.G. (1966); In the Groove (1968); M.P.G. (1969); That’s the Way Love Is (1969); What’s Going On (1971); Trouble Man (soundtrack; 1972); Let’s Get It On (1973); M.G. Live! (1974); I Want You (1976); Live at the London Palladium (1977); Here, My Dear (1979); Love Man (1980); In Our Lifetime: The final Motown Sessions (1981); Midnight Love (1982); Dream of a Lifetime (1985); Romantically Yours (1985); The Last Concert Tour (1991). MARVI N GAYE AND MARY WELLS: Marvin and Mary Together (1964). MARVI N GAY E AND KIM WESTON: It Takes Two (1966). MARVI N GAY E AND TAMMI TERRELL: United (1967); You’re All I Need to Get By (1968); Easy (1969); Greatest Hits (1970). MARVI N GAYE AND DIAN A ROSS : Diana and Marvin (1973).

Bibliography

David Ritz, Divided Soul: The Life of M.G. (N.Y., 1985); Sharon Davis, I Heard It through the Grapevine: M.G., the Biography (Edinburgh, 2000).

—Brock Helander

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