Gaye, Marvin (1959-1984)

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Gaye, Marvin (1959-1984)

During his tenure at Motown records, vocalist and songwriter Marvin Gaye expanded the boundaries of what soul music could address and how it could sound. His early Motown hits "How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)," "Ain't That Peculiar," and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" (with Tammi Terrell) helped define the 1960s Motown sound. His 1968 "I Heard It through the Grapevine" became Motown's biggest-selling record to date. On genre-defying albums such as 1971's What's Going On, Gaye opened soul music to allow for overt political protest, while on 1978's Here, My Dear he reduced his subject matter to a level of pain and honesty that had rarely been touched in any form of popular music. During his lifetime, Gaye battled many demons—the most significant of which was his father, a man with whom Gaye had an ongoing, troubled relationship. That relationship ended tragically April 1, 1984, when Gaye's father gunned him down in his parents' home after a heated argument.

Born Marvin Pentz Gaye, Jr. to a devoutly religious family that belonged to the House of God (a conservative Christian sect that drew from Pentecostalism and Orthodox Judaism), Marvin had a troubled childhood growing up in Washington, D.C. Gaye was beaten almost daily by his father, an ordained minister at the local House of God church, and felt stigmatized and out of place among his peers because of his shy nature and the gossip-attracting, flamboyant personality of his father. Gaye grew up amid perpetual confrontations with his father and, by most accounts, was an unhappy child, except when he was singing.

Starting at a very early age, Gaye buried himself deep in music, learning to play drums and piano in church, and later becoming a soloist in his father's church choir. Upon graduating from high school, Gaye enlisted in the Air Force to escape his family life, but after his discharge he returned to Washington, D.C., and sang around town in a number of Doo-Wop groups. During a tour stop as a backing vocalist with the Moonglows in Detroit, Gaye caught the attention of Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr., who hired him as a session musician and eventually signed him as a Motown artist in 1961. Gaye got to know, and fell in love with, Gordy's sister, Anna (who was 17 years Gaye's senior). They were married in late 1961.

After a few minor hit singles and a poor-selling album in the style of his hero, Nat King Cole, Gaye scored his first Top Ten hit with the up-tempo "Pride and Joy." But Motown's pigeonholing of Gaye as an upbeat party song singer ran in opposition to his desire to sing sweet, romantic ballads and resulted in Gaye's long-running conflicts over artistic direction and control of his career. In addition to churning out up-tempo numbers, Gaye also became known as a duet singer, his most beautiful and gut-wrenching songs sung with Terrell. This pairing generated such classics as "Ain't No Mountain High Enough," "Your Precious Love," and "You're All I Need to Get By." Their musical affair sadly ended when she collapsed in his arms onstage, eventually dying of a brain tumor in 1970. By all accounts, Gaye never emotionally recovered from the loss of Terrell, a woman with whom he had a deep emotional connection, though not a romantic relationship.

By the end of the 1960s, America was in the middle of a social upheaval generated by, among other things, the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. Gaye wanted to find a way to musically address his social concerns but found Motown's assembly-line hit-making method increasingly constraining. Gaye fought against Motown for the release of What's Going On (1971), his personal testament against the horrors of the Vietnam War, environmental destruction, and the indignities of ghetto life. Opening with the strains of his tenor voice singing "Mother mother / there's too many of us dying," What's Going On was a landmark album. Released to universal critical praise in magazines from Rolling Stone to Time (which devoted a long, two-column review to the album), the album freed soul music from the limiting subject matter of simple love songs. It also featured more complex and jazzy arrangements that used strings, as well as songs that seamlessly segued into each other. The album became the best-selling album of Gaye's career, a demonstration that an artist's muse and commerce could successfully coexist.

In 1972 Gaye followed up What's Going On with the soundtrack to the blaxploitation flick Trouble Man, and in 1973 he released the deeply erotic Let's Get It On. It, too, was a massive hit. Now at the high point of his career, he sank to one of the lowest points in his life. Severely depressed, he increasingly took large amounts of cocaine while his marriage to Anna dissolved. During the course of his marriage, Gaye's weakness for women made him unfaithful, but the last straw for Anna occurred when he had a second child with Janis Hunter (whom he later married). In a bizarre divorce settlement, Gaye agreed to pay the entirety of royalties for his next album to Anna. Briefly contemplating making a toss-off album, he instead delved deep into their relationship and created what is among the most unusual albums in popular music history, Here, My Dear, a double concept album that documented the rise and fall of their marriage, his unfaithfulness, his cocaine habit, his obsession with prostitutes, and other very personal subjects with songs such as "When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You?" and "You Can Leave, but It's Going to Cost You." Even the album's cover art visually represented their crumbling marriage. Confronting an audience that was clearly unprepared for such a display of raw emotion and dirty laundry, the album flopped.

Gaye sank deeper into a drug-induced depression and financial collapse. He moved to Europe, where he pulled himself out of his hole and recorded 1982's Midnight Love, an album that contained his last big hit and winner of two Grammy Awards, "Sexual Healing." Marvin Gaye was shot and killed by his father in 1984; he was posthumously inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

—Kembrew McLeod

Further Reading:

Davis, Sharon. Marvin Gaye. New York, Proteus, 1984.

Ritz, David. Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye. New York, Da Capo, 1985.

Ward, Brian. Just My Soul Responding: Rhythm and Blues, Black Consciousness and Race Relations. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998.