Gaye, Marvin Pentz, Jr.

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GAYE, Marvin Pentz, Jr.

(b. 2 April 1939 in Washington, D.C.; d. 1 April 1984 in Los Angeles, California), singer and songwriter whose career, particularly his stint with Motown Records, paralleled the development of rhythm and blues music.

The son of Marvin P. Gay, a Pentecostal minister, and Alberta Gay, a domestic worker, Gaye was the oldest of four children. He grew up in Washington, D.C., and was raised in his father's church, located near the East Capitol Projects in southwest Washington. His early family life centered on religion. His exposure to music began when he started playing piano, organ, and drums in church groups. From early childhood Gaye clashed with his father, who was stern and quick to punish for any behavior that he deemed inappropriate.

Gaye attended Cardozo High School in Washington, where he played piano for a doo-wop group called the D.C. Tones. He dropped out of school after the eleventh grade and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force but was discharged in 1957 after only one year.

Gaye returned to Washington and formed another doowop group called the Marquees. He now considered himself a professional and added the letter e to the end of his name. He sang a tenor part with the group. The Marquees had a following among rhythm and blues (R&B) fans, but although the group recorded "Wyatt Earp" and "Hey Little School Girl" in 1957, it was considered a commercial failure.

In 1958 Harvey Fuqua, an R&B singer, hired the Marquees to sing backup for him and changed the group's name to the Moonglows. In 1960 Gaye and Fuqua left the group and moved to Detroit. Coincidentally, an upstart record label named Motown, founded by Berry Gordy and located in Detroit, was slowly becoming a force in popular music. A 1961 performance by Gaye and Fuqua impressed Gordy so much he signed Gaye on the Motown label as a solo artist.

Motown's formula for success was to repackage the work of emerging black artists to create music that would be popular with everyone, especially to white youths. Gordy transformed what were formerly known as "race records" into a genre of popular music.

Gaye's early Motown work was limited to playing drums in the studio for recordings by Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, Stevie Wonder, and the Marvelettes (on the hit album Please Mr. Postman). Gaye also coauthored the song "Dancing in the Streets," recorded by Martha and the Vandellas. His first Motown singing efforts were heard on jazz and standards recordings, but unfortunately those works were commercial failures. "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" (1962), his fourth single, became his first hit on the R&B charts. In 1963 he recorded "Hitch Hike" and "Can I Get a Witness," which were both hits. The records How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You and M.P.G. (including the song "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby") soon followed. Also in 1963 he recorded "Pride and Joy." Later that year Gaye married Berry Gordy's sister Anna, the subject of "Pride and Joy."

In the 1960s Gaye worked with all of the major Motown producers and writers, especially the songwriting and production duo Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson. He released many hit records, and his songs, both solo recordings and duets with Mary Wells, Kim Weston, Diana Ross, and Tammi Terrell, reached the Top Forty about forty times during this period. They included "Ain't That Peculiar" (1966), written by Smokey Robinson, and his biggest hit of the decade, "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (1968), which was number one on the pop music charts for over seven weeks. The album of the same title sold more than four million copies and was Motown's best-selling record of the decade.

In 1967 Gaye recorded a number of duets with Tammi Terrell, including "Your Precious Love," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing," "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," and "You're All I Need to Get By." They generated three albums and nine singles that reached the top of both the R&B and pop music charts during the latter years of the decade. Tragically, during a 1967 performance in Virginia, Terrell collapsed on stage in Gaye's arms, the result of a brain tumor that eventually took her life in 1970.

Gaye ceased working for more than a year after Terrell's death. He became depressed, attempting to join the Detroit Lions football team and producing and writing for a struggling R&B group named the Originals. Nevertheless, Gaye's contributions to pop and R&B music after the 1960s are virtually unparalleled in the music industry. His most influential album, What's Going On, which he composed, arranged, and produced, was released in 1971. It served as a political statement about the conflicts in the United States and the world in the late 1960s. It spoke against the Vietnam War, poverty, police brutality, and drug addiction while supporting ecology, peace, and nonviolence. It was the first concept and protest recording in the soul music spectrum.

Gaye's 1960s recordings remain popular. Some songs were later recorded by a variety of artists, including Mick Jagger, James Taylor, Diana Ross, and Elton John, during the 1970s and 1980s. They have also been heard in movie soundtracks and television advertisements.

Gaye's personal life following 1970 was mired in controversy, inner struggle, and conflict. Later recordings, although successful, made him a reluctant sex symbol. He fought the Internal Revenue Service, bankruptcy, and drug addiction, left Motown records, and lived in self-imposed exile in London and Belgium. He divorced Anna Gordy, with whom he adopted one child, in 1976. A year later he married Janis Hunter, with whom he had two children, including a daughter, Nona, who also became a singer. Gaye and Hunter also divorced.

Gaye enjoyed a successful comeback with the album Midnight Lane (1982), whose song "Sexual Healing" won two Grammy Awards. Gaye died after his own father shot him during an argument at their home in Los Angeles on 1 April 1984. His body was cremated and the ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean.

Biographies of Gaye include David Ritz, Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye (1985); Sharon Davis, I Heard It Through the Grapevine: Marvin Gaye, A Biography (1991); and Steve Turner, Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye (2000). Obituaries are in the Washington Post and New York Times (both 2 Apr. 1984).

Anthony Todman