Marvin Gaye (born Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr.) (April 2, 1939 – April 1, 1984) was an African American pop, soul, and R&B singer, arranger, musician, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and record producer who gained international fame during the 1960s and 1970s as an artist on the Motown label. His best records are still highly regarded, and he is often cited as one of the finest singers of his era.
Along with Stevie Wonder, Gaye is notable for fighting the hitmaking but creatively restrictive Motown record-making process, in which performers and songwriters/record producers were generally kept in separate camps. Gaye forced Motown to release his 1971 album What's Going On, which is today hailed as one of the best soul albums of all time. Subsequent releases proved that Gaye, who had been a part-time songwriter for Motown artists during his early years with the label, could write and produce his own singles without having to rely on the Motown system. This achievement would pave the way for the successes of later self-sufficient singer-songwriter-producers in African American music, such as Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, Babyface, and R. Kelly.
Early life and career
Gaye was born Marvin Pentz Gay, Jr. (He later added the "e" to imitate Sam Cooke, who did the same) in Washington, D.C., the son of the Reverend Marvin Gay, Sr., an ordained minister in the House of God, a small, conservative sect, spun off from the Seventh-day Adventist denomination. The church, taking some elements of Pentecostalism and Orthodox Judaism, has very strict codes of conduct and does not celebrate any holidays. Gaye got his start singing in the church choir, later learning to play the piano and drums to escape from his physically abusive father.
After high school, Gaye joined the United States Air Force and then, after being discharged, joined several doo wop groups, settling on The Marquees, a popular local group in D.C. 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. After a concert in Detroit, Michigan, Gaye was recruited for a solo career by Berry Gordy, Jr. of Motown Records.
Joining the Motown and Gordy families
As a session drummer and part-time songwriter, Gaye worked with The Miracles, The Contours, Martha & the Vandellas, and other Motown acts. Most notably, he is the drummer on Little Stevie Wonder's 1963 #1 hit "Fingertips--Pt. 2", and co-wrote Martha & the Vandellas' 1964 hit "Dancing In The Street" and The Marvelettes' 1962 hit "Beechwood 4-5789". Popular and well-liked around Motown, Gaye already carried himself in a sophisticated, gentleman-like manner, and had little need of training from Motown's in-house Artist Development director Miss Maxine Powell. Not only part of the Motown family, he also became part of the Gordy family when he married Berry Gordy's sister Anna in 1961.
Marvin Gaye's first three Motown singles were all unsuccessful; he finally scored a minor hit with his fourth attempt, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow", in 1962, with Martha & The Vandellas on background vocals. The single was co-written by Gaye and William "Mickey" Stevenson who created the title as a sly reference to the sometimes moody Gaye. 1963's "Hitch Hike" and "Can I Get a Witness" were also minor hits. These earlier records featured a "churchiness... that was pushed by that urgent Detroit rhythm section". "Pride & Joy" (1963) became a smash hit, but Gaye was discontented with the role he felt Motown Records kept him locked in, as a romantic balladeer and crooner, aiming always for chart success in the singles market. He wanted instead to be a pop singer in the vein of Nat King Cole or Frank Sinatra, but settled for a blend of the styles of those artists with the passionate soul singing of performers such as Jackie Wilson and his role model Sam Cooke.
Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell
A number of Gaye's hit singles for Motown were duets with female artists such as Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell; the first Gaye/Wells 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" 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, they convincingly portrayed lovers on record.
On October 14, 1967, Terrell collapsed into Gaye's arms onstage while they were performing at the Hampton University homecoming in Virginia (contrary to popular belief, it was not Hampden-Sydney College, also 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". Most of the songs on You're All I Need were actual Gaye/Terrell duets, but two were archived Terrell solo songs with Gaye's vocals overdubbed onto them. By the time on the final Gaye/Terrell album, Easy, in 1969, Terrell's vocals were performed mostly by Valerie Simpson.
Terrell's illness began a depression in Gaye; when his Norman Whitfield-produced "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" became his first #1 hit and the biggest selling single in Motown history to that point, he refused to acknowledge his success, feeling that it was undeserved. Meanwhile, Gaye's marriage was crumbling and he continued to feel irrelevant, singing endlessly about love while popular music underwent a revolution and began addressing social and political issues.
What's Going On
Tammi Terrell died of brain cancer on March 17, 1970. Gaye subsequently went into self-seclusion, and did not record or perform for nearly two years. He tried various spirit-lifting diversions, including a short-lived attempt at a football career with the Detroit Lions, but continued to feel pain with no form of self-expression. As a result, he began recording the tracks that would eventually comprise his best-known work, What's Going On, handling all of his own production and most of his own songwriting
What's Going On was a politically-charged and deeply personal Motown album, notable for including elements of jazz and classical music. The record was among the first soul records to place emphasis on political and social concerns such as environmentalism, political corruption, drug abuse, and the Vietnam War. Gaye was inspired to write about the war by his brother, Frankie Gay, who had just returned from the front lines.
When Gaye delivered the album and the "What's Going On" single for release, Berry Gordy refused to release the album. He considered the record far too political and unfamiliar in sound to be commercially successful. Gaye stood his ground; he wanted to be able to express himself, and not Gordy's or Motown's version of himself, on record. Gordy eventually gave in, certain that the record would flop; What's Going On ended up having three Top Ten singles: "What's Going On", "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)", and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)".
What's Going On became one of the most memorable soul albums of all time, and, based upon its themes, the concept album became the next 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."
Let's Get It On and follow-ups
1973's Let's Get It On was a sexually and romantically charged album that was very successful on the charts and remains "a record unparallelled in its sheer sensuality and carnal energy."
Gaye teamed up with Diana Ross for Diana & Marvin, an album of duets that began recording in 1971, while Ross was pregnant with her first child, Rhonda. Gaye, a longtime marijuana user, refused to put out his joints out for the pregnant Ross, who immediately complained to Berry Gordy about the issue. Gaye refused to sing if he couldn't smoke in the studio, and the duets album was recorded by overdubbing Ross and Gaye at separate studio session dates.
Gaye released "I Want You" and the album of the same name by himself as his marriage finally ended in 1975. In between the controversy surrounding him, Gaye released the seminal funk/disco single, "Got to Give It Up", which went to No. 1 on both the pop and R&B charts in 1977. As part of a divorce settlement with Anna, Gaye agreed to record a new album and remit a portion of the royalties to Anna as alimony. The result was 1978's Here, My Dear, a deeply personal album that so clearly detailed the sour points of Gaye's former marriage that Anna Gordy considered suing him for invading her privacy. After a failed single and a rapidly failing new marriage to a teenage girl, Gaye moved to Hawaii. Tax problems and drug addictions haunted him, and after failing to get Motown labelmate Smokey Robinson to loan him money to take care of the tax issues, Gaye was forced to move to Ostend, Belgium in 1981.
Later career and death
In Europe, Gaye began working on In Our Lifetime?, a complex and deeply personal record. When Motown issued the album in 1981, Gaye was livid: he accused Motown of editing and remixing the album without his consent, altering the album art he requested, and removing the question mark from the title (rendering the intended irony imperceptible). He negotiated a release from the label and signed with Columbia Records in 1982 and released Midnight Love the same year. Midnight Love included "Sexual Healing", one of Gaye's most famous songs, and his final big hit.
Gaye's refound fame pushed him even deeper into drug addiction and he attempted to isolate himself by moving into his parent's 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 was shot and killed by his father in an argument, becoming a famous victim of filicide. Gaye's relatives claimed that he had purposely pushed his father to the edge so that he could have Marvin, Sr. kill him instead of having to commit suicide.
After some posthumous releases cemented his memory in the popular consciousness, Gaye was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. Marvin Gaye, Sr. died of pneumonia in 1998.